Always remember – this blog is never to replace actual veterinary care. If you think your pet has had a seizure, PLEASE call your local veterinarian and have your pet checked out! This blog is only intended to give you some insight into what might be happening, and what you should expect as you work through the problem with your veterinarian.
A common reason for me to see a dog or cat on an emergency basis is because of a seizure. More often than not, the seizure was brief, or the owner is not sure it even was a seizure, but it caused concern and they’re not sure what to do. In these cases I recommend being seen as soon as possible, but if cost is a major concern they do not need to come in at 2am as an emergency, necessarily. Sometimes by the time they get me on the phone the pet is STILL having a seizure, and in these cases it is a serious emergency and I advise them to come in right away.
Why do pets have seizures? It can be because of a toxin or poison, a metabolic issue or organ failure, it could certainly be from a brain tumour or some other kind of insult to the brain, and very often it is idiopathic epilepsy. In other words, seizures for no known reason.
When a pet is having a seizure, our first priority is to stop the seizure activity. Once the seizing is done, our next step is to figure out why it happened in the first place.
Sometimes it’s obvious: a dog flea product applied to a cat (DO NOT DO THIS. Dog flea products can be incredibly toxic to cats!), or a pet store flea remedy that says it’s for cats but is manufactured with poor quality control and may be contaminated with cat-toxic substances. (seriously, if your cat has fleas, see your veterinarian for product recommendation. You may save a few bucks at the pet store, but then if your cat has a reaction you end up spending several hundred to undo the damage!)
What toxins can cause seizures or seizure like activity? Many ingredients found in pesticides – whether it be rat, mole, snail, slug, or insect poison, some ingredient may be very dangerous for your pet. Words to look for on the ingredient list: Strychnine, metaldehyde, organophosphates, and carbamates. Other toxins that can have neurological effects include lead, ethylene glycol (aka antifreeze), and chocolate. If you suspect your pet got into any kind of chemical, bring the product container with you so your vet can see exactly what they are dealing with.
Perhaps your pet has a known medical condition which may lead to seizures. For example, if your pet is diabetic and his or her blood glucose has become dangerously low they may have a seizure. If your pet is a known diabetic, this will be the first thing to be checked if they begin to have seizures.
Sometimes, however, it is not obvious. No known exposure to any chemicals, no known metabolic disorders. In these cases, once the seizure activity is under control, your veterinarian will most likely recommend blood work to check for metabolic concerns. Things we will be checking for include liver disease, electrolyte abnormalities, and indications of underlying disorders that can cause changes in the blood that may lead to seizures. Blood work will also potentially give us an indication of something going on right inside the brain – inflammation or infection that may be crossing the barrier into that delicate tissue.
What if all the blood work is normal and you are confident there was no toxin exposure? Well, now we’ve narrowed it down to something going on right inside the brain. With young dogs and cats, there may be a congenital disorder going on. This can be pretty much ruled out in older animals, most of the time. There is also the possibility of a brain tumour, which I always include on my list with older animals but is not impossible in younger animals as well. Basically anything you would be concerned about in a person having seizures, you would be concerned about in a dog or a cat. Unfortunately, for many of our dogs and cats, getting that MRI or CT scan to peek into the skull is not always a diagnostic option. (My patients, for example, would have to head out of province for this, which is not an easy thing to do most of the time!)
With most of my patients, I can narrow it down to “something inside the brain” and that is as good as it gets. For most of my clients, whether it’s a brain tumour, or idiopathic epilepsy, there’s no difference. All that matters is “can we make the seizures stop and maintain a good quality of life?” If we found a toxin to blame, or a metabolic disturbance, we go after correcting that problem. If we have ruled those out and we know the problem is in the brain, we have anti-seizure medication to turn to.
The most common drug we use is phenobarbital. . . but essentially any drug that is used in human epileptics can be used in dogs, and possibly cats. Phenobarbital works well in most cases, and is the cheapest, so that’s where we often start. The biggest side effect is sedation – which is where quality of life comes into play. We want the seizures to stop, but we also want our pet to be themselves, and go for walks and play and so forth. Not many people are comfortable with a pet who may not have seizures but is living life permanently drunk. Whatever drug your veterinarian chooses to use, they should have a conversation with you about the potential side effects, and the long term monitoring that will have to be done. It is important to follow the recommendation of your veterinarian, to ensure your pet enjoys the fullest, most seizure free life possible. The most important thing to remember, however, is to NEVER MISS A DOSE. If you are concerned about side effects and wish to stop a medication, ALWAYS speak to your veterinarian first. Phenobarbital, for example, needs to be slowly weaned down or else your pet may experience withdrawal. And the number one side effect of phenobarbital withdrawal? SEIZURES! So keep an eye on your meds, be on top of your refills, and do your upmost to never, ever, miss a dose.
This is really just touching the surface of seizures in pets, and if you’re looking for more information, here are some other places to check out:
And of course, I must reiterate: if your pet has had seizures, speak to your veterinarian! If you have any questions or concerns about your pets condition or treatment, call your vet! And if you feel you aren’t getting the information you need, and you have the ability to seek a second opinion, do so! If your pet has an ongoing health issue, you need to be comfortable with the care you are receiving. If you aren’t happy with the vet you have, see if you can find one you are happy with. Your pet will be better off for it.