Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain where, although the brain is normal in structure, it functions abnormally. Generally, the disease occurs in animals between 6 months and 5 years of age, causing seizures that vary in intensity and frequency depending upon the dog. The condition is controlled by medication.
Where epilepsy develops in dogs under 2 years of age it is often the case that medication may not fully control the seizures. As the animal ages, the seizure activity usually increases and it may become difficult to maintain control over the disease.
SEVERITY: Moderate to Severe. Generally controllable with medication but can become life threatening. See Treatment Options tab.
An epiletic seizure will begin without warning. A single seizure may be brief or may consist of multiple events with no break (Status epilecticus. See Treatment Options tab).
The dog will fall on its side, become stiff, chomp its jaw, salivate profusely, urinate, defecate, vocalise, and/or paddle with all four limbs and may become unconscious. These seizure activities generally last between 30 and 90 seconds. Dogs can display abnormal behaviour after seizuring that may include periods of confusion and disorientation, aimless wandering or pacing, eating or drinking more. Recovery from a seizure may be immediate or may take up to 24 hours.
Epilepsy is often first diagnosed by eliminating the possibility of other contributing diseases, for example, brain tumours, or toxicity. Blood tests are required initially to exclude such causes and also to give a baseline for future referral after initiating medication.
The two determining factors in diagnosis are age at onset and the pattern of seizures, i.e., the type and frequency. As a rule, the younger the age at onset, the more severe the epilepsy and also the increased likelihood of the disease being resistant to medication.
There are a number of therapies available for epilepsy and we may need to trial a few before the best option for your pet is found. During the initial stages of medicating, several blood tests may be required to determine the correct dosage.
The need for treatment is based on the severity and frequency of seizures, and the level of owner concern. Isolated instances of mild seizures every 2-3 months are usually not thought to warrant anti-epileptic medications initially. However, seizures often gradually increase in frequency so medication may need to be started in the future.
Therapy is initiated if there is either more than one generalised seizure, acute ‘clusters’ of more than one seizure within a 7 day period over a period of a month, or in the case of acute status epilepticus. Status epilepticus is defined as a series of seizures with no intervening states of consciousness. This stage of epilepsy is considered a medical emergency as it can cause irreversible nerve damage and/or be fatal. Once therapy has begun it must be maintained for the life of the dog. Cessation of treatment can induce seizures.
Human anti-epileptic medications are not appropriate for use in animals.
Anti-epileptic medications will decrease the severity, frequency and length of seizure activity but perfect control is rarely achieved. The normal goal of treatment is to achieve a balanced state of less than one seizure over 6 to 8 weeks. Epilepsy can become resistant to medication despite trialling the appropriate therapies available.
There are very few indicators that will help warn you of impending seizures in animals but reducing stress and avoiding ‘hot’ foods may help in reducing the likelihood of a seizure. If a seizure does occur try to prevent your pet from injuring themselves on surrounding objects, and avoid placing fingers in their mouths as muscle spasms may cause severe bites.