A seizure occurs when uncontrolled electrical activity travels between brain cells, and many conditions can cause this in pets. Our team at Stack Veterinary Hospital wants to provide information about what causes these concerning episodes in pets, and what you should do if your pet has a seizure.

What causes seizures in dogs?

Conditions that can cause your dog to have a seizure include:

  • Idiopathic epilepsy — The most common cause of seizures in dogs is canine idiopathic epilepsy. The exact cause is unclear, but genetics seem to play a role, and purebred dogs are at increased risk. This condition is a diagnosis of exclusion, since no particular test for idiopathic epilepsy exists. Other possible causes are ruled out using diagnostics such as blood work, urinalysis, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), and cerebrospinal fluid analysis. If your dog experiences two or more seizures in a six-month period, or their seizures are severe, certain medications may be recommended to control the seizures.
  • Kidney and liver disease — The kidneys and liver function, in part, to remove toxins from the body. When these vital organs aren’t working properly, toxins can build up in the bloodstream, leading to seizures.
  • Diabetes — If your dog’s diabetes is poorly managed, and their blood glucose levels get too high, the excess levels may lead to a seizure. In addition, if their blood sugar levels drop too low, hypoglycemic shock can occur, resulting in a seizure.
  • Toxin ingestion — Certain toxins can cause your dog to seize. Culprits include ethanol, chocolate, xylitol, ethylene glycol, diphenhydramine, and ibuprofen.

What causes seizures in cats?

Conditions that can cause your cat to have a seizure include:

  • Viral infections — Feline infectious peritonitis (FIP) is a viral infection caused by a particular feline coronavirus strain. The non-effusive disease form can cause seizures and other neurological signs in cats. In addition, cats can be affected by viral non-FIP organisms that cause seizures. In these cases, changes suggest viral infection but no causative agent can be identified.
  • Feline ischemic encephalopathy (FIE) — FIE is an infection caused by the Cuterebra larvae. Most commonly, these parasites cause skin lesions or respiratory disease, although in some cases, the parasites can enter the brain and cause neurological disorders, such as seizures.
  • Brain tumor — Meningiomas are the most common brain tumor in cats. They are slow growing tumors that are considered benign, but they can press against the brain, causing seizures.
  • Toxin exposure — The most common toxin that causes seizures in cats is permethrin,  a substance in dog flea prevention products that can cause serious consequences when applied to cats. Other toxins that can cause seizures in cats include tea tree oil, acetaminophen, and alpha lipoic acid.

What are seizure signs in pets?

Seizures in pets can present differently. A seizure originating from both brain hemispheres is a generalized seizure, and involves the entire body. In contrast, a seizure that originates from only one brain area is a focal seizure, and affects only part of the body. Seizures occur in three phases:

  • Pre-ictal phase — Also known as the aural phase, this period precedes the seizure, and typically involves a behavior change. The affected pet may hide, seek attention, become restless, or start to vocalize, and some pets salivate or lick their lips. The pre-ictal phase can last from a few seconds to a few hours.
  • Ictal phase — The ictal phase is the period when the seizure occurs, and can last from a few seconds to several minutes. The seizure may be mild, involving a change in mental awareness, a dazed appearance, or movement of one body part, or severe, involving a loss of consciousness, limb paddling, urinating and defecating, and drawing back the head. 
  • Post ictal phase — In the period after the seizure, the pet is usually confused and disoriented, and may salivate or pace restlessly. In some cases, the pet experiences temporary blindness.

What should I do if my pet has a seizure?

Witnessing your pet have a seizure is frightening, but these tips will help keep you and your pet safe until the seizure is over.

  • Stay calm — Panicking will not help your pet, and you need to remain level headed to assist them.
  • Note the time — Time your pet’s seizure so you can relay the information to our veterinary professionals. Knowing the seizure’s duration can help determine a course of action.
  • Film the seizure — If possible, have someone film the seizure. Knowing how the seizure progressed can also be helpful when deciding next steps.
  • Protect your pet — Move your pet away from furniture and stairs, and cushion their head during the seizure.
  • Protect yourself — Pets do not swallow their tongues during a seizure, so do not attempt to grab their tongue, which will only result in an avoidable injury.
  • Call Stack Veterinary Hospital — Once the seizure ends, or if the episode lasts longer than five minutes, call our team, so we can determine the next course of action.
  • Call Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) — If you know or suspect your pet ingested a toxin before they seize, contact APCC for advice on how to proceed.
  • Keep a journal — Keep a journal of your pet’s seizure activity, including the date, time, duration, and their signs before, during, and after.

Watching your pet have a seizure is upsetting, but being prepared can help protect your pet from injury. If your pet has experienced a seizure, contact our American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA)-accredited team at Stack Veterinary Hospital, so we can help determine the cause and next steps.