Convulsions, Fits or Seizures

What is a convulsion, fit or seizure?
These are not unusual neurological disorders in dogs.  Fits, as they are commonly known, may have all or any combination of the following:-

  1. Loss or derangement of consciousness
  2. Contractions of body muscles
  3. Changes in mental awareness from total non-responsiveness to hallucinations
  4. Involuntary urination, defecation, and/or salivation
  5. Behavioural changes, e.g. non-recognition of owner, aggression, pacing, or moving in circles

Can fits be predicted?
Very often.  Theoretically any seizures consist of three phases:

  1. The pre-ictal phase.  This, also known as the aura, is a period of altered behaviour in which the dog may hide, appear nervous, or seek out the owner.  It may be restless, nervous, whining, shaking, or salivating.  This may last a few seconds to a few hours.
  2. The ictal phase.  This is the convulsion itself.  It usually lasts from a few seconds to about 3- 5 minutes.  During this period, all or most of the muscles of the body appear to contract.  The dog usually falls on its side and seems paralysed but is usually shaking.  The head may be drawn backward.  Urination, defecation, and salivation often occur and may be simultaneous.  If it is prolonged over 5–10 minutes the condition then becomes an emergency.  Please call for assistance.  It is then referred to as status epilepticus.
  3. The post-ictal phase.  This is the period of recovery from the fit.  There is often confusion, disorientation, salivation, pacing, restlessness, and temporary loss of sight.  There appears to be no direct correlation between the severity of the seizure and the duration of the post-ictal phase.

What is status epilepticus?
This is a fit that lasts more than 5–10 minutes.  Unless prompt intravenous anticonvulsive medication is administered, the dog may die.  Please contact us without delay.
Is the dog in pain during a fit?
Despite the dramatic signs of the ictal phase, the dog apparently feels no pain, although appears bewildered and often exhausted in the post-ictal phase.
Is it true that my dog might swallow its tongue during a fit and choke?
This is a widely held myth.   While in the fit the mere handling of the dog’s mouth to try and reach the tongue is likely to (1) prolong the fit and (2) expose you to a high risk of being bitten.
Mention has already been made about the muscular contraction and to try to force the dog’s mouth open at this time is dangerous both for the dog and the handler.
What should I do while the seizure is progressing?

  1. Try to time the length of time of this ictal phase as accurately as possible.
  2. If the dog is convulsing in a chair or anywhere above ground level, place him on the ground and ensure that any small pieces of furniture are removed to reduce the chance of self injury while in the fit.
  3. Darken the environment if at all possible.
  4. If the fit continues for more than 3–5 minutes body temperature will rise and hyperthermia may have to be dealt with.

Please contact us if at all worried.
What is the cause of a fit?
Epilepsy is the most common and probably the least serious.  Other causes include toxins, trauma, including severe blows to the head as well as tumours involving the brain and spinal cord.

How can the cause of a fit be diagnosed?

  1. History is very important therefore it is worthwhile making a note of any pre-ictal change in behaviour, the length of the ictal phase and what happened during the post-ictal phase.
  2. History should also include any possible exposure to poisonous or toxic substances and a record of any recent accidents, particularly if involving a blow to the head or spinal area.
  3. We will carry out a full physical examination including routine blood tests to rule out any obvious disorders involving the liver, kidneys, heart, etc.

If the tests are normal it may be necessary to seek the opinion of a veterinary neurologist for further tests and examinations since sophisticated scanning techniques involving for example MRI and EEGs may be necessary.
What can be done to prevent further fits?
Whether or not your vet will put your dog on medication will depend on the frequency and duration of the fits. Not all dogs require medication. Treatment is determined by the time it takes for further seizures to occur.  It may be days, weeks or months.  Some dogs having had one seizure may have others frequently enough to justify continuous anticonvulsant therapy.  However since that means the dog will be on medication for the rest of its life, continuous therapy is only prescribed if seizures are occurring at least monthly or any one seizure lasts more than 10 minutes.  Blood test will help determine the correct dose for your dog.
If my dog is on continuous therapy, what happens if I miss a dose?
It is important to avoid sudden discontinuation of any anticonvulsant medication.  This is likely to precipitate further seizures.  If you have any concerns or questions, please contact us to discuss these.