Seizures in Dogs: Causes, Symptoms, & What to Do

What causes seizures in dogs and what to do if your dog is having a seizure. Don't panic, with this information you can learn more about them.


Observing a beloved pet succumb to a seizure the first time is a frightful experience.

The owner wants to do something to help their pet but often has no idea as to what is going on or why it is occurring. In these types of situations, minutes seem like hours but the best things an owner can do are to take note of the time and length of the seizure, make sure the dog is nowhere near stairs and pad the head and body with blankets to prevent injury as well as removing any other dogs you may have.
Regardless of what you have heard, DO NOT reach into the dog’s mouth to grab the tongue in an attempt to “keep it from swallowing its tongue.”

During thirteen years as an animal emergency technician, I couldn’t count the number of owners who went to the hospital room while someone else brought their dog to our clinic.

Although conscious, the dog is absolutely unaware of what is going on around it and those clenching jaws can do serious if not permanent injury.

There are many types of seizures that are commonly seen and if you suspect your dog is or has had a seizure, be sure to discuss it with your veterinarian giving as many details as possible.

Generalized Seizure or Tonic-clonic:  The Tonic-clonic seizure has two stages and may come in a mild or Grand Mal version. During the Grand Mal seizure, the “tonic” phase is when the dog falls to the ground, rigidly stretches his legs out, and loses consciousness. During this time his breathing will also stop. This part of the seizure usually lasts ten to thirty seconds. After this, the “clonic” stage begins. It is at this time that owners notice the stereotypical activity that is commonly called a fit.

While the dog is in the clonic stage, he or she will begin any or all of the following symptoms:
1.    Paddling of limbs or “running in place”.
2.    Jaw movements that look like the dog is trying to chew gum.
3.    Pupils in both eyes dilate (become large) and unresponsive.
4.    The dog begins salivating or drooling.
5.    Dog loses control of bodily functions and begins to urinate or defecate on itself.

In the mild cases of Tonic-clonic seizures, there is usually little paddling and no loss of consciousness. Defecation and urination may also not occur.

Petit Mal Seizures have short episodes of the dog being unconscious with instances of muscle tone loss, and blank stares. These types of seizures seem to be very rare in dogs and often require the presence of EEG abnormalities to diagnose for certainty.

Partial Seizures are odd things where the seizure activities such as the leg paddling, muscle spasms, neck and head bending, or the main part of the body and facial muscle spasms only occur in one part of the body. These types of seizures can worsen until they appear to be Grand Mal or Mild Tonic-clonic but the difference is how the seizure began. Both Tonic-clonic types seem to be overall body from the start but the partials may just start at the face or one hip.

Status Epilepticus type seizures can be life-threatening. They can appear as one continuous seizure that lasts more than thirty minutes or in a repetitive loop of seizures with the dog never regaining consciousness. Status epilepticus seizures can occur to dogs with a history of Grand Mal or Mild Tonic-clonic seizures and a diagnosis of epilepsy. They can also occur in dogs with no previous seizure activity but that have had an injury to the brain, exposed to toxins such as massive amounts of chocolate, pesticides, and poisons or they can be the result of the disease.  

Cluster Seizures are very similar to the loop of status epilepticus seizures and each is often diagnosed as the other. The difference between the status epilepticus and the cluster seizures is that the dog actually has short time periods returning to consciousness in between each seizure.

Complex Partial Seizures can also be known as psychomotor or behavioral seizures. Of all the different types of seizures, these are the oldest and most bizarre. During a complex partial seizure, the dog will demonstrate strange repetitive behaviors such as uncontrollably running in small circles, biting at the air, howling, barking or yipping, and even a type of lip-smacking. Others may show signs of attempting to hide for no reason. Other signs can be instances of vomiting, diarrhea, drooling, biting at their sides or flank area, and even blindness.  Although the dog is awake during these seizures, they are not aware of what they are doing or what is going on around them. Complex partial seizures can last a few minutes, several hours, or can turn into generalized tonic-clonic seizures.

Seizures can be caused by a variety of things including both primary and secondary epilepsy. They can also be the result of a blow to the head, calcium deficiencies in nursing mothers, end-stage heartworm disease, toxic plants, chemicals, fertilizers, and poisonings. There is even evidence that seizures may have a hereditary factor involved since there are several breeds such as the Belgian Tervureren, German Shepherd, Dachshunds, and others that have a higher incidence of them than other purebred dogs.

If a seizure happens to your dog, the important thing is for you to stay calm. This is especially hard to do when your beloved pet is in the throes of what appears to be pure agony but you must be in control of yourself. Keep a calm, quiet tone of voice while you attempt to comfort the dog. If there is furniture, doors, or anything that the dog could hurt itself on during the seizure, move it if possible. If you are unable to move the danger, wrap blankets or place pillows between the dog and the object.

Slide something soft under the dog’s head but make sure you do not get your face or hands close enough to the mouth risking a possible bite. Dim the lights, turn off any loud music or TV, and keep the environment as quiet as possible. Speak to your dog in a low, reassuring voice and perhaps gently stroke his side or hip. Also, try to avoid being on the same side as the feet and toenails. As the muscles spasm, so do the legs making the feet curl into actual claws that can rake or gouge your skin.
During these times, take notes to contact your veterinarian.

Note the time of day it occurred, the duration of each seizure, and the time in between them if they are recurrent. In addition to these things, the veterinarian will want to know if the dog regained consciousness, urinated or defecated if the seizure progressed from mere body twitching or hit suddenly. He will probably ask if there had been any possibly triggering events such as fireworks, excessive exercising or playing, strange products or items eaten, and how long it was before the dog appeared normal again.

It is very common for dogs that have seizures to have a time period afterward in which they appear drugged or lost. They may respond to you but in an excessively slow manner. These “drugged”  times may vary according to the severity of the seizure. For some dogs, they may take only a few minutes or several hours. Seizures are an exhausting experience and most dogs will want to sleep afterward so allow them to do so. Check-in occasionally but don’t disturb their rest.

If this is the first occurrence of a seizure, be sure to contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. Depending on preferences, he or she may take the “wait and see” route or go for a battery of blood tests to check for liver and heart functions, anemia, glucose, calcium, and electrolyte levels. The doctor may even want to run a screen for possible toxins including lead as well as possible x-rays. Teaching facilities and some clinics will even have the ability to do EEGs to check for abnormalities.

Even with all the tests, the results may not give a specific reason for the seizure. Some veterinarians will wait and see if it was a one-time occurrence while others may suggest medications right away. If diagnosed with epilepsy, dogs have an excellent chance of a fairly normal life if given the proper medical care and follow up by the owner.