Seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions reported in dogs, and cats can also be affected. Many conditions cause pet seizures, and some result in life-threatening situations. Our Providence Vet team provides information about seizures in pets in case your four-legged friend is affected. 

Pet seizure basics

A seizure is sudden, uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. The disturbance starts in one area, known as the seizure focus, and spreads to other areas in a process called kindling. Seizures are typically classified as follows:

  • Generalized seizures — Generalized (i.e., grand mal) seizures are the most common type that affects dogs and involve the entire body. Pets commonly lose consciousness and may urinate or defecate.
  • Focal seizures — Focal seizures are the most common seizure type that affects cats and involves only one body part. Examples include chewing gum activity, excessive ear or lip twitching, and strange movements of one limb. A focal seizure can progress to a generalized seizure.
  • Psychomotor seizures — Pets affected by a psychomotor seizure appear to be hallucinating or in an altered state. Examples include fly biting, uncharacteristic aggression, and staring at a wall. 

Pet seizure signs

Pets experiencing a seizure go through three phases, including:

  • Pre-ictal phase — In the period leading up to the seizure, pets typically behave differently and may seem restless or nervous, may hide, vocalize excessively, or seek their owner’s attention. The pre-ictal phase can last a few seconds to a few hours.
  • Ictal phase — This is the pet’s active seizing period. Their actions depend on the type of seizure, such as the above examples for focal and psychomotor seizures. In a generalized seizure, signs include falling to one side, limb paddling, drawing their head back, and urinating and defecating. A generalized seizure that continues for more than five minutes is termed “status epilepticus,” and is considered serious and life-threatening.
  • Post ictal phase — During the period following a seizure, pets typically appear confused and disoriented, and some may experience temporary blindness. This phase varies in length.

Pet seizure causes

Seizures can be caused by several conditions, including:

  • Idiopathic epilepsy — Idiopathic epilepsy, which is the most common cause of seizures in dogs, appears to be an inherited disorder, but the exact cause is unknown. Other potential causes must be ruled out before this diagnosis is made.
  • Brain trauma — Trauma to the brain can lead to abnormal electrical brain activity.
  • Brain tumor — Benign or malignant growths in the brain can cause a seizure.
  • Toxin ingestion — Ingesting toxins such as chocolate, xylitol, and antifreeze can lead to a seizure.
  • Hypoglycemia — Inadequate glucose supply to the brain can affect the brain cells’ excitability and cause a seizure.
  • Kidney disease — In advanced kidney failure, toxin accumulation in the blood can cause seizures.
  • Viral infection — Viral brain infections are common seizure causes in young and middle-aged cats.

Pet seizure diagnosis

When a pet has a seizure, our veterinary team takes a thorough history and details about the episode, which are important to help determine a cause. Other diagnostics include:

  • Neurological examination — Our veterinary team performs a neurological exam to determine if your pet has neurological deficits.
  • Blood tests — We perform certain blood tests to rule out issues such as hypoglycemia and kidney disease.
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) — We may perform an ECG to determine if your pet experienced syncope related to a heart condition.
  • Advanced imaging — In recurrent cases, we may recommend computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to look for brain abnormalities.

Pet seizure treatment

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of your pet’s seizure. If no cause can be determined, and your pet has only one seizure, no treatment may be necessary. Typically, treatment for idiopathic epilepsy is initiated when your pet has:

  • More than three seizures in a 24-hour period
  • Two or more isolated seizures in a one-month period
  • A seizure that lasts five minutes or more

Pet seizure first aid

If your pet has a seizure, take these steps:

  • Remain calm — Watching your pet have a seizure is upsetting, but you must stay calm to provide the care they need.
  • Time the seizure — Note how long the seizure lasts, so you can relay this information to our veterinary team.
  • Film the seizure — If possible, have a friend or family member film the seizure, so our veterinary team can see exactly what happened.
  • Protect your pet  — Move your pet away from furniture, stairs, or other obstacles that could injure them during the seizure.
  • Cool your pet — If your pet’s seizure lasts more than three minutes, the continuous muscle activity can cause them to overheat, so seek emergency veterinary care immediately.
  • Protect your hands — Pets don’t swallow their tongue when they seize, so do not put your hands in their mouth and risk being bitten.
  • Call the veterinarian — Call our veterinary team to determine next steps for your pet.

No one wants their pet to have a seizure, but knowing seizure first aid tips can help you stay calm if your pet is affected. If your pet experiences a seizure, contact our Providence Vet team immediately, so we can determine the cause and devise a management plan.