If you’ve ever witnessed your beloved senior dog having a seizure, you know that it is an extremely frightening experience, especially if you’ve never witnessed one before. Seizures in older dogs can be even scarier if you are unaware of what canine seizure activity is all about.
During a seizure, your precious pet may look like she’s suffering, but she is actually quite unaware of what’s going on. That’s why animals coming out of a seizure often seem dazed, confused, and disoriented.
However, seizures in older dogs are often a result of other underlying conditions. If you are the pet parent of a dog getting up in years and she is beginning to display convulsive symptoms whereas she never did in the past, it’s important that you know what this could mean for you and your pet and what you should do.
How Common are Seizures in Dogs?
Approximately 3% of dogs have what is termed “Idiopathic Epilepsy.”
Idiopathic simply means that the cause is unknown.
Epilepsy is the neurological disorder associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain, resulting in seizures.
Idiopathic Epilepsy is a hereditary disorder that is the most common cause of seizures in younger dogs. It is more prevalent in certain breeds including Beagles, Keeshonds, Dachshunds, German Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers among others. It is the main culprit behind most seizures in young canines and can start as early as 6 months of age.
My Dog First Started Having Seizures at Nine Years of Age
Seizures in older dogs are usually not idiopathic epilepsy, meaning that they do have a cause and the root of that cause should be determined by your dog’s veterinarian.
Whereas a younger dog with idiopathic epilepsy (seizures with an unknown cause) can be put on medication to prevent them, seizures in older dogs can be indicative of a more serious underlying problem.
The immediate cause of a canine seizure is uncontrolled electrical misfirings in the dog’s brain. This means that if your dog has a seizure, it is her body’s sudden physical response to abnormal brain activity. If your precious pet starts having seizures in her later years, it’s time to make an appointment with the vet.
The good doctor will likely want a detailed description of your dog’s seizure. If it is the first time you are watching her have one, the experience can be terrifying and seem to last much longer than it actually does. It helps for you to know that she is not in any pain, in fact she is quite “out of it” during the episode itself. If you can note the amount of time the seizure lasts, the circumstances surrounding it and what her body’s motions are during it, this is information the veterinarian will want to know.
Anatomy of a Canine Seizure
Although it may seem like forever when watching one, most canine seizures last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. *It is quite unusual for one to last longer than 5 minutes, but if it does this is an emergency situation and veterinary help is needed right away. A prolonged seizure can cause serious complications in your dog’s health, permanent brain damage, and can even lead to death.
There are different phases of a seizure and there are different types of seizures.
There are typically 3 phases to a seizure:
1.) The aura, or pre-ictal state can last anywhere from a few minutes to a whole afternoon. It is a period of altered attitude or behavior in your dog that precedes the actual event. She may become anxious or uncharacteristically aggressive. It’s as though she’s aware that something strange is happening. She might become clingy and follow your every move or do the opposite and run and hide. Some dogs pace, whine, drool, or even howl.
2.) The ictal state is the active phase of the seizure or in other words, the seizure itself. This is when your older dog will show the most dramatic convulsive symptoms. Depending on the type of seizure she is having, the symptoms could be as mild as a dazed and disoriented “out-of-it” level of consciousness. She does not seem to know who you are or where she is.
If she is having a partial seizure, the symptoms may be moderate such as jerky, twitching limbs and uncontrollable snapping. (Keep your hands away from a seizuring dog’s mouth!) Also in this scenario, she doesn’t know you or her environment.
The worst cases of seizures in older dogs are the full-blown convulsive occurrences that include violent muscle spasms, scrabbling or paddling leg movements, foaming at the mouth, teeth grinding, and loss of consciousness which is often accompanied by loss of bowel and bladder control. This can be horrifying for a loving dog owner to watch but keep in mind that your dog is not aware of it all, nor is she suffering. In fact, you are “experiencing” the episode much more than your dog is.
3.) The post-ictal state is the state that your dog is in after the seizure is over and can be looked at as the ‘recovery’ phase. Her brain and the rest of her body are still going through some significant after-effects. She is likely to be bewildered, restless and wobbly, and her coordination may be off balance as though she’s dizzy. Some dogs will be listless and sleepy; By all means, let her sleep it off.
The Most Common Types of Canine Seizures
1.) Idiopathic Epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in dogs. As stated before, it is a hereditary condition, whose cause is unknown. It occurs mostly in younger dogs, from 6 months old to age 5 years. It is more common in certain breeds and dogs with this condition can be put on anticonvulsant medication.
2.) Focal or Partial Seizures happen because of the abnormal electrical activity of neurons in a concentrated part of the animal’s brain. They generally affect only one side of the dog’s body and can be measured in seconds rather than minutes.
3.) Psychomotor or Complex Partial Seizures are rare and their symptoms are unique. With these episodes, the dog exhibits the same bizarre behavioral symptoms each time. These include: hysterical running in circles, “fly-biting” (or random snapping at the air), rubbing paws together, or unprovoked aggression.
4.) Generalized Seizures can be Grand Mal or Mild. Grand Mal seizures are the most serious type because they affect the dog’s whole body as neurons (nerve cells) misfire throughout her brain. These are the full-blown episodes that involve extreme muscle spasms, excessive drooling or foaming, scrabbling of limbs and loss of consciousness.
But generalized seizures can have a range of mild to severe. A mild occurrence have moderate limb paddling or muscle spasm, and maybe partial loss of consciousness.
The seizure symptoms that your senior dog is exhibiting are closely associated with the underlying cause of it all.
What are the Causes of Seizures in Older Dogs?
While epilepsy is the leading cause of seizures in dogs under five years old, the source of the problem is different for senior canines. The aging process is taking a toll on your dog’s body, and certain internal changes can result in seizure episodes.
- Cancer ~ Cancer is much more common in senior dogs than in young dogs and a brain tumor will cause seizures as well as other neurological problems in an older dog. A cancer that starts off in another part of the dog’s body can also spread to other areas including the brain. Some tumors are malignant, others are benign. But veterinary neurologists stress this fact: The diagnosis of a brain tumor in your dog doesn’t mean that it is a hopeless situation. On the contrary, in many cases it is curable.
- Diabetes ~ Diabetes itself does not lead to seizures in older dogs, but if your diabetic senior dog is being treated with insulin, an accidental overdose could result in hypoglycemia which could trigger a seizure.
- Hypothyroidism ~ Abnormally low thyroid function (hypothyroidism) is not uncommon in older dogs and has many different symptoms including seizures. A senior dog just beginning to have seizures should have a thyroid panel run, since this disease can be successfully treated with medication.
- Kidney Disease ~ Your dog’s kidneys filter out waste and toxins in the blood. If her kidneys are not functioning properly, this would lead to a buildup of toxins and waste in the bloodstream, which could in turn cause seizures. However, seizures in older dogs due to kidney disease are rare because they don’t usually occur until the disease is quite advanced. Other symptoms such as increased thirst and urination, lethargy, and weight loss are much more likely to show up first.
- An Adverse Reaction to Medication ~ Seizures are a pretty rare side effect of certain medications, but they do occur. Many older dogs take medication for arthritis and carprofen (which is the active ingredient in Rimadyl) has been known to cause seizures. Other triggers include: certain flea and tick preventatives containing neurotoxins, some antibiotics (including Procaine Penicillin G and Metronidazole), certain heartworm medications, and modified live vaccinations. (Learn more about the dangers of vaccinations for senior dogs.)
- Liver Disease ~ As with kidney disease, it is possible that liver disease could cause your dog to have seizures but once again, seizures would usually happen only with a very advanced stage of the disease. Earlier warning symptoms such as abdominal swelling, a jaundiced appearance, or digestive upset would occur first.
- Cushing’s Disease ~ Cushing’s disease is a fairly commonly occurring endocrine disorder in senior dogs and 87% of the time, a tumor on the pituitary gland is the cause of it. The pituitary gland is located at the base of a dog’s brain. Advanced Cushing’s disease can create larger brain tumors that lead to seizures. ( Learn more about Canine Cushing’s Disease.)
- Injury or Trauma to the Brain ~ A brain injury can cause seizures in dogs of any age but older dogs are more likely to fall than young dogs. A tumble down the stairs resulting in head trauma could cause bleeding in the brain and leading to seizures.
- Exposure to Environmental Toxins ~ Certain common things in our environment can potentially cause seizures if a dog ingests them. These include antifreeze, rat poison, insecticides, lead paint, weedkiller, and black mold.
What Should I Do if my Dog is Having a Seizure?
The first piece of advice is Don’t Panic. Though this may be easier said than done, it won’t help the situation at all if you are in an agitated state. Though your dog is not conscious of what’s happening and is not suffering, she can potentially still hurt herself during a seizure so…
…make sure she is on the floor or ground and cannot fall off of anything. Likewise, make sure there are no objects she can harm herself on in the immediate vicinity.
Other pets in your household may feel threatened or frightened by the seizuring dog so remove them from the area if possible.
Just be there with her. Keeping her company and speaking to her in a quiet soothing voice may comfort her and smooth the recovery period.
Don’t shout, slam doors, or make any loud sudden noises as these may aggravate or prolong the seizure.
Never put your hands near a seizuring dog’s mouth.
If you can, try to take note of such things as: Your dog’s behavior right before the seizure, what her body did during the seizure (leg paddling? drooling? mouth snapping? teeth grinding?), how long the seizure lasted, and her behavior during the recovery period and how long it lasted. Then call your veterinarian and set up an appointment.
Treating Seizures in Older Dogs
Since seizures in older dogs are usually caused by an underlying health condition, your veterinarian needs to figure out what that is before treatment can begin. Once that underlying condition is taken care of, the seizures should stop.
It’s possible that treating the root cause could take some time. If this is the case your vet may prescribe medication to help control the seizures or at least reduce their severity in the meantime.
All dogs are different, and you know your dog better than anyone. When you and your veterinarian put your heads together, you’ll come up with the best possible course of treatment for your beloved canine companion.
Thanks for visiting My Geriatric Dog and I hope you learned something about seizures in older dogs. Please leave me a comment in the section below, or ask any questions you might have.