Advice and first aid for seizuring pets
What is a seizure? Seizures are the most frequently seen neurological problem in dogs. They are the result of uncontrolled, rapid misfiring of neurons in the brain which effectively ‘overloads’ the brain and results in the excess muscle movement that we see as a seizure. Pets that have seizures will usually have a period of time after the seizure called a ‘post-ictal’ period in which they take a while to regain normal neurological function and awareness. During this time they may not be aware of where they are or who their owners are. Sometimes fainting (syncope) can mimic a seizure so it is important to make note of your animal’s activity to help the vet to diagnose the condition. If you have a camera phone, take a short video to show the vet.
- Paddling or thrashing legs
- Violent tremors
- Mouth champing
- Urination and defecation
- Disorientation post seizure
- Symptoms in cats can range between small focal tremors to launching around like a ping pong ball
- Sometimes fainting (syncope) can look like a seizure so it is important to take note of your animal’s behaviour so that you can describe the activity to your vet. This will assist in making a correct diagnosis.
In most causes of seizures, there is nothing you can do at home to shorten its length, so this problem represents a true medical emergency requiring veterinary attention. However, if the pet is a baby, a toy breed or diabetic receiving insulin, they might be seizuring from a low blood sugar. If this is the case, you should rub some honey onto their gums while you pack them up into the car to head to the vet.
Do not put your hand in your pet’s mouth. They will not swallow their tongue and you can risk being bitten. Carefully keep your pet from hurting itself by falling down stairs or banging its head on the floor, using a towel or blanket as restraint if necessary. Most seizures are quite short in duration (less than 3-5 min) unless they are caused by a toxin (e.g. snail pellets).
Once your pet recovers from a seizure episode they will likely be disoriented. This is an important time to keep them still, so they do not stumble and hurt themselves.
If your pet seizures for more than 5min, you must attempt to get them to a vet without getting hurt. Cover them in a thick blanket to bundle them up (so you don’t get bitten) or use the blanket as a sling to move them to your car. Be aware that the animal will often urinate and defecate during a seizure and so take the necessary precautions.
If the seizure is lasting longer than 5 minutes, or your pet has more than 2 seizures in one night, you should seek veterinary attention immediately.
What to expect at the vet
Medication to control the seizures – this will either be given intravenously or rectally. It may be given as a one-off dose, or may need to be given continuously via a vein and syringe pump.
A complete physical and neurological examination (after seizures have been controlled and the animal is out of the post-ictal (post-seizure) period.
Blood tests to screen for extra-cranial (outside the brain) causes of seizures.
Referral to your regular vet or a specialist for further diagnostics and imaging such as Computed Tomography (a CAT Scan or CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess the brain.
What causes seizures?
There are many causes of seizures and they can be grouped into 2 major categories:
1. Extra-Cranial Causes
There are a number of disorders that can occur outside of the brain that can cause secondary seizure activity within the brain itself. These include liver and kidney failure, low blood sugar or low blood calcium, some electrolyte abnormalities, a high red blood cell concentration and ingestion of toxins (such as snail pellets and 1080).
2. Intra-Cranial Causes
There are a number of disorders of the brain itself that will lead to seizure activity. These include stroke, epilepsy, brain tumours and brain infections.
The most common cause of seizures in young animals is epilepsy, while in older animals, brain tumours, stroke and metabolic abnormalities account for the majority of cases.