Epilepsy is one of the most common neurological diseases in dogs. Understanding what causes seizures and knowing how best to cope with them and how epilepsy can be treated in the longer term will help you deal with the shock of discovering that your pet is affected.
Epilepsy is a common disease in many breeds of pedigree dogs, less so in mongrels. It often has a hereditary origin and is certainly familial, passed down directly from one generation to the next. The initial episode may occur any time between six months and five years of age. German Shepherds, Maltese, Irish Setters, Standard Poodles, Malamutes and Huskies, Collies, Dachshunds, and Golden and Labrador Retrievers are among the breeds most commonly affected. Epilepsy is characterised by recurring seizures, also termed fits or convulsions. It is likely that epileptiform attacks are due to some of the neurons in the brain firing off in an uncoordinated way, perhaps because the chemical messengers in the brain, the neurotransmitters, are in the wrong proportions.
There is a very close parallel between epilepsy in dogs and that in humans.
The actual cause of seizures in an individual animal is often difficult or impossible to determine. A huge list of possible factors include:
- congenital defects
- diseases or tumours of the pancreas, blood, kidney or liver
- glucose levels, high or low
- infections that result in fever or hypothermia
- toxins, including chocolate and anti-freeze
- fevers and hyperthermia
- eclampsia, the ‘milk fever’ of the nursing bitch.
But add all the possible causative conditions together and we are left with a huge chunk: the idiopathic group, that lovely word that makes us feel clever when there is actually something we don’t know!
Seizures may follow a number of different patterns. Pre-seizure is the mildest form and often goes unnoticed. A symptom as slight as twitching of the skin around the eye and ear can be a sign of a mild pre-seizure attack.
Some dogs develop a very distinctive ‘aura’ before a pre-seizure or a seizure during which restlessness and whining may be prominent. Often the affected animal will seek out company.
Partial seizures, although much more obvious than pre-seizures, affect only a small part or one side of the body. They do worry me initially, and must be observed closely for a few months for any evidence that the dog’s condition is deteriorating. It is important to rule out any possibility of a brain tumour. This form of canine epilepsy may be becoming more common these days. Dare I risk irritating the majority of my colleagues by suggesting that modern processed dog diets are responsible for this?
Generalised seizures affect the entire animal. In a grand mal episode the animal falls onto
her side. They may display a wide variety of abnormal movements, from rigid stiffness to paddling or kicking out with their legs as though they were swimming. Salivation is usually profuse. They often involuntarily urinate and even defecate. The dog may be unaware of her surroundings. If grand mal attacks come on rapidly and continuously the animal is termed as being in status epilepticus. These episodes can be quite frightening and even dangerous, and demand hospitalization and intensive management.
Petit mal seizures take a much milder form, where although the dog may fall down and appear to be unconscious the attack is shorter and much less dramatic.
What to do
Most seizures occur so unexpectedly and last for such a short time that by the time the distressed owner is able to react to the problem the dog is in the recovery phase. If you are present and there is time, there are a number of simple actions to take:
- Talk to the dog quietly and stroke her if she seems to want you to.
- Cover her with a blanket.
- Do not move the dog unless she is in danger of falling, e.g. from a veranda or into the pool.
- Do not attempt to free the tongue – one can be badly bitten!
- Remove any other dogs from the scene. Some may be sympathetic, but others may become seriously aggressive.
- Remove heavy, sharp or hard objects from the immediate vicinity.
- Time the duration of the seizure.
- Closely observe all the individual signs the dog exhibits, including noting whether the pupils look the same and whether there are any darting movements of the eyes (strabismus) from side to side.
The seizure is followed by a recovery period, usually about four times the length of the seizure. The animal may be restless, disorientated and vocal. They may be ravenously hungry. When almost back to normal they may need to be groomed clean. I have never known a dog to become dangerous during this period.
At the vet
It is believed that some triggering factor is required to initiate a seizure. In some cases it may be excitement, in others a seizure may occur during sleep, but remember that many dogs regularly move or become vocal when dreaming. There may be a link between liver dysfunction and epilepsy, and if there is any suspicion of liver involvement, a proprietary, registered oral homeopathic medication available from vets is useful.
Epilepsy is diagnosed after the taking of a detailed history and a complete physical examination, paying particular attention to the neurological system. It is normally routine to run a full laboratory profile. My homeopathic work-up includes taking comprehensive details of the owner’s observations of the dog during the seizure. Involving children in my detective work can be very rewarding; they are often more observant than adults in noticing any changes that may have occurred before the seizure.
In my referral practice, homeopathic treatment for epilepsy has at least an 80% chance of success without resorting to powerful drugs, which are associated with marked side-effects. If a dog has less than one short seizure per month, treatment (apart from a short liver boost) is often unnecessary. Treatment initially lasts for one month, after which it is gradually reduced as the progress improves. When patients are already undergoing treatment with barbiturates or other drugs, I wait until the second month of homeopathic treatment before gradually withdrawing these drugs. Failure to do so can result in severe seizure activity.
It is interesting to note how research with Cannabis is offering positive results for the future and certain homeopathic remedies have better results when fitted alongside certain patterns. The following are examples of such ‘remedy pictures’:
Cyanosis of the mucous membranes
In young puppies