Pet health: Seizures can be scary

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A small dog with vet insurance recovers from a seizure.

By: Dr. Fiona Caldwell
For Pets Best Insurance

Watching your beloved pet have a seizure can be a terrifying thing. Animals may jerk and convulse, lose control of their bladder or vocalize. Some studies suggest as many as 5% of the overall canine population suffers from some type of seizure disorder, people are probably closer to 1%. Because there are some breeds that can be more prone to seizures, lending a hereditary component in some cases, it may be a good idea to research veterinary pet insurance for your pet. While frightening, many seizure disorders can be effectively managed, and there are some RIGHT and WRONG things for you, the pet owner to do while this happens.

Abnormal brain activity is responsible for the sudden and uncontrolled movements that characterize a seizure. Because the brain is complex organ seizures can vary in severity and portions of the body affected. Grand Mal seizures are generally severe and affect all of the pet’s body, but petit or partial seizures may only affect a portion of the pet. For example, ‘fly biting’ or ‘chewing gum’ seizures cause a pet to snap their jaw, while nothing else is affected.

It can sometimes be difficult to determine if your pet’s episode is a true seizure. One of the hallmark characteristics of a true seizure is called the post-ictal phase. This is characterized by a period of time after the incident where the dog will act ‘off’ or disoriented. The post-ictal phase can last from minutes to hours, to the greater part of a day after seizure activity and can manifest as lethargy, depression, pacing, anxiety, vocalizing, even dementia or hyperactivity. This is not part of the seizure itself but helps to confirm the seizure diagnosis. Some dogs will even have a short pre-ictal phase before seizing, where the animal can sense that something is coming on. Having medical insurance for your pet can help to alleviate the stress that may come from financial worries.

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Seizures can have very serious consequences for an animal. Seizing for longer than 3 to 5 minutes can cause fluid to accumulate in the lungs or in the brain, in addition to causing a dramatic rise in body temperature, which can damage organs. “Cluster” seizures, where a pet will fall into another seizure, just as they are coming out of the last one, can also be dangerous.

Causes for seizures can include epilepsy, or idiopathic seizures, where the cause is due to abnormal brain activity, but no other external factors. This is the most common cause of repeated seizures in dogs. Other reasons include exposure to toxins, low blood sugar, brain tumors, trauma, some organ dysfunctions such as a portosystemic shunt, and infectious or inflammatory conditions. Some conditions can be treated. For example, a pet with low blood sugar can be treated and never have another seizure, as long as their blood sugar doesn’t drop. Other conditions such as epilepsy cannot be cured, but only managed.

It is important to have your pet evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if the seizures are triggered by an underlying treatable disorder, or if epilepsy is the likely cause. Your veterinarian will likely want to perform some laboratory blood work in addition to performing a good general exam. In an older dog, or in a dog where a brain disorder such as tumor or hydrocephalus (water on the brain) is suspected, advanced imaging such as MRI or CT scan might be recommended. Pet insurance can help defray these costs, allowing your pet the best possible diagnostic testing and treatment.

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There are some things you should and shouldn’t do during a seizure episode. Do try to protect yourself from getting bitten, NEVER place your hands near your pet’s mouth. Do not try to comfort or hold a seizing animal. Do not try to startle your dog ‘out of it’ by slapping, yelling, or throwing water on them. This will not work.

It is a good idea to try to clear the area of objects that a pet might injure themselves on, especially water or swimming pools. Keep your other pets away, some dogs might become aggressive towards the seizing animal. Notice the time, or start a timer; it can be difficult to estimate exactly how long the episode lasts when you are scared. If the seizure lasts longer than 3 to 5 minutes, or the pet has more than one in a 24 hour period, or if it is the first time your pet has ever seized, seek veterinary attention.

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