Seizures are evidence of abnormal electrical activity within the brain. They may be caused by physical abnormalities (e.g., traumatic brain injuries or tumors) or metabolic disturbances (e.g., low blood sugar levels). In cases where no underlying problem is found, veterinarians will make a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy, which is much more common in dogs than it is in cats.
Seizures can vary dramatically in their severity and duration. Most people are familiar with generalized or grand mal seizures, during which an animal becomes unconscious, falls to the ground, and may become stiff, paddle its legs and lose bladder and bowel control. During a partial seizure, affected animals remain conscious but demonstrate abnormal movements or behaviors (e.g., haphazardly biting at the air). Animals that have had a seizure for the first time need a thorough health work-up. A veterinarian may use blood work, a urinalysis, fecal exams, analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, and CT scans or MRI's of the brain to look for a seizure's cause.
Treatment for mild seizures may not be necessary, or if applicable, can be directed against an underlying condition. If seizures occur frequently or last for long enough periods of time to be dangerous to the animal, anticonvulsant medications will be prescribed. Idiopathic epilepsy cannot be cured but can usually be controlled so that it does not adversely affect an animal's quality of life. In very severe cases, combinations of several drugs may be required to reduce seizure activity to an acceptable level. Regular rechecks of blood work are required to monitor drug concentrations in the body and to watch for the potential side effects of these powerful medications.
Written by: Jennifer Coates, DVM
Last reviewed: October 2, 2008