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Seizures in Dogs and Cats

By Sarah A. Santiago, DVM, MS

One of the most frightening events for a pet owner to experience is watching their dog or cat have a seizure. Most seizures involve an unconscious pet lying on their side kicking or twitching their body muscles uncontrollably for a period of time. Seizures often include some form of elimination, such as urination, defecation, or salivation. Pets with frequent seizure activity experience an observed change in behavior prior to the onset of a seizure (known as preictal) which often alarms the owner of the oncoming seizure activity. The preictal phase may involve a pet being clingy or pacing. After a seizure, the pet often experiences a period of recovering their consciousness (known as postictal) in which they return to normal behavior. The time frame for both the preictal and postictal phases can vary from seconds to hours.

There are a number of underlying causes of seizures in dogs and cats. When a pet presents to a veterinary office with the primary concern of recent seizure activity, a detailed history and the pet’s signalment are vital pieces of information to be obtained. Questions that are commonly asked include how long did the seizure last, has there been any head trauma, have any medications been administered, does the pet have a tendency to ingest things, and do any pet relatives have a history of seizures. The answers to these questions may immediately provide an answer or may lead to other pertinent questions. For example, has the yard or house been sprayed for bugs for pets that ingest things frequently to rule out a chemical toxin. A fairly common cause of seizures in small breed puppies is low blood sugar if they have gone a long time without a meal. A common cause of seizures in cats is erroneous application of canine topical flea or tick products by pet owners. Human foods such as chocolate or sugar free products containing xylitol are common causes of seizures in dogs.

Common diagnostics performed to investigate the underlying cause of recent seizure activity may include a complete blood count, a serum chemistry panel, radiographs, and urinalysis. Epilepsy, an inherited seizure disorder, is common in young adults to middle aged pets and often responds well to anticonvulsant therapy. Senior pets have a similar list of concerns of younger pets such as inflammatory neurologic disorders, but also include cancer. In the latter scenario, more advanced diagnostics such as CT or MRI imaging may be necessary to obtain a final diagnosis. Although there is tremendous fear and concern initially after a seizure, if an underlying cause can be determined a successful treatment plan may cure the pet or help manage the pet long-term.