Seizures and Epilepsy in Dogs and Cats

Also known as a fit or convulsion, a seizure is a sudden surge of electrical activity in the brain that causes uncontrolled body movements. Epilepsy is the term for repeated episodes of seizures. In dogs, most seizures cause full-body convulsions, but cats more commonly have partial seizures, which only affect part of the body and don’t usually result in loss of consciousness. Most cats and dogs appear fine between seizures with no lasting damage, but if they occur frequently or the pet takes a long time to get back to normal afterwards, it can be more serious.

What Causes Seizures in Cats and Dogs?

Seizures in dogs and cats can be caused by a variety of things. These include:

  • Poisons and toxins (see below)
  • Idiopathic epilepsy (see below)
  • Metabolic issues such as liver or kidney disease
  • Head trauma or injury
  • Brain tumour
  • Heatstroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Low blood sugar

What Toxins Can Cause Seizures in Dogs and Cats?

Cats and dogs with perfectly healthy brains can sometimes experience seizures as a result of ingesting or being exposed to a toxin or poison.

Toxins that can causes seizures in both cats and dogs include:

  • Caffeine
  • Chocolate
  • Rat poison
  • Slug bait
  • Anti-freeze
  • Overdoses of medication
  • Mould

Cats can also have seizures from being exposed to dog flea treatments containing permethrin – cats may be exposed to this toxin by licking a dog in the household that has recently been treated for fleas, or being accidentally treated with a dog flea treatment themselves. Lilies can also cause seizures in cats.

Cats and dogs can have multiple seizures from one exposure, but once treated, they are not expected to have another unless exposed to the toxin again.

Idiopathic Epilepsy

The most common cause of seizures in young cats and dogs is epilepsy. Forms of epilepsy with no clear cause are called idiopathic epilepsy, also known as primary epilepsy. This form of epilepsy is not caused by any detectable disease of the brain and instead happens as a result of chemical imbalances, and vets don’t fully understand the cause.

Idiopathic epilepsy is more commonly diagnosed in dogs than cats. It’s an inherited condition in dogs with certain breeds being more prone, but there’s little evidence of this being the case for cats. More often, cats suffer from epilepsy as a result of a disease within the brain itself.

What Can Trigger an Epileptic Seizure in a Dog or Cat?

Epileptic seizures usually occur when your cat or dog is relaxed or asleep. Seizures can also be triggered at times of changing brain activity, for example, when the cat or dog is excited, feeding, falling asleep or waking up.

Other triggers might include:

  • Stress
  • Hot weather
  • Change in routine
  • Hormonal changes

What Age Do Cats and Dogs Get Epilepsy?

Cats with idiopathic epilepsy tend to experience their first seizure as young adults. In dogs, seizures tend to start between six months and six years old.

Epilepsy in cats and dogs is a lifelong condition.

Are There Warning Signs Before a Dog or Cat Has a Seizure?

When a cat or dog is about to have a seizure, they will sometimes behave unusually a little while before it happens. This period of time is known as the ‘prodrome’. They might:

  • Whine
  • Attention seek
  • Hide away

The period of time immediately before a seizure is known as the ‘aura’. For many cats and dogs, a difference in behaviour during the aura is often the first indication that a seizure is about to happen. During this time, they might:

  • Pace
  • Lick
  • Salivate

What Happens During a Seizure?

Seizures themselves can last anything from a few seconds to several minutes. During the seizure, you might see the following from your cat or dog:

  • Collapse
  • Tense muscles
  • Muscle spasms or jerking movements
  • Paddling of the limbs
  • Unresponsiveness
  • Passing of urine or faeces
  • Tremoring of a particular body part, such as facial twitching
  • Frothing at the mouth or drooling
  • Eyes rolling back or moving side to side

Some pets, more often cats, will experience partial seizures, which only affect part of the body and are more difficult to spot. Partial seizures may manifest as the following:

  • Eyelid or facial twitching
  • Abnormal head, neck or limb movements
  • Drooling
  • Excessive vocalisation or growling

The period of time after a seizure is known as ‘post-ictal’. This is the time it takes for the cat or dog to return to normal. During the post-ictal period, cats and dogs might:

  • Seem confused or disoriented
  • Have a sudden increased appetite or thirst
  • Forget their toilet training
  • Have their vision affected
  • Change their behaviour, appearing more aggressive or anxious than normal for example

For many cats and dogs, the post-ictal period is usually very short, only lasting a few minutes. For others, it can be longer and last hours or even days.

Since seizures and the recovery period are often very quick, owners often don’t know that they have happened. They might just come across a toilet accident in the house, or notice disturbed furniture.

What to Do if Your Cat or Dog is Having a Seizure

If your cat or dog is having a seizure in front of you, here’s what to do:

  1. Remain calm – while it can be very distressing to watch, it’s important to remember that your pet is not in pain, won’t usually recollect the event, and an isolated seizure is very unlikely cause any lasting damage
  2. Clear the area – remove anything nearby that they could kick or could fall on them so that they don’t injure themselves
  3. Start a timer to record the length of the seizure – if you can, film it too. This information is very helpful for your vet, and our perception of time is not always reliable especially during stressful situations
  4. Dim the lights and reduce noise if possible
  5. Keep the room cool – seizures cause a rise in body temperature
  6. Call your vet. If the seizure stops quickly, it’s not usually necessary to take your cat or dog to the vet as this will likely cause more distress. If it lasts longer than 3 minutes however, your pet may need medical intervention

Once the seizure has stopped:

  1. Give your pet some space as they may feel very confused
  2. Offer them a drink of water
  3. Let them outside to cool down as they may be very hot
  4. Record the seizure in a diary – include the date and time, how long it lasted, and any events you think could have triggered it. For example, there may be an association between waking up, feeding time or excitement, or could your pet have been exposed to toxins?
  5. For animals who have recurrent seizures, recording the length of the post-ictal period is helpful too

Should You Touch a Dog or Cat Having a Seizure?

If your pet is on a sofa, bed or at the top of the stairs where they could fall and hurt themselves, you should touch them in order to carefully move them to the floor.

However, you should never:

  • Restrain them
  • Try to stop the seizure by shaking or hitting them
  • Try to clear their mouth – unlike humans, cats and dogs can’t choke on their tongue, but they are likely to clamp their jaws due to muscle spasms, which can cause a lot of damage to your fingers
  • Wrap them in a blanket – the muscle spasms during seizures make cats and dogs hot, so covering them could cause them to overheat

Diagnosing the Cause of Seizures in Cats and Dogs

Your vet will first ask for a full history of the seizures your pet has been experiencing. This includes descriptions of the seizures, timings and symptoms before or after seizures. They might then ask questions about:

  • Any changes in diet or routine
  • Possible exposure to toxins
  • Related dogs who have had seizures
  • Any other signs of illness

Your vet may also carry out a neurological exam to test nerve function, as well as a blood test to check for electrolyte imbalances, organ dysfunction, or abnormal blood sugar levels.

If this information isn’t enough to confirm a diagnosis, your vet might recommend an MRI scan. Abnormalities could result in a diagnosis of cancer or meningitis, while a normal MRI would indicate epilepsy is the correct diagnosis.

Treatment for Seizures and Epilepsy in Dogs and Cats

There are several medications available to treat seizures in cats and dogs. Treatment aims to reduce the frequency and severity of seizures, but occasional seizures (known as breakthrough seizures) are to be expected.

For cats and dogs who only seizure once, or only once every few years, treatment is not usually advised. Infrequent seizures tend not to have negative impacts on the animal’s health, and so it’s not usually justified to risk the side effects and potential organ damage that comes with the long-term use of treatment.

As a general rule, treatment should be considered in cats and dogs who have more than two seizures within a 6-month period, or whose post-ictal period is prolonged or severe. Your vet will be able to make a recommendation for your cat or dog’s specific circumstances.

What is the Life Expectancy of Dogs and Cats with Epilepsy?

While each pet is different, many cats and dogs can live a long, happy life with seizures or epilepsy.

The majority of pets have infrequent seizures and therefore may not require treatment, in which case the prognosis is very good.

Cats and dogs who do require anti-seizure medication can do very well for many years.

Some pets may not respond well to medication, or they might experience a lot of ‘breakthrough seizures’ – this is the term for occasional seizures that occur despite medication, a few of which are to be expected even in pets who respond well to treatment.

Wrapping Up

Seizures are fairly common in both cats and dogs, and many pets experience them at some point in their life. It’s important to remember that seizures in our pets are often more distressing for us than it is for them, and that they are not experiencing any pain during them. Always keep calm and make sure the environment around them is safe and comfortable. Even if your cat or dog recovers well after a seizure, which they likely will, always get in touch with your vet.

Animed Veterinary Nurse, Beth Walker