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Seizures in cats and dogs

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Dogs and cats can have seizures or convulsions, just like people.  Seizures in pets can be caused by a number of different conditions.  For example, brain tumors are a common cause in older pets, who often have other signs such as walking in circles or stumbling.  In certain conditions of the liver or kidneys, toxins build up in the blood, causing seizures.  Seizures can also be caused by encephalitis, which is inflammation of the brain that often results from infection.  In addition, if a blow to the head is severe enough to result in unconsciousness (eg, being hit by a car), it can create a scarred or irritated area of the brain, and seizures can develop weeks or months later.

An important thing to remember if your pet has a seizure is not to panic.  Your pet is unconscious and not in any pain.  (People that have seizures describe feeling dazed, tired, or confused after having a seizure, but that the seizure itself is not painful.)  Make sure that your pet is on the floor on a soft surface so that it can't injure itself by falling off furniture or down a flight of stairs.  Do not try to open your pet's mouth or put your fingers in it.  It is not possible for your pet to "swallow its tongue."  During a seizure, you may see muscle spasms, and your pet may "paddle" their legs or extend them in a rigid fashion.  Many pets lose control of their bladder or bowel.

If you have never seen a seizure before, you may think it is going on and on, but in reality most seizures last for less than a minute.  However, if the seizure does in fact not stop with a minute or two (check your watch!), or if several seizures occur within a few minutes of each other, the situation is an emergency.  In this case, you should get your pet to your veterinarian or a veterinary emergency service immediately.

The cause of a seizure in your pet can be difficult to determine, and many times is never known.  When the cause of the seizures cannot be found, the condition is called epilepsy.  Providing your vet with a good history can be very helpful in trying to determine the cause.  Be sure to report any other problems your pet is having.  Your vet will do a thorough physical examination, and blood tests will be needed to look for underlying problems.  In some cases, more extensive testing such as a spinal tap or a CAT scan or MRI may be recommended, and your vet may refer you to a specialist or university teaching hospital.

If an underlying cause for the seizures is found, treatment is directed at correcting the source of the problem in your cat or dog.  If no specific cause can be found, but your pet has a short seizure only every few weeks or so, no specific treatment may be needed.  If your pet has seizures more frequently, your vet will likely recommend medication to decrease the severity and frequency of seizures.  Sometimes, different drugs need to be tried, as well as different dosages, depending on how your pet responds to the medication.  Keeping a record of your pet's seizures, including when (the time of day) and how often your pet has a seizure is extremely helpful in monitoring treatment.

Q&A

What causes seizures in pets?

Seizures (commonly known as convulsions or fits) can be caused by a number of different conditions, including brain tumors, head trauma, liver or kidney disease, encephalitis (ie, inflammation of the brain), and epilepsy of unknown cause.  


Are seizures painful for my pet?

Your pet is unconscious during the seizure and there is no pain.


What should I do if my pet has a seizure?

Stay calm and place your pet onto a soft surface on the floor, so that it can’t injure itself by falling, then contact your veterinarian or emergency service.  Do not try to open your pet’s mouth. 


How long do seizures last in pets?

The actual seizure usually lasts less than a minute, but it may take many more minutes for your pet to return to normal awareness.  If the intense spasms do not stop within a minute or two, or if several seizures occur within a few minutes of each other, the situation is an emergency that should be seen by a veterinarian immediately. 


How are seizures treated in pets?

Treatment involves addressing the underlying cause and (if needed) using anticonvulsant drugs to control the seizures. 

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhDand Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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