If your dog has had a fit (convulsion) you will know how frightening it can be. Fits are not uncommon in dogs but many dogs only ever have a single fit. If your dog has had more than one fit it may be that he has epilepsy. Just as in people, there are tablets for dogs which can control the fits and allow your dog to live a long fulfilling life.
Epilepsy means repeated fits due to abnormal activity in the brain. It is caused by a problem in the brain itself. If fits occur because of a problem elsewhere in the body, for example a heart ailment which stops oxygen reaching the brain, this is not epilepsy.
Some dogs seem to know when they are about to have a fit and may behave in a certain way which you will come to recognize as meaning that a fit is about to start. Often they just seek out their owner’s company and come to sit beside you.
Once the fit starts a dog is unconscious. They cannot hear or respond to you. Most dogs fall onto their side and make running movements with their legs. Sometimes they will cry out and may lose control of their bowels or bladder. Most fits last between 1 and 3 minutes – it is worth making a note of the time the fit starts and ends because it often seems that a fit goes on for a lot longer than it really does.
After a fit dogs behave in different ways. Some dogs just get up and carry on with what they were doing whilst others appear dazed and confused for up to 24 hours afterwards. Dogs often have a set pattern of behaviour that they follow after every fit – for example going for a drink of water or asking to go out in the garden to the toilet. If your dog has had more than one fit you may well start to notice a pattern of behaviour which is typical for your dog.
Most epileptic fits will occur while your dog is relaxed and resting quietly. It is very rare for a fit to occur at exercise. Often fits occur in the evening or at night, and again it is common for a pattern to develop which you will recognize as specific to your dog.
The first thing to remember is to stay calm. Remember that your dog is unconscious during the fit and is not in pain or distress. The fit itself is likely to be more distressing for you than your pet. Make sure that your dog is not in a position to injure himself, for example by falling down the stairs, but otherwise do not try to interfere with him. Never try to put your hand inside his mouth during a fit as you will very likely get bitten.
It is very rare for a dog to injure themselves during a fit. Occasionally they may bite their tongue and there may appear to be a lot of blood but is unlikely to be serious. If a fit goes on for a very long time (more than 10 minutes), then it is possible for the brain itself to become a bit more damaged.
When your dog starts a fit make a note of the time. If your dog comes out of the fit within 5 minutes then allow him time to recover quietly before contacting your vet. If this is the first fit your dog has had your vet may ask you to bring your dog into the next routine appointment for a check, provided he has no more fits in the meantime. It is far better for your dog to recover quietly at home rather than be bundled into the car and carted off to the vets straight away.
If your dog does not come out of the fit within 5 minutes, or has repeated fits close together, then you should contact your vet immediately and they will want to see your dog straight away. Always call your vets practice before turning up at the surgery to be sure that there is someone at the surgery who can help you.
There are many things besides epilepsy which cause fits in dogs. When your vet first examines your dog they will not know whether your dog has epilepsy or another condition. Epilepsy most commonly starts in dogs between 1 and 5 years of age, so if your dog is outside this age range then it is more likely that they have a different problem.
There are a whole range of tests which need to be done to make sure that there is no other cause of the fits. These include blood tests and possibly X-rays, or other tests such as brain scanning. If no other cause can be found then a diagnosis of epilepsy may be made.
Often there is no apparent reason why your dog should have developed epilepsy. In some breeds of dog, most notably the German Shepherd Dog, it is inherited and is most often seen in males. Sometimes it is the result of minor damage to the brain caused by a blow to the head or as a result of oxygen starvation during a difficult birth. Usually the fits would start many years after the damage had occurred so it is not easy to make a connection between the two events.
If your dog has only had one fit your vet may advise waiting before starting any treatment. The drugs used to treat epilepsy will often not stop the fits altogether but will make them less frequent. Therefore, it is important to know how often the fits would happen without treatment to be sure that the treatment is having an effect. Once your dog starts on treatment it is likely that this will have to be continued for the rest of his life. As some dogs only ever have one fit they may end up having treatment which they did not need.
Once your dog starts on tablets these must be given at roughly the same time every day. If you stop the drugs suddenly you may cause your dog to fit. It often takes a few months to get the dose of drug just right for your dog. During this time your vet will keep in regular contact with you, and may need to take a number of blood samples from your dog to check that the blood levels of the drug are not too high or too low.
It is rare for epileptic dogs to stop having fits altogether. Drugs may control the fits so that they do not affect your dogs lifestyle but, in most cases, if you stopped treatment the fits would come back. However, provided your dog is checked regularly by your vet to make sure that the drugs are not causing any side effects, many epileptic dogs lead a full and happy life.