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Idiopathic Epilepsy in Dogs

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A small brown dog sitting in a tall green grass with small flowers
Dr. Erica Irish author of Idiopathic Epilepsy in Dogs

According to Dr. Ernest Ward of VCA Animal Hospitals, it is estimated that nearly 2% of all dogs will have at least one seizure in their lifetime. If you’ve never seen a dog experience a seizure, it can be very scary at first, especially if the seizure is prolonged or violent. 

What do seizures indicate? How do they happen, and what can you do if your dog has them? Veterinarian Dr. Erica Irish will help inform you of what to be mindful of.

What are seizures in dogs?

Seizures are one of the most frequently reported neurological problems in dogs. Seizures are the sudden onset of electrical disturbances in the brain, leading to convulsions or fits. In some cases, there may not be a particular trigger, but dogs who are prone to having seizures may have an increased risk in stressful situations or with the use of certain medications.

Focal seizures are typically mild but still stem from electrical disturbances in the brain. Focal seizures usually only affect part of the body while generalized seizures affect the entire body. Examples of focal seizures are “fly-biting” seizures and “star-gazing” seizures.

Dogs who experience “fly-biting” seizures appear as though they are trying to bite a fly that is buzzing around their head. Dogs with “star-gazing” seizures will stare off into space with their head and neck extended upward, and they do not respond to other stimuli.

Generalized seizures are more common than focal seizures. Generalized seizures cause stiffness of the neck and legs. When the seizure starts, dogs may stumble and fall over on their side. They may start paddling their legs and chew or drool a lot. Others may vocalize and lose control of their bowels.

These events usually last anywhere from one to five minutes but can be longer or frequently occurring in severe cases such as status epilepticus and cluster seizures, respectively. Particularly violent seizures such as these are referred to as grand mal seizures.

Some dogs may start to act in an unusual manner right before a seizure occurs. They may appear anxious or restless and frightened because they can predict when a seizure is about to start. This is known as the aura stage or pre-ictal phase, and it can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours.

After a seizure has occurred, dogs can appear dazed or disoriented and may pant a lot. In some cases, a dog may experience temporary blindness. This time period after a seizure is known as the post-ictal phase, and it may last anywhere from thirty minutes to a full hour.  

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What is idiopathic epilepsy?

There are many different causes of seizures in dogs, and it is important to determine a cause so that future seizures may be prevented. Your veterinarian may recommend various tests to rule out some of these disorders. This includes blood work, urine testing, x-rays, and bile acids testing. Specialized tests such as CT or MRI may also be recommended.

Liver disease is one of the most common causes of seizures in dogs. Liver disease can cause the buildup of ammonia in your dog’s blood, and when ammonia travels to the brain, it results in a condition known as hepatic encephalopathy and causes signs such as head-pressing and seizures. Various poisons and toxins can also cause liver dysfunction or can affect your dog’s nervous system in such a manner that seizures result.

Glucose, or blood sugar, is an important nutrient for your dog’s brain. If glucose is too low, your dog’s brain cannot function correctly and so seizures can result with severe drops in blood sugar. Puppies who go for long periods without eating can experience this, and dogs who ingest xylitol (the main ingredient in sugar-free gum) will have precipitous drops in their blood sugar.

Other illnesses that can cause seizures include brain disease or brain tumors and kidney disease. However, if a cause cannot be determined, and diagnostics have ruled out underlying diseases, then your dog likely has what is known as idiopathic epilepsy. This means that your dog’s seizures occur due to some unknown cause. It is thought that there is a genetic basis to epilepsy, and certain dog breeds may be more prone to the development of seizures. Beagles, Collies, Cocker Spaniels, Dachshunds, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador Retrievers are just some of these breeds.

What to do if your dog has a seizure

In the event that your dog has a seizure, make sure to keep him away from walls or areas where he may hurt himself. You may need to hold him or help to move things out of the way. You can use pillows as a buffer. Unlike with humans, you do not need to help clear your dog’s airway by moving his tongue out of the way. He can breathe well on his side and putting your hand in his mouth may result in you getting bitten accidentally.

Most seizures only last from one to five minutes, but any seizure lasting longer than five minutes requires medical attention. Also, if your dog has seizures that are close together aka cluster seizures, you should bring him to your vet right away.

Dogs who have more than one seizure a month or experience cluster seizures will require anti-seizure medications. Phenobarbital is one of the most common anti-seizure medications that requires semi-annual lab work to make sure your dog’s liver is functioning well. Phenobarbital is affordable and works quickly. It is typically administered twice a day.

Other anti-seizure medications include potassium bromide, zonisamide, and levetiracetam. There are certain cases where your dog may not respond to one medication and may need to switch to another, or he may need a combination of anti-seizure medications in order to get his seizures under control. It can be very frustrating if you have a dog who needs two or even three of these medications!

Anxious dogs are more likely to have seizures, and certain medications may lower seizure thresholds, i.e. make it easier for seizures to occur. Your vet can help you with this, and she can also make recommendations for products that can keep your dog calm. There are prescription diets and supplements that are proven to help lower your dog’s risk for seizures.

Cannabidiol or CBD is currently being studied for its anti-seizure effects. Current scientific literature suggests that it may be effective but the differences between the experimental and control groups was too similar. More studies are necessary to help determine if higher doses would be more effective and to ensure that there are no negative interactions with concurrent use of anti-seizure medications,2.


There are numerous causes for seizures in dogs, and when an exact cause cannot be determined, the dog is considered to have idiopathic epilepsy. Dogs with more than one seizure a month or dogs who experience cluster seizures typically require anti-seizure medications.

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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine

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