Linda Simon
Dr Linda Simon (MVB MRCVS, University College Dublin)
Yellow Labrador Retriever looking very sad

Though some people assume that all dogs who have seizures suffer from epilepsy, this is incorrect. Epilepsy is just one of the many causes of seizures and a dog that has a fit may not be epileptic.

Causes of seizures include low blood sugar, liver disease, toxin ingestion and brain tumours, amongst many others. In fact, epilepsy is a diagnosis of exclusion when an animal has a seizure. This means that we cannot say for certain that an animal is epileptic until we have ruled out all other possible causes.

What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is actually the most common canine neurological disorder and is estimated to affect about 1 in every 130 dogs. Epileptic dogs experience seizures because of an abnormality within the brain resulting in atypical electrical activity. This can be genetic (something an animal has inherited in its genes), due to a structural issue within the brain or idiopathic (occurring for no known reason).

Epilepsy can be quite different from patient to patient, with some suffering small and short seizures infrequently and others being impacted to a much greater degree. For all, it is essential to achieve a diagnosis and most will require lifelong medicine.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Dog Having a Seizure?

Golden Retriever being monitored by a veterinarian

While some may think it would be obvious when an animal is having a seizure, it can sometimes be hard to tell if a dog is truly having a seizure, or if something else is happening; such as a collapsing episode or muscle tremors. A vet may suggest that an owner records a seizure, so the vet can analyse the footage and determine if the event is indeed a seizure. As a general rule, seizures will occur seemingly out of nowhere, will not last very long and will stop abruptly with no intervention.

The initial signs of a seizure can be very easy to miss and may be quite subtle. The period before the seizure is called the ‘pre-ictal phase’. This is different for every patient and may last anything from a few seconds to many hours. Some patients will be extra clingy and agitated while others may salivate and shake. The seizure itself will then occur, ending the pre-ictal phase.

There are different types of seizures (discussed below), which can range from a shaking of the head and a ‘spaced out’ look to a full-blown fit whereby the animal is convulsing on its side for several minutes. Once the seizure ends, the dog is said to be in the ‘post-ictal phase’, which is often a period whereby the dog is lethargic and sleeps. Some will be confused and unsettled and may even develop alarming short-term symptoms, such as blindness.

Different Types of Seizures

In the simplest terms, seizures can either be focal or generalised.

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures are restricted to certain parts of the body and an owner may notice abnormal movement of one limb or chattering of the mouth. The abnormal electrical activity only occurs on one side of the brain and generally in one specific region.

Dogs may also exhibit an altered mind-set and may have other symptoms, such as panting or salivating. Interestingly, dogs do not always lose consciousness and some may remain aware of their surroundings for the duration of the focal seizure.

Generalised Seizures

Generalised seizures are what most people think of when they think of a typical fit. Signs will always be present on both sides of the body and dogs tend to lose the ability to control their muscle tone. Generally, animals fall to the side and will experience convulsions that affect all of their limbs.

They often vocalise and may pass urine or faeces. The vast majority of patients are completely unaware of their surroundings while this is happening. These are also known as ‘Grand Mal’ seizures. It is important to mention that focal seizures can progress into generalised seizures in some.

Cluster Seizures

Some dogs will experience something known as ‘cluster seizures’. This means that seizures occur one after the other. The medical definition is ‘seizures that occur less than 24 hours apart from each other’, however, for many they can occur far closer together than this.

Status Epilepticus

There is also the potential for an epileptic dog to have a fit that develops into ‘status epilepticus’. This is when a dog experiences continuous seizures with no break in between, so it appears that the animal is having one long, unbroken seizure. Any seizure activity that lasts longer than five minutes is classed as ‘status epilepticus’ and is a true emergency as it can result in permanent brain damage and even death.

What Causes Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a complex disease and there are some questions that still remain unanswered, despite extensive research. The most common form of epilepsy (idiopathic) remains a mystery, with no definite cause proven as of yet.

For some, we suspect or can determine that the condition has been inherited. When it comes to structural epilepsy, a cause can be determined. This is because an abnormality has been identified within the brain. There are several causes of this, including brain tumours, inflammation and trauma.

How is Epilepsy Diagnosed?

There is no one definitive test for epilepsy and vets will have to rule out a number of other seizure-causing conditions with several tests before reaching a diagnosis of epilepsy. Vets may be suspicious of epilepsy, especially if the patient is between six months and five years of age, as this is when most will develop idiopathic epilepsy.

Tests will typically include a complete physical exam, neurological exam, blood and urine tests, diagnostic imaging, such as CT or MRI scans, and an analysis of the Cerebrospinal Fluid. Not every test will be carried out in every patient and vets may sometimes ‘presume’ a dog has epilepsy, particularly if the owner is struggling to afford the tests or does not wish to carry them out.

Are There Any Triggers for Epilepsy in Dogs?

Stress is a factor for epileptic dogs

Stress can be a trigger for epileptic dogs

It’s important to distinguish that there are certain toxins and metabolic disorders that can trigger seizures (including liver or kidney failure resulting in toxin build-up within the body), but those that experience these types of fits are not said to be epileptic as they do not have an abnormality within their brain.

When it comes to epilepsy, owners will often start to suspect that there are certain triggers which make it more likely that their dog will have a fit. These triggers will differ from individual to individual and not every animal will have a trigger. One of the more common events giving rise to a seizure would be stress, which may be caused by a fireworks display, a trip to the vet or groomer or spending time in dog kennels. Many owners will also notice seizures occurring more commonly during times of excitement, such as feeding time. Keeping a seizure diary to track when they occur and after which activity can sometimes prove useful.

Are Any Dog Breeds More Susceptible Than Others?

We now know that there are certain breeds which are more prone to developing epilepsy than others. This is because epilepsy can be inherited and is more prevalent in some canine families than others. There are more than 20 breeds which are known to be more susceptible to epilepsy than the average dog. A few examples of breeds more likely to develop epilepsy include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds and Siberian Huskies.

What to Do if Your Dog Has a Seizure

It is understandable that owners feel helpless and highly stressed when their pet starts to have a seizure, especially if it is the first one.

Remain Calm

The key is to remain calm. There can be a temptation to touch the dog or check its mouth but it is essential to not put yourself at risk as a dog experiencing a fit may well bite and cause significant injuries. Instead, ensure their surroundings are quiet and dark and move any furniture or belongings out of their way if they may cause injury.

Record on Video & Call Your Vet

If this is the first seizure, its best to call the vet immediately. Try to record it on video and to keep track of how long it goes on for. The vet will likely arrange for you to come in, so they can examine the dog and start investigating the cause of the seizure.

If the seizure is not ending as expected or the dog develops cluster seizures, the owner may need to use some medicine that can shorten the duration of the seizure (for example, intra-rectal Diazepam). It is a good idea for every owner of an epileptic dog to have some of this medicine on hand if ever needed.

How Is It Treated?

German Shepherd being monitored by a veterinarian

Epilepsy is not a straightforward condition to treat, which is why there are many treatment options available. While some will work well for one dog, they may not be effective in another. Similarly, a treatment that has worked for years may suddenly become ineffective in a patient, meaning their plan needs to be altered. It is not realistic to expect that the treatment for epilepsy will eliminate all seizure activity in every dog and the aim is to keep seizures to a minimum.


While we aim for a complete resolution in seizure activity, most vets will agree that a dog who experiences short seizures which occur less than once a month and does not experience too many medicinal side effects can be described as being well-controlled. A small percentage of patients will have such infrequent seizures that they will simply require monitoring rather than any form of medication.


Most, however, will need medication and it is essential that owners understand that once medication is started it will not usually be stopped. The most well-known medications include Phenobarbital, Potassium Bromide and Levetiracetam. Some owners mistakenly stop giving their dog medication without consulting their vet because they perceive the medicine to have ‘cured’ the epilepsy and believe their dog no longer needs it.

There are several different anti-epileptic drugs on the market and which one is prescribed will depend on a number of factors, including availability and cost. Some patients will require more than one medicine to stabilise them. Side effects are common, though will often improve the longer the animal has been on the medication for. Common side effects include an increased appetite, weakness and irritability.

Health Checks & Blood Tests

Those on long-term medicine will require frequent health checks and blood tests to determine they are coping well. It is not unusual for a vet to have to alter the dose of the medicine several times, particularly at the beginning of treatment.

Unfortunately, not every dog with epilepsy can be well-managed with medication and some will be said to have ‘refractory epilepsy’ which cannot be controlled as we would like, despite trialling several medications.

Can Epilepsy in Dogs be Cured?

Sadly, there is no cure for epilepsy and epileptic dogs will be affected for the duration of their lives. Thankfully, most affected animals have an excellent prognosis and can go on to lead a normal life.