Seizures in Dogs: Symptoms, Causes, and What To Do

Updated Jun. 28, 2024
A Saint Bernard looks at the camera.

Pablo Piraino/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

What Are Seizures in Dogs?

Dog seizures are caused by a sudden surge of uncontrollable electrical activity within the brain. The severity of a seizure and the associated signs differ depending on what part of the brain is affected.

A dog having a seizure can be a medical emergency, so seek prompt veterinary attention. If left untreated, seizures tend to get worse, which can lead to permanent neurological damage or death.

However, with appropriate care, many dogs who have seizures can live long and happy lives.

Sometimes what looks like a seizure may not be a seizure at all. It’s easy to mistake muscle tremors or even shivering for seizures in dogs, because they can all involve uncontrollable muscle movements. It’s also common for pet parents to mistake a dog dreaming with seizure activity.

Evaluating a dog’s mental status will sometimes, not always, help you differentiate between seizures, muscle tremors, or shivering.

When a dog experiences muscle tremors or shivering, they are still fully aware of their surroundings.

Most types of seizures, however, will affect a dog’s ability to sense and respond to the world around them. They may be unconscious, just seem “out of it,” or anything in between.

Dog seizures are caused by a sudden surge of uncontrollable electrical activity within the brain.

However, some types of seizures don’t affect a dog’s mental status, which makes them difficult to diagnose.

If possible, take a video of your dog during one of their episodes and show it to your veterinarian. This will help them diagnose your pup.

Seeing your dog shake or have any type of seizure is scary, and in the moment, you probably don’t know what to do to help.

This guide will explain what a dog seizure looks like, the types and causes of seizures, what to do if your dog has one, and how they are treated.

Types of Seizures in Dogs

There are two main types of seizures—generalized (grand mal) seizures and partial/focal seizures.

Generalized Seizures

When most of a dog’s brain is affected by abnormal electrical activity, they will experience generalized seizures.

The dog’s entire body will appear to convulse. This is what people usually picture when they think of seizures.

Partial Seizures

Unlike generalized seizures, partial seizures involve abnormal electrical activity in just one or a few parts of the brain.

Dogs experiencing partial seizures often exhibit unusual movements that are limited to a specific part of their body. For example, one leg may kick repeatedly, or they may have signs like lip licking or fly biting (snapping at the air).

The terms “focal” or “partial motor” seizure may be used to describe the situation if the dog doesn’t seem to experience any mental changes during the seizure.

Partial seizures that do involve a change in awareness are sometimes called complex partial seizures or psychomotor seizures.

Health Tools

Not sure whether to see a vet?

Answer a few questions about your pet's symptom, and our vet-created Symptom Checker will give you the most likely causes and next steps.

Dog Seizure Symptoms

For generalized seizures, the symptoms vary depending on what phase of the seizure the dog is in. Generalized seizures can be divided into three phases:

  1. Pre-ictal phase (aura): Before the seizure, many dogs seem to experience what is commonly known as an aura. People who have seizures often describe unusual sights, smells, or other sensations in the seconds or minutes before a seizure. Symptoms include:

    • Becoming restless

    • Exhibiting unusual behavior

    • Staring vacantly into space

  2. Ictal phase: This is the seizure itself. Dogs usually experience tonic-clonic (also called grand mal) seizures and have the following symptoms:

    • Becoming unaware of their surroundings

    • Falling over and becoming stiff

    • Paddling their limbs

    • Biting at the air

    • Urinating or defecating

  3. Post-ictal phase: After the seizure has ended, dogs will go through a post-ictal phase when they can be dull, lethargic, restless, unsteady on their feet, or even temporarily blind. The post-ictal phase usually lasts for a few minutes to a few hours, with longer and more severe seizures usually leading to a longer and more dramatic post-ictal phase.

It’s also possible for dogs to experience these types of generalized seizures:

  • Generalized tonic seizures (stiffness without paddling)

  • Generalized clonic seizures (paddling without stiffness)

  • Generalized seizures without stiffness or paddling (sometimes called petit mal seizures), during which they simply lose consciousness for a period

With focal seizures, you’ll usually the tremors restricted to a smaller area of the body. Symptoms include:

  • Repetitive lick licking

  • Facial twitching

  • Snapping at the air

  • Repeatedly kicking one leg

  • Repeated twitching of the lip, eyelid, and/or ear

  • Altered consciousness may or may not be present

Dogs with focal seizures often act normal aside from the repetitive twitching. Dogs can have pre-ictal and post-ictal phases with partial seizures, but the signs tend to be milder than those associated with generalized seizures.

What To Do When a Dog Has a Seizure

If you think your dog is having a seizure, the first step you need to take is the hardest—don’t panic.

Most seizures only last for a minute or so and don’t cause any long-term damage.

However, there are times when seizures can be dangerous.

Get to a veterinarian immediately if your dog experiences any of the following:

  • A seizure that lasts longer than five minutes

  • Seizures that cluster together and don’t give the dog enough time to recover in between

  • More than two seizures in 24 hours

During the seizure, simply remove anything from your dog’s surroundings that might pose a risk (a lamp that might be knocked over, for example) and let the seizure run its course.

If your dog is in a risky situation, like at the top of the stairs or in the street, try to gently move them to a safer spot.

Don’t put anything in your dog’s mouth—you may inadvertently make it hard for them to breathe. You also run the risk of getting your hand bitten due to the repetitive chomping motions that often accompany a seizure.

After the seizure is over, keep your dog in a safe area and monitor them until they come out of their post-ictal phase, meaning they are returning to their normal behavior and are steady on their feet.

Once they are steady on their feet and are mostly back to normal, you can give them a little water and take them outside for a potty break.

Wait a bit longer before you offer them food.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs?

Many health problems can lead to dog seizures, including:

These are just some of the underlying causes of dog seizures.

But when dogs have reoccurring seizures and a thorough health workup doesn’t identify an underlying cause, veterinarians will usually diagnose them with primary epilepsy or idiopathic epilepsy. This means the underlying cause of the seizures is unknown. Idiopathic epilepsy is the most common cause of seizures in young dogs.

Some causes of seizures are more common at certain life stages than others.

For example, hydrocephalus and hypoglycemia typically affect puppies, while brain cancer is more commonly diagnosed in older pets.

Dogs with primary epilepsy usually first develop seizures when they are 1 to 4 years old.

The reasons why some dogs develop primary epilepsy are not fully understood, but genetics are likely involved. We suspect genetics must play a role because some breeds have a higher risk that others.

Any dog can have seizures, but the following breeds are at a higher-than-average risk for developing primary epilepsy:

Diagnosing Seizures in Dogs

Dogs that have had a seizure for the first time should be seen by a veterinarian.

The doctor will need to look for any underlying health problems that could have caused the seizure.

The diagnostic process for seizures starts with a thorough health history, a physical exam, and a neurological exam.

This will probably be followed by blood work, a urinalysis, and a fecal exam.

Depending on the results, the veterinarian may also recommend specialized laboratory tests, taking a sample of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) for analysis, or an MRI or CT scan.

Treatments for Dogs With Seizures

Whenever possible, veterinarians will prescribe treatments for any underlying health problems causing the seizures.

But when seizures continue or when a dog has been diagnosed with primary epilepsy, anti-seizure medications may be necessary.

In general, veterinarians will prescribe medications to control seizures when dogs have:

  • Seizures more frequently than every four to six weeks

  • Seizures that last longer than five minutes

  • Seizures that cluster together

  • Required hospitalization for seizures

Many medications can help reduce the severity and frequency of seizures in dogs. Phenobarbital and potassium bromide are two relatively inexpensive first-line treatments.

If those are ineffective, veterinarians can prescribe other anti-seizure medications such as zonisamidelevetiracetamgabapentin, and pregabalin (Lyrica®). Sometimes anti-seizure medications can be combined for better effect.

Veterinarians may also prescribe diazepam or similar medications to be given on an emergency basis if a dog experiences a severe seizure.

Recovery and Management of Dog Seizures

Dogs with primary epilepsy or those that continue to have seizures despite treating underlying diseases often need to take anti-seizure medications for the rest of their lives.

The goal of treatment isn’t necessarily to eliminate seizures. It may be better to reduce seizures to a level where they don’t interfere with a dog’s quality of life and to minimize medication side effects, like sedation or increased thirst and urination.

Humane euthanasia will be a consideration for dogs who are having seizures due to specific causes, such as a brain tumor, especially as other symptoms develop, or medications aren't able to control the seizures.

Your veterinarian will need to regularly monitor your dog’s drug levels and bloodwork to ensure that treatment is as safe and effective as possible.

It’s also a good idea to keep a seizure diary at home, so you can quickly note trends in seizure frequency and severity.

Most dogs with idiopathic epilepsy will have their symptoms controlled with medication. However, if the seizures can't be controlled, humane euthanasia may be recommended.

Humane euthanasia will be a consideration for dogs who are having seizures due to specific causes, such as a brain tumor, especially as other symptoms develop, or medications aren't able to control the seizures.

Pet parents may choose to put a bell on their dog’s collar so that they can more easily hear a seizure when it occurs. This may allow for easier intervention.

Prevention of Seizures in Dogs

Some causes of seizures, like idiopathic epilepsy or brain tumors, are not preventable. However, you can take the following steps to reduce the risk due to preventable causes.

  • Keep your dog up-to-date on vaccines. Diseases like distemper can cause seizures.

  • Keep your dog on a leash or within a fenced yard when outside to reduce risk of traumatic injury.

  • Keep medications and drugs securely locked away where they cannot be accessed by pets or children.

  • Restrict access to pesticides, antifreeze, and other household toxicants.

  • Get regular lab work at wellness appointments to detect health issues like kidney or liver disease early.

Seizures in Dogs FAQs

What can trigger a seizure in a dog?

Most dogs have idiopathic epilepsy, meaning we don’t know what triggers the seizures. However, triggers can be brought on by toxin exposures, cancers, infections, and trauma. Some dogs with seizures appear to have seizures triggered by stress, anxiety, loud noises, and/or heat.

What can be mistaken for a seizure in dogs?

Muscle twitches, shivering, and the kicking and twitching of a dreaming dog can all be mistaken for seizures. 

Can a dog be cured from seizures?

Most seizures aren’t cured but are instead controlled. For some cases though—such as seizures that are occurring due to toxin exposure or a portosystemic shunt—seizures are likely to go away after the underlying cause is treated.

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

Help us make PetMD better

Was this article helpful?

Get Instant Vet Help Via Chat or Video. Connect with a Vet. Chewy Health