Epilepsy in animals occurs most often as a genetically inherited trait. Certain pure bred dogs seem to be more likely to have this problem, such as the Poodle, German Shepherd, Irish setter, and others. The most common age of onset is between 3-5 years. There seems to be no greater incidence of epilepsy for females verses males.
Epilepsy is expressed as a seizure or convulsion that lasts for approximately 1-2 minutes. Dogs can have both the “grand mal” type as well as the “ petite mal” type of seizure. In both cases there may be an “aura” that precedes the event. The owners see this as a period of instability with strange, often submissive like behavior. The grand mal type of seizure is described as a marching discharge of activity while the petite mal may be described as a frozen stare for a very short period of time. In both cases there is an inability of the pet to respond voluntarily or be able to focus on where they are during the event. The post ictal phase, which follows the seizure, is usually of a variable length of time. Often the owner and pet are very frightened of what has just happened and act accordingly.
The diagnosis of epilepsy is often made by ruling out other possible causes or by having a known epileptic in the family tree. Confirmation of epilepsy is made by the EEG (electroencephalogram). A consistent repetition of seizures over time is a hallmark sign of epilepsy.
Treatment centers on suppressing the irritable spot in the brain where the seizure starts or by strengthening the zone of inhibition around the unstable spot. Drugs such as phenobarbital have long been used to accomplish this process. This drug is safe for long term use, however, once started you must continue to give the medication regularly otherwise you will risk an “avalanche” of seizures occurring. A blood test is performed to see if there are adequate levels of the medication in the bloodstream. In most cases once the proper dosage has been established the seizures will disappear and a normal life expectancy will return.
While convulsions are not always from epilepsy they are always dramatic through the eyes of the pet owner. Your veterinarian will be able to best advise you as to the significance of the seizure as well as how best to prevent them. In most cases it is best to try and not panic when your pet has a seizure but rather to observe what happens during the event so as to be able to recount the details of the experience to your veterinarian upon examination.