Dogs and cats suffer from various medical conditions and illnesses, but one of the most frequent conditions that pet parents and veterinarians see are seizures. Witnessing a pet have a seizure is scary, and many pet parents feel helpless and unsure of what to do. Fortunately, most seizures are not life-threatening, but that doesn’t make them any less frightening for you or your pet. Here’s what you need to know about seizures in dogs and cats to prepare for a potential seizure in your pet.

White Himalayan cat lounges on a chair.

What causes seizures in cats and dogs?

Seizures are involuntary behaviors that occur due to abnormal brain activity, specifically when the neurons, or nerve cells, malfunction and become overexcited. The neurons then fire out of control, resulting in a range of convulsions, from subtle to violent. Twitching, tremors, shaking, and spasms may be evident as well.

What causes seizures in dogs and cats?  Seizures are a symptom of epilepsy, the most common neurological disorder found in dogs and cats. Primary epilepsy, also called idiopathic epilepsy, is an inherited disorder that has no established cause. Secondary epilepsy, or symptomatic epilepsy, happens due to underlying medical conditions, such as those listed below:

  • Brain tumors
  • Blood toxins from liver or kidney disease
  • Encephalitis, or brain inflammation
  • Brain trauma or injury
  • Stroke
  • Low blood sugar
  • High blood pressure
  • Electrolyte abnormalities
  • Heatstroke
  • Fever

Most seizures happen to pets during the night while they are sleeping. There are two general types of seizures, grand mal and petit mal. The grand mal or generalized seizure involves large portions of the brain and affects the entire body. Often, grand mal seizures involve involuntary muscle movements, such as stiffening of the limbs, violent paddling of the limbs, and collapse. Drooling, urination, defecation and panting may also occur. Some pets will vocalize or make noise during a seizure, but this is not due to pain. 

Petit mal seizures, often called partial or focal seizures, occur in a smaller area of the brain. These smaller events often cause facial twitching, head bobbing, and a single paddling leg. Petit mal seizures may lead to grand mal seizures over time.

A final type of seizure is the psychomotor seizure which promotes involuntary behaviors, such as turning in circles, meowing or howling, pacing, growling or snapping at non-existent flies. This kind of seizure can also progress into grand mal seizures over time. 

When multiple seizures occur within minutes of each other, or three or more occur within a 24 hours, they are called cluster seizures. These seizures require immediate veterinary attention, as do seizures that last more than three minutes.

Seizures are far more common in dogs than cats. Epilepsy only affects 1-2% of cats. For cats, the primary causes of seizures are toxins, infectious diseases (FIV, FIP, toxoplasmosis), and vitamin deficiencies. Idiopathic, or genetic seizures, typically affect cats between 1 and 7 years of age.

What should you expect before, during, and after a seizure?

There are three phases of a seizure that you can learn to identify to prepare for a potential seizure in your dog or cat. These phases are:

Aura: This stage is when the abnormal brain activity begins, but it only lasts for seconds. Your pet may seek out your attention and company, hide, vocalize, or seem agitated. Because this stage’s duration is so short, many pet parents fail to see it when it happens.

Ictus: The abnormal brain activity leads to the seizure at this stage.

Postictal: During this phase, the seizure has stopped; however, the pet has not yet returned to normal behavior. The postictal phases can last from a few minutes to a few hours. Many pets experience disorientation, blindness, and lack of coordination. A small percentage of pets may also show aggressiveness after a seizure, only because they are scared and confused and unsure of what has happened. If your pet has not returned to her normal behavior after 24 hours, contact your veterinarian.

What should you do when your pet has a seizure?

As frightening as it is to witness your pet having a seizure, the best thing you can do for your pet is to avoid panic and remain calm. Seizures rarely cause a pet’s death, and they typically end after 2 - 3 minutes. Aside from keeping your cool, you need to take the following steps:

  1. Ensure that your pet is safe and not standing near stairs or dangerous objects during the seizure.
  2. Do not reach into your pet’s mouth. Do not place anything into her mouth to stop her from swallowing her tongue. Pets cannot swallow their tongues, and you may be bit or injured because your pet cannot control her body during a seizure.
  3. Keep a record of each of your pet’s seizures. Note what is happening during the seizure, how long it lasts, and how your pet acts before and after the seizure.
  4. If possible, video the seizure event for your veterinarian to watch.

Because the cause of seizures is often guesswork and a process of elimination for veterinarians, any descriptive details you can provide can help them diagnose and treat your cat or dog.

A cat and dog snuggle together.

How are seizures treated?

There is no cure for seizures in pets, but there are ways to treat and manage this condition. First, your veterinarian needs to diagnose your pet. Then, considering your pet’s breed, age, and medical history, the veterinarian will order tests for your pet. The vet will run a full blood panel and perform a CT scan or MRI. From those results, the vet will formulate a treatment plan for your pet.

If your pet has more than one seizure every 3 - 6 months, your veterinarian may recommend an anticonvulsant. The goal is to limit a pet’s seizures to one every three months or so. While seizures may cease for some time in an affected pet, they are likely to experience seizures occasionally, even while on medication. While your pet may need to be on medication for the remainder of her life, she will still live a happy and full life.

Pet insurance can help with your pet’s seizures.

A pet’s first seizure is unexpected, and the subsequent veterinary appointments, medical procedures, and medication can add up quickly. If your pet has a pet insurance policy before her first seizure happens, your insurance can help cover a significant portion of your veterinary bills.

If you don’t have a policy, it’s easy to get a quote that fits your budget. Get a personalized quote today and have your dog or cat covered for whatever comes tomorrow.

References:

1.North Carolina State Veterinary Hospital. (2021). Neurology: Encephalitis in Dogs & Cats. Retrieved from https://cvm.ncsu.edu/nc-state-vet-hospital/small-animal/neurology/encephalitis/

2. Nardone, R., Brigo, F., Trinka, E. (2016). Acute Symptomatic Seizures Caused by Electrolyte Disturbances. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4712283/

3. Schake, C. (2016). Seizures in Dogs and Cats. Retrieved from https://www.goodpetparent.com/2016/08/12/seizures-dogs-cats/

4. Barnette, C. (2020). Focal Seizures in Cats: Causes and Treatments. Retrieved from https://www.dispomed.com/focal-seizures-in-cats-causes-and-treatments/

5. O’Brien, D. (2002). Understanding Your Pet’s Epilepsy. Retrieved from http://www.canine-epilepsy.net/basics/basics_index.html

6. Patrick C.(2021). Epilepsy in DogsL What Causes Does to Have Seizures. Retrieved from https://www.aspcapetinsurance.com/resources/epilepsy-in-dogs/