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Epilepsy is a common neurologic problem in dogs causing periodic seizures.   In general, epilepsy is not considered a life-threatening condition.   There are 3 forms of epilepsy:

  1. Primary Epilepsy (idiopathic epilepsy) - of unknown origin, believed to be hereditary in some breeds - including Cocker Spaniels.  Males are more often affected.  Age of onset can vary from 6 months to 4 years.
  2. Acquired Epilepsy - due to brain trauma, illness or disease.  Often does not manifest until months or years after the injury.  Can affect dogs of either sex and any age or breed.
  3. Juvenile Epilepsy - manifests in young puppies between 8 and 16 weeks of age and can be difficult to control.  Pups with Juvenile epilepsy may out-grow the problem by 6-8 months of age.  Certain breeds, including Cockers, are considered "at risk" for this form of epilepsy. 

    **Most cases of seizures in puppies are due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).  This can occur if a puppy has not eaten recently and engages in a period of prolonged activity.  Small or weak puppies are more at risk for hypoglycemia.   If hypoglycemia is diagnosed, the puppy will be given a solution of sugar and water or corn syrup to level out the blood sugar.

Seizures are not always caused by epilepsy.  Other causes of seizures include vaccine reactions, brain tumors, systemic infection, toxins, liver or kidney disease, severe worm infestation, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), meningitis, trauma or a variety of nutritional deficiencies (calcium, potassium, sodium or thiamin).  You should always seek veterinary help immediately if you believe your dog has had a seizure.  Determining the cause of your dog's seizures may require blood tests, X-rays, ultrasound exams, urine tests, a CT scan, an MRI, an EEG (records activity in the brain) and/or cerebrospinal fluid analysis. 

Dogs with mild and infrequent seizures (once a month or less) may not require treatment.  Seizure medications can have serious side effects, so many veterinarians prefer not to use these medicines unless the dog is suffering from frequent, severe seizures. 

Most pets with epilepsy can lead a reasonably normal life and will still be excellent companions and family pets.  Unfortunately, those pets that do not respond to drug therapy, that experience frequent seizures, cluster seizures or status epilepticus, have a more guarded prognosis.  

The Phases of an Epileptic Seizure

  1.  Abnormal Behavior - before a seizure the dog may appear nervous, agitated, fearful, disoriented, may seek your attention or may hide.
  2. Seizure Activity - most common during the night or morning (times of rest).  May last 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  The pet may exhibit any or all of the following:
    • Before a seizure the dog may seek your attention, may hide or appear anxious
    • Body stiffens - severe rigidity
    • Trembling
    • Leg paddling
    • Release of bladder and/or bowels
    • Chomping the jaw
    • Salivation
    • Loss of consciousness
    • Seizure cluster or status epilepticus - seizure clusters are numerous seizures one after another with very little time in between; status epilepticus is continuous seizures.  Both of these conditions require veterinary treatment to stop the seizures.  Can be life-threatening.
  3. Post Seizure - Depending on the dog and the severity of the seizure, the dog may run in circles, pace, whine, bark, stagger, appear confused, fearful, restless, excited, lethargic or depressed and may be temporarily blind.  Other behaviors may include screaming, chewing on air, snapping if touched and ducking the head. This behavior may continue for a few minutes or several hours.

Signs of Unobserved Seizure Activity:

  • Urine and/or feces smeared on the floor or on your dog
  • Signs listed above for "after seizing"
  • Behavioral changes

        If Your Dog is Having a Seizure or You Believe One is About to Occur:

  • Call your veterinarian immediately
  • Do not let the dog bump or roll into anything
  • Be sure the dog is away from stairs and is not on furniture or in any position that would allow him to fall and hurt himself
  • Stay calm and do not raise your voice
  • Keep your hands and fingers away from the dog's mouth
  • Be prepared for vomiting, defecation or urination

To Prevent Your Dog From Injuring Himself:

  • Kennel your dog when you are gone and at night
  • Do not let an epileptic dog swim

Epilepsy Treatment 

Phenobarbital is the most commonly prescribed anticonvulsant medicine for seizure disorders.  This medicine helps to raise the seizure threshold within the brain.  The dog may still have seizures while on this medication, but the frequency and severity of seizures should be reduced.  Side effects of Phenobarbital may include central nervous system depression, obesity, excessive thirst, and excessive urination.  These problems generally diminish once the dog gets used to the drug.

Your veterinarian will need to check the Phenobarbital levels in your dog's blood after 2-3 weeks of treatment to be sure the dosage is correct.  Treatment with this medication is usually continued for the life of the dog with a yearly check-up of the Phenobarbital levels and liver function.  If your dog's seizures are not controlled by Phenobarbital alone, your veterinarian may suggest using potassium bromide too.  This combination may provide better seizure control.

Diazepam (Valium) is often used to treat seizure clusters or status epilepticus.  This drug is not considered to be an effective medication for controlling chronic cases of epilepsy because its effect is short-lived.

Some pets may eventually be able to stop taking seizure medications, but this should always be done with veterinary supervision.  If your pet has been taking anticonvulsants, he will be dependent on this medication and not receiving it could trigger severe seizures.  The medication should be gradually decreased over time, not stopped abruptly.  In this way the animal can be gradually weaned from the medication without triggering a recurrence of seizures.  Always consult your veterinarian before making any changes to your pet s medication.

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