“Epilepsy is a condition that can affect any breed of dog,” says Dr. Alistair McVey, veterinarian and neurologist formerly at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine at Urbana. “However, there is a higher incidence in pure breed dogs of any size than in mixed breed dogs, and is therefore likely to be inherited.”
The main sign of epilepsy is seizures, which can be categorized in three ways. Intracranial causes of seizures have detectable defects, such as a tumor, inside the brain. Extracranial causes of seizures have metabolic or toxic changes that are outside the brain but affect the brain to cause a seizure. Seizures of unknown cause form the third category, called idiopathic epilepsy.
“Seizures in a dog less than one year of age are likely to be caused by congenital/genetic problems, infections, or toxins,” says Dr. McVey. “A dog greater than six years old is likely to have tumors or infectious/inflammatory problems that are causing the seizures. Dogs between 1 and 5 years of age that are normal between seizure episodes are most likely to have idiopathic epilepsy.”
Epilepsy is a functional abnormality in a neuron that causes an abnormal neurologic excitation that generalizes to the whole brain. It is similar to a lightning strike on a house that sends abnormal current through the normal electrical system.
Recognizing a seizure is important and often difficult. A seizure can be minor and show as only slight loss of muscle control (called a partial motor seizure), or it can be severe, with the dog paddling on the ground completely out of control (called a grand mal seizure). In general, a dog will lose bladder and bowel control during a seizure, will be unaware of its surroundings, and will appear abnormal after a seizure. If you are unsure if your dog is having a seizure, Dr. McVey recommends videotaping a suspected episode and showing it to your local veterinarian.
“Treatment for epilepsy does not cure dogs of the disease,” says Dr. McVey. “Instead, the goal is to control the seizures. Left untreated, this disease and its signs will continue to worsen.”
“The first line of treatment for epilepsy is a barbiturate, usually phenobarbital,” he says. “This drug has anti-seizuring effects and can be used to treat dogs over the long term. The general goal of therapy is either to reduce the number of seizures by half or to double the time between seizures. This goal does depend somewhat on the individual case.”
The second-line drug that is used in the treatment of epilepsy is potassium bromide. This drug does not have FDA approval and is available to treat seizures in dogs by special license only. The University of Illinois Veterinary Medicine Teaching Hospital has this license.
It is important to note that an epileptic dog can live a normal life with proper treatment but usually will not live quite as long as a normal dog. If you would like further information, contact your local veterinarian.