Dog seizures can be terrifying for pet parents. You can feel out of control and at a loss for how to help—and that’s only if you know one has even happened. Surprisingly, they don’t always come with the telltale convulsions that many people associate with seizures. But that doesn’t make those episodes any less worrisome or problematic. While epilepsy isn’t the only cause of dog seizures, research indicates that up to 4 percent of all dogs may be affected by this condition. Whether yours is one of them or another issue is the root of the problem, you need to be able to identify the common dog seizure symptoms and know what to do—right now and in the future.
What is a dog seizure?
As with humans, dog seizures are a neurological issue. “A seizure, by definition, is simply a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain,” says Jessica Trimble, DVM, Chief Veterinary Officer at Fuzzy Pet Health. “It appears different for every dog and [varies in severity]. It’s more common in some breeds than others, and epilepsy is the most common cause of dog seizures.”
Idiopathic epilepsy, for example, is more common in Labs, border collies, beagles, and German shepherds, especially in those between the ages of 6 months and 6 years. And while convulsions are typical in the most common type of seizure (the grand mal), other types of seizures can result in symptoms that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with a seizure, such as unusual movements on just one side of the body or random strange behavior.
Dog seizures can also be a sign of toxin ingestion, cancers, organ dysfunction, and more, says Dr. Trimble. “Your vet will likely recommend a panel of blood work and maybe an MRI to find the cause of the seizures,” she adds. If you suspect cancer is at play, review these other signs that your dog may have cancer.
As you go through the list of common dog seizure symptoms below, keep in mind that seizures presently differently for different dogs. They can even vary slightly in the same dog.
Pre-seizure symptom: Confusion and anxiety
For some dogs, a seizure can occur suddenly and without any warning, and in some cases, the signs are very subtle. However, dogs that do exhibit pre-seizure symptoms, says Dr. Trimble, “will have a dazed look and act nervous, restless, or anxious. This is called the ‘pre-ictal’ phase.” They may also salivate, whine, or shake.
Pre-seizure symptom: Hiding
Searching for a quiet or secluded place to hide is another common dog seizure symptom your pet may exhibit in the pre-ictal phase. “Since seizures are overactivity of the brain, finding ways to quiet the brain is imperative,” notes Dr. Trimble. Dogs may do this before seizing to help reduce that stimulation and also to protect themselves, since seizures put them in a vulnerable position. If you think a seizure is imminent, help your dog find a quiet, dark area. Alternately, do your best to lower all forms of stimulation, including noise, lights, and activity. Don’t miss these 10 signs your “healthy” pet is showing illness symptoms.
Seizure symptom: Small twitches
You know what a seizure looks like, right? Not necessarily. It may not be big and dramatic, or even all that noticeable. “Sometimes a seizure can look like something very simple. A tic, twitch, or repetitive movement is usually the mildest type,” says Dr. Trimble. “Most dogs have seizures that last for 10 to 30 seconds—though it feels like a lifetime. They will lay on their side and experience the aforementioned twitching.”
Seizure symptom: Loss of bodily function
In its more severe form, a dog seizure can last for 20 minutes or longer and result in a total loss of bodily function and responsiveness, says Dr. Trimble. “You may notice a jerking or paddling motion while vocalizing and moving their mouths,” she explains. “Many also vomit, urinate, and defecate as they lose control of their bodily functions.” In some cases, severe seizures can result in death.
Post-seizure symptom: Disorientation
It’s possible for your dog to have a seizure while you’re out of the house or even out of the room. In such cases, it can be difficult to know that it’s even happened. But there are a few “post-ictal” dog seizure symptoms to be on the lookout for. “The biggest indicator is if your dog acts disoriented or has difficulty moving with its normal, steady gait,” says Dr. Trimble. A dog may also experience temporary blindness, as well as a continuation of the anxiety, salivating, and restlessness mentioned above. Disorientation is also one of the signs your dog could have dementia.
Post-seizure symptom: Signs of fluid elimination
While an “accident” in the house may be just that, it could also be a post-seizure sign. “Because some dogs also lose control of bodily functions while having a seizure, look for vomit, urine, and feces in a small area,” says Dr. Trimble. “Also, since dogs having seizures often convulse or jerk their legs, the bodily fluids may be smeared around.”
What to do if you think your dog is going to have a seizure
In addition to moving your pet into a dark space with minimal stimulation, there are a couple other things you can do to help. “There is an acupressure point directly behind the ears and base of the skull that, when gently massaged, can help some dogs to avoid or have less severe seizures,” says Dr. Trimble. “It’s also helpful to place a pillow under their head if they are at risk of impact.”
Do not attempt to hold your dog down, put your hand in their mouth, or hold their mouth closed. During a seizure, they are not able to control their movements, and you could potentially get hurt if you do this.
When to take your dog to the vet
“If your pet has never had a seizure before, it’s important to follow up with a veterinarian promptly,” says Dr. Trimble. While individual cases vary, canine epilepsy is usually easily treated with daily medication. If your pet is epileptic, keeping a seizure diary to monitor the length and frequency of your dog’s episodes will help your veterinarian understand if the medication is working properly.
If your dog has had seizures before, you probably don’t need to go to the vet after every episode unless directed by your vet. However, if your dog has a longer-than-usual seizure or experiences multiple seizures over a short period of time, a visit is in order. “In this case, it’s possible they can have life-threatening overheating and brain damage,” says Dr. Trimble. “Get to your vet right away if this happens.” Next, check out some other common health problems in popular dog breeds.