Witnessing your pet having a seizure can be frightening. Seizures are one of the most common neurological disorders reported in dogs, and can affect cats, too. Our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team wants to help by offering information about seizures in pets and how you should respond if your pet is affected.

Pet seizure basics

A seizure is a condition that causes a temporary, unregulated electrical activity surge in the brain, where the affected brain cells uncontrollably fire signals to others around them and overload the affected brain areas. The electrical activity starts in one area (i.e., the seizure focus), and spreads in a process called kindling. Pets who experience a seizure go through three phases that include:

  • Pre-ictal phase — Before the seizure occurs, pets typically exhibit altered behavior, such as hiding, pacing restlessly, vocalizing, and shaking, which may last from a few seconds to a few hours.
  • Ictal phase — The ictal phase, when the pet is seizing, can range from mild changes in mental awareness to a complete loss of consciousness and body function. 
  • Postictal phase — After the seizure, pets are typically confused and disoriented, and some experience temporary blindness. This period usually lasts between 5 and 30 minutes.

Pet seizure types

How the pet’s ictal phase manifests depends on the seizure type. Classifications include:

  • Generalized — Also known as grand mal, generalized seizures are the most common in dogs. The pet loses consciousness, and they paddle their limbs erratically. Their head is often drawn backward, and they may urinate and defecate. A seizure that continues for longer than five minutes is classified as a status epilepticus, which is a serious, life-threatening situation, and you should seek emergency veterinary care immediately.
  • Focal — Focal seizures are the most common in cats, but they can progress to a generalized seizure. The pet exhibits involuntary activity in only one body part, commonly manifested as chewing gum activity and ear twitching. The pet’s consciousness may or may not be affected.
  • Psychomotor — Psychomotor seizures are a type of focal seizure in which the pet exhibits abnormal behavior. Their consciousness is disrupted, they often appear to be hallucinating or in an altered state, and may exhibit uncharacteristic aggressive behavior, or stare into space. Fly-biting is a classic example of a psychomotor seizure.

Pet seizure causes

A seizure is a sign, not a disease, and finding the underlying cause is important to address the problem appropriately. Causes include:

  • Idiopathic epilepsy — Seizures in dogs are most commonly caused by idiopathic epilepsy, which is diagnosed when an underlying cause cannot be identified. The condition appears to be genetic.
  • Viral infections — Viral infection causing brain inflammation is the most common cause of seizures in young to middle-aged cats. 
  • Toxin exposure — Toxins including caffeine, chocolate, ethanol, and xylitol can cause seizures in pets.
  • Brain trauma — Pets affected by a traumatic brain injury are at greater risk for seizures.
  • Brain tumors — Brain tumors, such as meningiomas, can result in seizures.
  • Electrolyte imbalances — Sudden or severe electrolyte imbalances can cause neurological signs, including seizures.
  • Hypoglycemia — The brain needs glucose to function properly, and a seizure can occur when blood glucose levels drop too low.
  • Heat stroke — Heat stroke causes brain hemorrhage and swelling, causing cell death, disorientation, seizure activity, and coma.

Pet seizure response

If your pet has a seizure, follow these tips to keep them safe until the episode is over:

  • Stay calm — Watching your pet have a seizure is upsetting, but you must remain calm so you can help your pet.
  • Time the seizure — The seizure duration is important information that your veterinarian needs.
  • Video the seizure — If possible, have someone video the seizure, so you can show your veterinarian exactly what happened.
  • Protect your pet — If necessary, move your pet away from stairs and furniture to prevent injuries during the seizure.
  • Don’t attempt to grab your pet’s tongue — Pets don’t swallow their tongue during a seizure, so don’t attempt to grab your pet’s tongue to prevent accidental bite wounds.
  • Document the seizure — Start a journal and record the seizure duration, date, and signs your pet exhibited.
  • Call your veterinarian — Report the seizure to your veterinarian for their advice on next steps.

If your pet’s seizure lasts longer than two minutes, don’t wait until the seizure is over to take them to a veterinary emergency center—they need care as soon as possible.

Pet seizure treatment

If your pet has a single, short seizure and acts normally afterward, they may not need treatment, but when an underlying cause can be determined, addressing the issue is necessary to treat the seizures. If no cause can be identified, treatment usually begins when:

  • Your pet has more than one seizure per month.
  • Your pet experiences a seizure cluster (i.e., three or more seizures in a 24-hour period).
  • Your pet has a severe or prolonged grand mal seizure.

Typically, once seizure medication is started, the pet must remain on the medication unless your veterinarian instructs you to stop.

Seizures are upsetting, but knowing how to respond if your pet is affected can help you remain calm and provide the care they need. If your pet has a seizure, contact our Animal Emergency Hospital and Urgent Care team immediately, so we can determine what is causing the abnormal brain activity and address the problem accordingly.