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Canine Epilepsy

Epilepsy is a disorder in which seizures ("fits") occur repeatedly. Sometmes the fit begins as a result of damage to the brain, but usually there is no apparent reason for the fits and the animal is otherwise healthy.

If you are the owner of an epileptic dog, you may have experienced the distressing sight of your pet having a fit. While the outlook may at first seem bleak, it is important to remember that in a typical fit, the dog is unconcious and not aware of what is happening. Also, in most cases, safe and effective treatment is available and most epileptic dogs enjoy a long and normal life.

How do I recognise Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is usually first seen in young animals, typically between 6 months to 5 years of age, but it can start in animals of any age. Each fit usually lasts 1 to 2 minutes, but this can be longer in some individuals.

In a typical "Grand Mal" seizure, the dog will lie on its side and alternate between rigidly straightening out its head and neck and performing jerking, paddling movements with its legs. There may be partial or complete loss of conciousness and sometimes a loss of control of motions and urine. In addition to the fit itself, you may notice some strange behaviour both before and after the fit. For example, your dog may appear restless or behave oddly before the fit and may seem sleepy or restless afterwards. Some dogs become very affectionate while others may seem abnormally hungry or thirsty.

Why does Epilepsy occur?

No one really knows why epilepsy occurs...... usually we would want to rule out any other causes of fits with a blood test and other tests sometimes before making a firm diagnosis. Some breeds are more susceptible to developing epilepsy, for example the German Shepherd, Labradors, Poodles, Irish Setters, Retrievers and the Welsh Springer Spaniel.

Is my dog in pain during a fit?

Most epileptic dogs are unconcious during a fit and experience only a few minor aches and pains afterwards. Canine seizures tend to be far more "painful" for the owner than the pet!

Is there a cure?

Unfortunately, there is no cure for epilepsy and an epileptic dog will always be at risk of having a fit. Yet treatment can be very successful in reducing the frequency, duration and severity of fits, sometimes stopping them altogether.

Can I do anything to prevent epilepsy?

There are some measures that can be taken to help reduce the incidence of canine epilepsy. It would, for instance, be unwise to breed with an affected dog as there is thought to be a strong hereditary factor. Additionally, as the frequency of fits of a female epileptic animal can increase around the time of her season, it may be advisable to have her spayed.

Why should epilepsy be treated?

Fits can be both upsetting and inconvenient for the owners of affected dogs, but most dogs enjoy a high quality of life when controlled medically. In addition to the obvious distress to yourself when you witness a fit, there are sound medical reasons for treating epilepsy. The time your dog spends in a fit can cause damage or loss of brain cells and may lead to a change of personality over time, Also, each time a fit occurs, the likelihood of the dog having additional fits increases. There is also a risk that any fitting dog could go into a prolonged fit ("status epilepticus") and this is extremely dangerous and can be fatal. Preventing this is of great importance.

When should epilepsy be treated?

This should be discussed with your vet, and sometimes medication will not be started if you dog has only had a single seizure. Medication is lifelong, so you may be asked to keep a diary of any further fits. Generally treatment should be started if:

  • Fits occur more frequently than once every 4-6 weeks
  • Fits occur in clusters (several in one day)
  • Fits last longer than 5 minutes, or seem particularly violent or severe

What can I expect from treatment?

Each dog responds differently to anticonvulasant therapy. Although complete elimination of fits is desirable, it is not always possible. Treatment is considered successful where fits are reduced in frequency, duration and/or severity.

What drugs are used to treat epilepsy?

The most commonly used drug is called Phenobarbitone. Although initially it can cause some sedation, after a few days the dog will adjust and should be normal in all respects. It is important to check from time to time that the dose is correct and that no liver damage is occuring and this is done with regular blood tests. Your vet will advise you on when and how often these need to be done.

Sometimes, phenobarbitone alone is not enough and a second drug may be used in combination with it. The most common drug used like this is Potassium Bromide.

Guidelines for Therapy

  1. Effectiveness of treatment should not be judged for at least 2 weeks after it has started, as the medication must be given a chance to work.
  2. It is normal for your vet to start treatment at a low dose rate and gradually increase it to find the most suitable dose for your dog. One or more blood tests will be needed to help with these adjustments.
  3. Medication should NOT BE STOPPED or changed suddenly, as this can induce more fits or even status epilepticus.
  4. Medication is usually required twice daily for life.
  5. No single drug, or combination of drugs, works in all animals and each dog must be treated as an individual case. Adjustments in dose and frequency of administration may be needed and should only be initiated after veterinary advice.
  6. It is important to keep a record of the dates and times that fits occur. This will help your vet make dose adjustments necessary to find the best dose level for your dog.
  7. Drugs must be stored in a safe place out of the reach of children.

What should I do if my dog has a fit?

Once your dog is having a fit, there is nothing you can do to stop it, but there are actions that you can take to protect yourself and your dog from harm.

Dogs do not swallow their tongues during a fit so there is no need to put your hand near your dog's mouth and risk being accidentally bitten. Where possible, move people, objects and other pets out of the way and do NOT move or handle your dog during a fit, unless he/she is likely to damage him/herself (eg. if near the top of the stairs of near a fire). If this is necessary, then roll the dog onto a blanket and pull clear of danger.

Once the fit is over, keep your dog in a quietened room to fully recover. Your dog may be confused and disorientated after a fit, so avoid approaching him/her until he/she is ready to come to you. Ensure that food and water are available as your dog may be hungry or thirsty after a fit.

It is a good idea to time and record the details of the fit, as this will help you vet to establish the best course of treatment for your dog. If the fit is lasting longer than normal, and definitely if lasting more than 10 minutes, or if fits are occurring more often than one per hour, you should ring for advice immediately.

Remember, most epileptic dogs can live long and happy normal lives.

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