One of the Most Frightening Disorders to Witness in Your Pet

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

seizures in pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • If your dog or cat has a seizure it can be very frightening for both of you; it’s important to stay calm so you can properly care for your pet
  • There are different types of seizures — a grand mal is the most serious, especially if it progresses to status epilepticus, which is a life-threatening emergency
  • There are many potential causes for seizures in pets, including head trauma, infection, brain tumors, vaccines and genetic defects
  • Owners and veterinarians of pets with seizure disorders should seriously consider transitioning the dog or cat to a ketogenic diet
  • There are also several natural therapies that can help these patients and reduce or eliminate their need for anti-seizure medications

Any animal with a brain can experience seizures, but that simple fact doesn’t make them any less scary if it’s your pet who’s having one. In fact, of all the disorders that can occur in furry family members, a seizure is probably one of the most frightening to witness.

Seizures in a dog or cat are often preceded by an aura during which your pet may seem dazed or scared, or she may hide or seek comfort from you. Once a major seizure begins, she’ll fall on her side. Her body may grow stiff or she may make a paddling motion with her legs. Many pets also grind their jaws, drool excessively, vocalize and lose bladder or bowel control.

Needless to say, watching helplessly as your beloved dog or cat goes through all that is extremely distressing. But although you’re alarmed, it’s really important to stay calm. Keep your hands away from her face to avoid being bitten and keep her safely away from stairs or other locations where a fall could injure her.

It’s also important to take a mental note of how your pet was behaving before the seizure (the “preictal” phase), during the seizure (the “ictal” phase) and afterwards (the “postictal” phase), as well as how long the episode lasted. If you can also video the event, it can be very helpful to your veterinarian.

Epileptic episodes typically last between 30 and 90 seconds. After one, your pet may appear confused or disoriented. She may wander aimlessly or pace, act restless, experience difficulty seeing and have increased thirst or hunger. Recovery after a seizure is sometimes immediate, or it can take up to 24 hours for her to feel and behave normally again.

Seizures Result From Abnormal Electrical Activity in the Brain

In technical terms, a seizure is an event during which there is unanticipated, abnormal electrical activity in the brain. There are two types of electrical impulses in the brain: excitatory and inhibitory. In a normal animal, there's a constant and proper ratio of excitatory to inhibitory impulses.

However, in a seizing pet, the excitatory impulses temporarily overwhelm the inhibitory impulses. Whether your pet has a minor twitch or a grand mal seizure depends on what part of the brain is involved and how many excitatory impulses are generated.

The point at which excitatory impulses overtake inhibitory impulses is called the seizure threshold. In a healthy pet the seizure threshold is high, meaning the potential for a seizure is low. There are a few things that influence your dog's seizure threshold, including genetics, head trauma, infection and exposure to toxins.

Categories of Seizures

Many pet parents don’t realize there are different types of seizures:

  • A petit mal seizure is the mildest type of seizure and can be as insignificant as an abnormal eye movement.
  • A grand mal seizure is the other extreme and affects both sides of the brain and the body.
  • Status epilepticus is a grand mal seizure that doesn't resolve. This is a medical emergency in which breathing ceases and the animal can die. If your pet is experiencing a grand mal seizure and isn't coming out of it, it's critical you get her to an emergency veterinary hospital right away in order to save her life.
  • Cats and small dogs more commonly have focal motor seizures involving only a part of the body. These seizures can be hard to identify, as they often look like nothing more than a twitch, tremor or cramp.
  • Cluster seizures are events that occur several times a day. Many cluster seizures are urgent care situations. If your pet has had more than one seizure in a day, I recommend you make an appointment with your veterinarian. This type of seizure can lead to continual seizing and/or progressively more intense seizures.

Generally speaking, the younger the affected pet, the more severe the seizure disorder will be.

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The Many Potential Causes of Seizures in Pets

These include:

Head trauma that results in brain swelling

Bacterial, viral, fungal and parasitic infections

Cervical subluxation (frequently the result of tugging at a leash attached to a collar instead of a harness)

Liver disease (a damaged liver can’t process toxins efficiently — toxins in the bloodstream can cross the blood-brain barrier)

Metabolic disorders such as hypothyroidism

Certain human and veterinary drugs, including neurotoxic topical chemicals like flea and tick preventives

Brain tumors (especially in older pets)

Certain immune-mediated diseases

Congenital malformation of the brain stem or spinal cord

Low blood sugar, especially in diabetic pets and those with pancreatic tumors

Lead, mercury and plant poisoning, as well as exposure to fertilizers, pesticides, insecticides and herbicides

Heatstroke

Still More Potential Seizure Triggers: Vaccines, Certain Sounds (Cats Only) and a Genetic Defect in Rhodesian Ridgebacks

Another cause of seizures are veterinary vaccines, some of which still contain thimerosal, organo-mercury compounds or aluminum as adjuvants to boost the body’s response to the immunization. Heavy metals are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and since the central nervous system doesn’t have the ability to detoxify itself, there’s no way to remove them.

Vaccines can also trigger an autoimmune reaction that causes secondary swelling in the brain, which in turn can bring on a seizure disorder in your pet. An example of this is the condition known as autoimmune encephalitis.

In cats, exposure to certain sounds can cause seizures. Veterinary researchers in the U.K. published the results of a study on a recently discovered phenomenon — sound-related seizure activity in cats. They named the disorder feline audiogenic reflex seizures (FARS). The noises most likely to cause a seizure in the study cats included:

Crinkling of aluminum foil

Typing on keyboard; clicking of mouse

Metal spoon against ceramic bowl

Clinking of coins, keys

Clinking or tapping of glass

Hammering of nail

Crinkling of paper or plastic bag

Clicking of owner’s tongue

The 96 cats in the study were between 10 and 19 years old, and researchers believe that because older animals tend to have other health issues, a seizure disorder may be overlooked. The researchers confirmed that avoiding making the sounds reduced the cats’ seizures, and the louder the sound, the more severe the seizure.

I’m suspicious vaccines may also be a root cause of FARS and other types of feline seizures as well, so I don’t recommend additional vaccines of any kind for cats suffering from seizures. In fact, detoxifying these patients from previous vaccines may be very beneficial.

In 2017, researchers published the results of a study identifying a gene defect in Rhodesian Ridgebacks that is definitively linked to epilepsy. The defective gene is called DIRAS1.1 The research team evaluated over 600 epileptic Ridgebacks, as well as 1,000 dogs of other breeds who suffered seizures. The DIRAS1 defect was discovered to be specific to only the Rhodesian Ridgeback so far.

The form of epilepsy associated with DIRAS1 is called canine myoclonic epilepsy, which resembles juvenile myoclonic syndrome in humans. Myoclonic seizures begin at about the same age in both dogs and humans (around 6 months). The symptoms are similar, as is the response to anti-seizure medication.

The Role of Diet in Pet Seizures

Something else to consider if your pet has a seizure disorder is that nutritionally related health issues can also cause or exacerbate the situation. One problem is food allergies, which can cause a systemic inflammatory response that can decrease your pet’s seizure threshold.

Another issue is that most commercially available processed pet food contains synthetic chemicals (including vitamin premixes from China), preservatives, emulsifiers and other ingredients that can also cause systemic inflammation and decrease seizure thresholds. In some cases, the potentially seizure-inducing contaminants in pet food are many times higher than the legal human limits, but are still allowed in pet foods.

Humans with epilepsy are often told by their doctors to switch to a ketogenic diet comprised of very low net carbs, reduced protein and high amounts of healthy fats. It’s very important to measure blood glucose, with the goal of keeping glucose less than 80mg/dL and ketone levels above 0.3mM to assure your pet is actually in ketosis.

For years veterinarians thought this nutritional intervention was not successful at managing epilepsy in pets, but a review of past studies showed that carbs (which convert to sugar) were not restricted adequately, so the results were not impressive. If done correctly, nutritional ketosis has not only proven to be very successful in managing epilepsy in pets, it’s the standard of care for pediatric epilepsy.2

This way of feeding respects your dog’s evolutionary biology, and in addition, other symptoms may also improve on this diet, including a reduction in inflammatory disease. By keeping net carbs low, the body’s level of insulin is reset to a much healthier, lower level, which reduces metabolic stress on every cell in your pet’s body.

In 2017, I made a documentary with Rodney Habib about the benefits of a ketogenic diet as a means of controlling cancer, but this diet has also been used to control epilepsy in many dogs. You can also read about Sasha, a little dog with seizures who was put on a ketogenic diet in 2014.

Beneficial Natural Therapies

There are a wide range of natural substances than can help increase your pet's seizure threshold and decrease the potential for these events, including:

  • Chiropractic and acupuncture
  • Herbal formulas (including cannabis extracts)
  • Homeopathic remedies
  • Traditional Chinese medicinals
  • Nutraceutical therapies

In mild cases, natural treatments plus a dietary change are often all that is needed to successfully manage the condition. For animals with frequent grand mal seizures, I typically create an integrative protocol of natural therapies and drug therapy.

I always ask pet parents to keep a log of the dates, times and intensity of seizures. Often there are links between seizures and a particular time of month or year. If we identify a cycle, we can develop a plan to control the episodes using the safest effective treatment options available. Animals with seizures should be titered, not vaccinated.

While seizures can be a very serious and truly frightening condition in pets, the best way to care for your dog or cat is to arm yourself with knowledge about what to expect and how to react, along with designing a proactive preventive protocol with the help of an integrative veterinarian.