Seizures are frightening and disorienting for both pet and owner, but knowing how to respond and what to expect can remove some of the inevitable fear and stress, and help you take appropriate action to care for your pet.
Pet seizures explained
Seizures are the temporary disturbance of normal electrical signaling or activity in the brain. Outwardly, these episodes can look different depending on the brain area affected, and are classified according to severity and behavior:
- Grand mal (i.e., generalized or tonic-clonic)— These are the most recognizable and dramatic seizures, often including full-body collapse, drooling, rigid muscles, tremoring or convulsing, and paddling limb motions.
- Partial seizures (i.e., focal) — These smaller episodes occur most often in dogs and affect only a specific area, such as one side of the body or face. Partial seizures may last only seconds and go unnoticed unless observed directly.
- Petit mal (i.e., absence) — These rare feline seizures are minor, and may look like the cat is staring off into space.
- Psychomotor seizure — Psychomotor seizures look more like odd behavior, such as sudden tail biting or air-snapping.
Seizures may occur singly or followed closely by additional seizures of the same or lesser magnitude. These multi-seizure episodes are known as cluster seizures, and can be fatal without treatment. Continuous seizing—longer than two to three minutes—is a veterinary emergency.
Pet seizure causes
Seizures may be caused by conditions in or affecting the brain (e.g., tumor, head trauma), as well as diseases or injury to the kidneys or liver, including failure, toxin ingestion, trauma, and shock. Unfortunately, in most cases, pet seizures are idiopathic—meaning no cause is known.
Do’s and don’ts of responding to your pet’s seizure
Whether it’s your pet’s first seizure, or a known epilepsy recurrence, the frustrating feeling of helplessness is hard to overcome. Here are some simple ways to safely help your pet during a seizure.
- DON’T panic — Although your pet may be crying, howling, or thrashing, remember that seizing pets are unconscious, so they do not experience any pain or fright during the actual event. Push your emotions aside and stay task-oriented by reminding yourself that your pet is feeling nothing. When your pet recovers, they’ll need you for gentle support, and may become scared if they sense your anxiety and distress.
- DO check the time — Keeping a rough estimate of your pet’s seizure duration can be important in determining when to seek emergency veterinary care. Any seizure lasting more than two to three minutes can begin raising your pet’s internal temperature—causing organ damage and possibly death. If your pet has recurring seizures, recording the date, length, and nature of the episode on a calendar or in a journal can help the veterinarian evaluate your pet’s medical therapy.
- DO clear the area around your pet and protect them from falling — If your pet has collapsed near a staircase or on a couch or bed, gently move them away from the edge or lower them to the floor. Remove any nearby items that your pet may become entangled with or knock over. Gently holding or restraining your pet is OK—but watch out for paddling limbs or sudden head movements.
- DON’T reach inside your pet’s mouth — Pets are not at risk for swallowing their tongue, but may randomly bite down, make chomping motions, or gnash their teeth. Never put your hands or fingers inside a seizing pet’s mouth, or insert objects to prop open their jaw.
- DO prepare to transport your pet whose seizures are longer than two to three minutes — Most seizures last between 30 to 90 seconds. If your pet’s grand mal seizure is continuous, bring them to Homestead Animal Hospital. Please call before coming, to ensure we are open and able to help your pet. For after hours care, call our main number, and ask a GuardianVets triage support representative for advice.
- DON’T be surprised if your pet vocalizes, urinates, or defecates — These reactions are all involuntary and can be normal. They do not indicate struggle, brain injury, or worsening of your pet’s condition.
- DO anticipate postictal behavior after your pet’s seizure — Once your pet has stopped seizing, they may seem disoriented and confused for hours or days, and may experience additional seizures, or appear to have lost their vision during this phase. Keep your pet confined to a small, safe area, and closely monitor their behavior.
- DON’T wait—speak to your pet’s veterinarian — After your pet has stopped seizing, call Homestead Animal Hospital. If your pet remains stable (i.e., no additional seizures) we’ll schedule a regular appointment in the next few days. If your pet experiences cluster seizures, we’ll need to see them on an urgent care or emergency basis.
After your pet’s seizure—diagnosis and management
After an initial seizure, an examination and blood work are typically recommended to look for potential causes. Advanced diagnostics, such as MRI and cerebrospinal fluid tap, may be used to detect neurological injury or disease, but these tests are costly and may be inconclusive.
If we determine that your pet’s seizure was idiopathic (i.e., unknown cause), we will recommend closely monitoring your pet and keeping a seizure diary. Anticonvulsant medications are typically not prescribed until pets are experiencing multiple seizures per month. Once pets begin anticonvulsant therapy, they must remain on the medication for life. Fortunately, 70% of epileptic pets are successfully managed on medication and enjoy a great quality of life.
If your pet has recently experienced a seizure, or your epileptic pet is having seizures despite medication, contact Homestead Animal Hospital for assistance.