By David F. Kramer
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things a dog owner can experience is a bout of uncontrollable shaking in their pet.
While tremors by themselves can simply be an indication of excessive stress or fear, they can be difficult to differentiate from convulsions, which are also a seizure symptom. A dog that is having seizures requires immediate veterinary attention. Knowing the signs and symptoms of these conditions will aid you in getting the help your dog needs.
What is a Tremor?
Dr. Sarah Moore, associate professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, describes the difference between tremors and seizures:
“Tremors are an involuntary muscle movement. During an episode of tremors the dog is awake and aware of its surroundings, which can help distinguish tremors from seizures (where the dog usually has decreased consciousness). Tremors can be caused by a variety of problems, such as behavioral causes (fear, anxiety), electrolyte imbalances, problems of the nerve or muscle, weakness/fatigue, exposure to certain toxins, and problems in certain areas of the brain such as the cerebellum.”
What is a Seizure?
A seizure is a sudden abnormal and uncontrolled surge of electrical activity in the brain. Where the activity occurs in the brain determines the signs that will be visible. In fact, some seizure symptoms are so subtle that they may not be seen at all. A seizure is not a disease, but a symptom of an underlying disease or trauma to the body or brain.
Are Some Dogs More Likely to Have Seizures?
While the predispositions and symptoms of seizures are difficult to narrow down, dog owners can look for certain signs and behaviors.
“Some of the early signs of neurologic dysfunction can be vague, such as decreased activity levels or changes in personality. Other things to look for would include difficulty using one or more limbs, loss of balance, trouble jumping on or off furniture, or difficulty climbing stairs,” says Dr. Moore.
Are Seizures Specific to Breed?
Sometimes, the breed of your dog can make it a candidate for neurological issues.
“We definitely see a predisposition for particular problems in certain breeds. For example, there is an autoimmune problem of the cerebellum that is more common in young adult toy-breed dogs. And some diseases that cause tremors due to weakness are more common in large breed dogs,” says Dr. Moore.
Dr. Adam Denishof Rhawhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania said he has "seen hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs with seizures."
"I do see a hereditary pattern in some animals, but we often don't have information on the parents or litter mates. In-breeding and poor breeding choices can lead to these repetitive disease conditions being passed on unnecessarily,” says Denish.
What Causes Seizures?
Dogs can suffer from seizures after serious traumas, such as being struck by a car, or other accidents that might result in brain injury. Other possible causes of tremors and seizures can be fever, infection, brain tumor, or things your dog ingested in the home.
The compound xylitol, an alternative to sugar that is found in sugarless gum and sold as a packaged sweetener, can lower a dog’s blood sugar to serious levels, so care should be taken when storing sugar substitutes and disposing of chewed gum. Of course, any potentially poisonous substances should be kept well out of your dog’s reach.
Types of Seizures
According to Dr. Denish, there are several types of seizures, each varying in their degree of severity and the symptoms that are evident.
“Canine seizures, like human seizures, can present in many different ways. There is no standard one-size-fits-all type for seizures. We categorize them in three basic ways: First, local or focal seizures affect a specific pathway or neural region of the brain. So some animals will have a focal seizure and have a head tilt, lip licking, or fly biting (chasing invisible flies in the air) behavior,” says Dr. Denish.
“Second is a petit mal seizure, which is shorter—usually less than a minute—and causes a minor loss of balance and shaking. Thirdly, there are grand mal seizures, which are the standard major seizure that occurs in dogs. Signs include drooling, a rigid, locked jaw and facial muscles, and loss of consciousness. These seizures typically last 1-3 minutes, but could be longer.” Paddling or stiff legs are also signs that may be seen in a dog that is seizing.
Loss of awareness, such as failure to respond to your voice or movement, blinking the eyes rapidly, involuntary urination or bowel movement, and difficulty breathing are other possible seizure symptoms for some dogs.
Phases of a Seizure
“For seizures, some animals will have what we call a pre-ictal phase. That is, some behavioral or medical sign that shows that a seizure is impending. Animals will also have a post-ictal phase, which is the period after the seizure when their body is coming out of it but they still seem to be ‘off,’" says Dr. Denish.
Some of the pre-ictal symptoms to watch for can include sudden, unwarranted fearfulness, sniffing in response to phantom smells, licking the lips in response to phantom tastes, or pawing at the head, perhaps in response to a headache.
However, any of these symptoms may not necessarily be indicative of seizures. “There are many other neurological conditions in canine patients that have signs [like these] that have nothing to do with seizures, including things like vestibular syndrome, inner ear infections, leg or back pain, leg or back weakness, paralysis, blindness, and abnormal pupil response,” says Dr. Denish.
Once your dog is diagnosed with a condition that is causing either tremors or seizures, your vet will devise a course of treatment that could include medication, behavior modification, or in some cases, surgery.
What to do if Your Dog Has a Seizure
Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with your dog’s seizure will be keeping yourself calm. Seizures are disturbing and heartbreaking to witness, but keeping a clear head will help you best deal with the situation. It’s best to keep your distance and not try to hold the dog down or put anything in its mouth because they can easily bite without meaning to.
While people often hear that it’s necessary to keep a seizure victim from swallowing their tongue, there’s no need to worry about this in dogs. Again, it’s best to just let the seizure take its course, but be aware of the dog’s surroundings and remove any objects or hazards that could potentially injure your dog.
Once your dog recovers from a seizure, you can use pillows or a blanket to cradle your dog’s head. Keep other pets clear and give the dog a chance to rest and recuperate. Your dog may feel confused, sleepy, or unresponsive, and may remain fearful. There may also be a residual headache. Once your dog is aware again and able to walk and drink, offer him some water and give him an opportunity to urinate or defecate in his usual spot.
Seizures in your dog might be an ongoing issue, so keep a log of when they occur, how long they last, and any unique information associated with them. This information can be of great help to your vet, and can also help you to recognize factors and situations that might trigger your dog into a seizure and give you a chance to avoid or remove the triggers.
Treatment for Seizures
If your dog suffers from tremors or seizures, your vet might employ a battery of medical tests to find the cause, including MRIs and CAT scans, blood work, or X-Rays. Your vet may take a sample of your dog’s spinal fluid to check for abnormalities.
“Treatment initially is aimed at stopping the seizure first. Second is finding the cause and treating it,” says Dr Denish.
“When we don’t know the cause, or generically call it epilepsy, we use medications to minimize the frequency and severity of the seizures. It would be nice to completely stop the seizures, but that’s not a common outcome.”
“With animals, we do use the same medications that are useful in human subjects. Obviously, there are some cost issues with using the newer human medications. We generally start with the older, simpler medications like phenobarbitol or diazepam (Valium), however we use medications like Keppra and potassium bromide, as well as gabapentin and zonisamide,” says Dr. Denish.
While there are vets who specialize in neurological issues, you might not necessarily need to enlist the help of a specialist.
“Most cases of seizures can be handled by a conventional vet,” says Dr. Denish. “However, even we will seek the help and guidance of a veterinary neurologist in difficult cases, or cases that don't respond appropriately to medicine. Additionally, stress and other secondary diseases like Diabetes, Cushing’s Syndrome, and Hypothyroidism can all play a role in making seizures worse in the patient.”
If your dog is affected by tremors, in addition to possible medication, some life changes may need to be made. It is sometimes best to avoid excessive excitement or stress in your dog, and even vigorous play should be avoided. If your dog is going to exercise, it’s best if it is as low key and sedate as possible, like a walk around the neighborhood. Your vet can offer you specific guidelines for the after care of your dog.
Recommendations for seizures are a little different. “Luckily, most dogs are normal between seizure episodes. That’s good news for the pet but it can make it difficult to see when a seizure actually occurs. Owners could be at work while the dog has a seizure and come home to find a normal and happy-go-lucky dog,” says Dr. Denish.
With proper veterinary care, a dog’s prognosis is often good.
“Many of the potential causes of tremors [and seizures] can be managed effectively so that pets can live a normal lifespan and have a good quality of life," says Dr. Moore. Depending on the cause, lifestyle modification may also be suggested, she added.