written by: Dawn Abbott, DVM
A healthy brain has millions of neurons, like a network of very small, very fast switches that fire in a massively organized pattern. However, sometimes the network gets overloaded and the neurons erupt into a chaotic frenzy of activity; this is called a seizure.
What are the phases of a seizure?
There are three phases of a seizure that we typically describe. The first is called the pre-ictal phase. This is the phase immediately leading up to the seizure event, where the animal starts to feel disoriented and they may stumble or lay down. This is followed by the actual seizure event, or the ictal phase.
Immediately after the seizure they enter into the post-ictal phase. This can look very different for each animal. They tend to be very confused and not completely aware of their surroundings. They could also have temporary blindness and may stumble around. Occasionally, they will vocalize. Some animals may eat of will defecate immediately after the event, or they may become aggressive.
What does a seizure look like?
Seizures in animals can have a wide variety of presentations. The two main type of seizures which we generally talk about are:
(1) Generalized/ tonic-clonic seizures
Pets experiencing a generalized seizure are usually found lying on their side, with twitching areas all over their body. Their legs may be stiff and outstretched and they will not be responsive to you when you call them. They oftentimes urinate and defecate during the episode and you may see frothing/ salivation from the mouth.
(2) Focal (partial) seizures
These types of seizures can be extremely variable in their presentation. One animal may have a twitch on one side of their face, while another animal may have a spastic limb. A common presentation is chomping, where the dog will appear to be biting at the air. Some animals will just seem to stare off into space. These can be a little more difficult to diagnose.
It can sometimes be helpful to get a video of the episode you are seeing to be able to show the veterinarian. While this may be difficult to do in the moment, it may be helpful in making a diagnosis.
What can cause a seizure?
There are many possible caused for seizures to occur in our pets. We tend to break the causes up into two categories.
(1) Intra-cranial disease- This can include idiopathic epilepsy, stroke events, masses in the brain, brain swelling caused by trauma, or other- cause like inflammation/ infection.
(2) Extra-cranial disease- This can include metabolic or electrolyte abnormalities, underlying systemic disease (such as liver or kidney disease), toxin ingestion, and many other causes.
As there are so many possible underlying causes of seizures, it becomes very important to provide your veterinarian with a full history- this includes diet, vaccine status, travel history, possible trauma, toxin ingestion, current medications, and pre-existing conditions.
What can you do at home?
It can be a very hectic and stressful time period during the seizure event, and it can be difficult to know what you can do to help your pet.
First and foremost, ensure that you keep yourself safe. Move an actively seizing animal only if it is safe to do so- safe for the animal and safe for you. Try to ensure that your animal is in a safe place away from objects or areas that may cause injury. If they are close to stairs or on top of furniture, stay close and make sure that they do not fall. Do not try to open their mouth or move their tongue. As mentioned above, some animals will become aggressive immediately after a seizure. It is important to give them their space during this time and while they recover.
Animals often urinate and defecate on themselves during a seizure and it can be tempting to bath them before bringing them into the veterinary clinic. Please do not do this, as it can decrease their temperature and delay treatment.
What will happen at the veterinary hospital?
Once you arrive at Guardian Veterinary Centre, your animal will be triaged by an animal health technologist. The veterinarian will perform a full physical examination as well as a more detailed neurologic examination. If you animal is still seizing when it arrives, we will place an intravenous catheter and treat with an anti-seizure medication.
Once we ensure that your animal is stabilized, we will talk with you in order to obtain a full history and discuss the next appropriate steps. Usually we need to perform diagnostic tests to try to determine the cause of seizure. This may include blood work, x-rays, ultrasound, or even a CSF (spinal fluid) tap and CT scan or MRI.
Medication to help prevent seizures may or may not be started. This will depend on your animal's seizure history, appearance on presentation, and results from the diagnostic tests. We may also recommend keeping your pet in the hospital for monitoring.
Should I always bring my animal in to the vet?
We always recommend that an animal be examined by a veterinarian after experiencing a seizure episode at home. This is especially true if your animal does not have a history of past seizures. If your animal has had seizures before and is currently being managed, we would recommend evaluation by a veterinarian if they experience a seizure which lasts longer than 3 minutes, if your animal experiences more than one seizure in a short period of time (more than one in 24 hours), if the seizure is more physically violent than previously, or if they are not recovering well from the seizure.
At any time if you have questions, please contact Guardian Veterinary Centre or your family veterinarian.