Tess, a 4 year old Golden Labrador who had an epileptic fit

Tess sleeps in a large kennel in the back garden. One Sunday morning, at around 8am, Conor was in bed in the house, when he heard the scrabbling noise that Tess’s feet make when she puts on a burst of activity. At first, he presumed that she’d just spotted the local tom cat and she was seeing him off, but he then heard a clattering noise so he looked out of his window to see what was going on. He could see that Tess seemed to have fallen against some metal ladder extensions that were stacked at the side of the house, and that’s what had made the noise.

Conor could tell at once that there was something seriously amiss with Tess. She didn’t respond when he called her; she continued to lie beside the ladders, with her legs paddling frantically. As Conor described it, “it was like she was running, but on her side”. He knew that she was having some sort of fit, so he ran downstairs to help her.

In fact, there was little that he could do when he reached her. Her legs continued to thrash, and her head was stretched forwards, with her jaws champing. She didn’t respond when he called her name, so he just cleared a space around her to stop her from hurting herself by bashing into things.

Conor was about to call the vet when Tess’s legs slowed down, then stopped thrashing. She went to the toilet a couple of times, then lay still. He continued to talk to her, and within a few moments, she lifted her head, and groggily staggered to her feet.  Within a few more minutes, she seemed to have made a full recovery, looking for her breakfast and behaving as she did every morning. She followed Conor around for the first hour or so, but after that, it was as if nothing had happened.

Conor brought her in to see me, and I gave Tess a thorough check over. From Conor’s description, it was obvious that she’d had a classic “grand mal” generalised seizure, of the same type that humans have when they suffer from epilepsy.

A seizure – or fit – is the result of sudden and abnormal electrical activity in the brain, similar to a computer freezing when it’s asked to do too much. Seizures may last a few seconds, several minutes, or, in the worst case, they can go on for hours. If this happens, it’s a serious emergency that requires urgent veterinary intervention to avoid complications like brain damage.

There are many possible causes of fits, and it’s important to do everything possible to make a precise diagnosis of the underlying reason. Tess seemed completely normal when I examined her but I took a blood sample to send off to the laboratory to make sure that she wasn’t suffering from any underlying illness such as liver or kidney disease.

When the results came back as normal, it confirmed what I suspected. There was no other detectable cause of the fit. The only remaining likely diagnosis in a young adult dog was epilepsy.

Epilepsy is unpredictable. Tess may never have another fit. At this stage, Conor is simply keeping a “seizure diary”, so that we can monitor the frequency of Tess’s fits. It’s most likely that she may start to have them regularly. If they start to happen more often than once a month, she’ll need to go onto daily tablets to prevent them.

Epileptic dogs usually have normal, active lives, but they do tend to have fits from time to time. Epilepsy is a disease that needs to be managed for a dog’s whole lifetime.

Tess doesn’t know this: she’s as happy and carefree as ever.

Tips

  • Seizures, or fits, are a common problem in dogs
  • Epilepsy is the most common cause in young adult dogs
  • Daily medication is often needed to control the problem

3 Comments

  • Zingha says:

    Hi Pete,
    as the owner of a very fit, active, healthy, but also epileptic (diagnosed as idiopatic) 2yr old Large Munsterlander I want to say how incredible clear and complete you again describe a complex matter. It took me weeks to find out (about a year ago) all that you now summarise so neatly in one column. My dog had 4 seizures within 3 months last autumn. It started a few days before a big win at Junior Gundog AV at a large Championship Show (but I did not know yet what was wrong then, don’t show him anymore). Seizures then became as close as 3 weeks apart, but after drastic alterations to his management this changed. He had just one more seizure, nr.5, in February and still ‘free’ so far now, mid August. So it seems to work out (fingers crossed). I know there is no scientific evidence, just anecdotic ‘experience’ that management of the dog can reduce/prevent seizures, but when I read into it and found so many people advocating grain free and raw, I gave it a try (as in ‘why not’) to use only the complete ‘free off’ kibble (no preservatives, diary, grain, etc.), plus feed a good part of the diet in raw meat/bones. And avoid anything that might even be the slightest toxic/unnatural to a dog (e.g. not use a hairspray or strong cleaners in his vicinity, not go where paintwork has been done, etcetera). I don’t quite dare to use flea treatment either, but I do treat all other dogs, so environment is ‘kept clean’ and treat my dog in the old fashioned way with a flea comb (never a flea, luckily). It seems booster vaccinations are often blamed too (it did more or less coincide with his one year boosters, he had all the usual ones) so I am a bit trying to find the middle road here too (I am not a fanatic, I see both sides). What would you advise? Can I put the boosters off for now, as many say it can easily be stretched a few years once a dog had all vaccinations properly as a pup and young adult?
    Kind regards,
    Zingha

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Pete

    I’ve a 4 year rottweiler who came down with epilepsy just over a year ago. He’s an extra large breed rotty so weighs 11+ stone. He’s on 7 tablets a day as he’s a cluster epileptic.
    The newer tablets on the market didnt work for him but phenoleptil seems to keeps the fits at bay for a few weeks at a time.
    First time i saw it happen i thought he was kicking for death and was completely panicked. Now’s its no big deal as i’ve seen over 100 of them in the last year.
    It wears him out but when he’s going through the weeks wheres he’s free he’s totally himself.
    Good luck to anyone who has a dog with this and my advice is not to jump straight into putting epilepitc dogs down. They deserve every chance with treatment first. I say this as a lot of people think i’m nuts keeping him but you wouldnt put an eilepliptic child down so why do it to a dog!

  • Ann says:

    My five year old cocker spaniel wasn’t as lucky. The fits were scary at first but the medication wasn’t enough to kee them under control so he passed in jan this year after going into a cluster of fits. Left a big void in our hearts and home.

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