Introduction epilepsy

The most common type of epilepsy is a seizure. Characterized by loss of consciousness falling over, severe muscle spasms, salivating (foaming at the mouth) and possible urine loss. During the seizure the pet can not be addressed. A seizure usually lasts a couple of minutes. After the seizure your pet can show abnormal, often insecure and anxious behaviour. There is no pain during a seizure. Seizures can also occur in a milder form. Epilepsy can occur in all animals, but it’s most often seen in dogs.

What is epilepsy?

Every animal is controlled by it’s brain. Without that control, limbs cannot move and senses, like hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling etc, even breathing would come to a halt. The brain consists of billions of nerve cells that give constant messages to each other trough electrical pulses (impulses) and chemical substances (neurotransmitters). When this system gets disturbed one way or the other, a short circuit can occur. So a seizure is a sudden short circuit, or disturbance that temporarily interferes with the normal functioning of the brain. An animal has epilepsy when these disturbances occur on a regular basis. The place in the brain where the disturbance begins, the way and the speed it spreads, determine the pattern of a seizure.

Causes of epilepsy

A seizure is caused by a sudden disturbance in the brain function. There is a distinction between:

primary epilepsy (or idiopathic= no cause found)

In primary epilepsy the first seizure will occur place between the first and third year of a pet’s life and the seizures will reoccur over several weeks to months. With primary epilepsy there are no other physical complaints, besides the seizures. Primary epilepsy rarely occurs in animals younger than 8 months.

secondary epilepsy (= causes are determined)

  • With certain diseases seizures can occur that look like an epileptic fit (i.e. liver- and kidney diseases)
  • Even before birth, an animal can get (brain)problems as a result of an infection, that can lead to epilepsy in later life.
  • Through lack of oxygen during a difficult birth, small damages can occur in the brain. Usually these are not visible, but can lead to a hypersensitivity for fits, that in a later stage can lead to epilepsy.
  • More visible brain damage result from a severe concussion, or brain damage after an accident, or after meningitis; these damages can also cause epilepsy.
  • Strokes in elderly pets (blocked up artery in the brain) or a haemorrhage in the brain can cause epilepsy.
  • A brain tumor can also cause epilepsy


Primary epilepsy is a congenital and probably hereditary defect. Therefore it is not wise to breed from animals that suffer from epilepsy. Studies have been conducted with humans and the outcome was that the chance that children of someone that has epilepsy is hardly greater to that of children of someone that does not have the disease. When both parents suffer from epilepsy there is more chance of getting the disease. With animals it is best to restrain from breeding.


Diagnostically, it is important to know if you are dealing with primary or secondary epilepsy. As an owner you have to collect the following information and it is important to provide accurate information. Age, frequency of the seizures, duration of seizures(severity), are there any other complaints. Information about siblings, what time of the day do the seizures occur, is there a connection with exertion or meals. Is the animal conscious. You can test this by pinching the sole of the foot. When a study is done, it will be directed at excluding possible causes. Until this day it is impossible to point out primary epilepsy, this includes a brain scan (CT scan or M.R.I.).


Epilepsy cannot really be cured, but with medication the frequency of seizures (and the severity) can be decreased. When the time in between seizures is longer than at least 4 weeks, or the seizures are mild, treatment is not necessary. During a seizure nothing can or has to be done. Make sure the animal cannot wound itself and make sure you yourself do not get injured. Stay clear of the mouth of your pet (do not attempt to administer medicine), because of jerky movements the dog could, unintentionally, bite you. No matter how alarming it looks, a dog will not die acutely during a seizure. When the seizure lasts longer than 5 – 10 minutes, a vet needs to interrupt the seizure by giving an injection. Regular veterinary medicine uses Phenobarbital for the treatment of epilepsy. It works well in a reasonable number of cases. When given in low dosages the side effects are minor. When given in higher dosages the following side effects can occur: slowness, gluttony, polydipsy and polyuria and liver damage (fatal for a pet) Epitard is also used, but the side effects are almost a bigger problem than the seizures. Therefore it is not advised to use. Primidone is even more toxic than Phenobarbital and Epitard and nowadays vets advise against using it. Chinese herbal medicine has the Epilepsy formula, that can decrease the frequency and severity of the seizures. The advantage of the Epilepsy formula is the prevention of the side effects that are seen with the use of Phenobarbital or Epitard. The dosage of epilepsy medication is different in each animal. Treatment with medication is usually necessary throughout the remainder of a pet’s life. When you have a pet that is very lively, you can try giving the Chinese herbal formula Destress, to calm your pet, This will decrease the chances on a seizure.

Different types of epilepsy

There are many kinds of seizures, too many to describe them all here. However, it is important to make a difference.
There are two main types of seizures:

Generalized seizures, meaning that the left and the right side of the brain, in large areas, even all nerve cells are involved in the seizure. During such a seizure, the pet is completely unconscious.

Partial seizures, which involve only part(s) of the brain. During these seizures the animal is sometimes conscious, sometimes they are semi-conscious, sometimes they are completely absent, depending on the kind of seizure.

How to act during a seizure

Look at your watch and try to record how long the seizure lasts. Stay calm, this will help you to better assist your pet. Stay with your pet and try to prevent it from wounding itself. Try to place something soft( flat pillow, coat, towel) under the pet’s head. Make sure the animal is in a safe place, so away from water, fire, the road etc. Make sure that breathing is not hindered, if the dog is wearing a collar, remove it. Put the animal on it’s side when the seizure has ended and the animal starts to relax again. This will enable saliva and possibly blood to leave he mouth and the tongue cannot block the airways.

What you definitely should not do during a seizure

Do not try to put something hard between the teeth of your pet tp prevent it from biting it’s tongue. This is hard to prevent and you may risk damaging the pet’s teeth (or your own fingers!) Do not attempt to stop the violent paddling of the paws , the movements are too powerful and you may cause bone fractures or torn muscles. Do not give food or water to the animal, unless it is fully conscious again. Do not wet the head, it has no affect at all.

Signs of an impending

Restlessness, anxiety, nervousness, tendency to hide, demanding attention, whining, salivating, muscle spasms.

Symptoms of a seizure

Not recognizing the environment, muscle spasm, violent shivering, uncontrolled urination and defecation, salivating, uncontrolled emptying the anal glands, behavioural changes, running around aimlessly, holding up the neck in a very rigid way during walking and staring, decreased level of consciousness, or loss of consciousness, the animals falls over, signs of cramps, contracting of muscles which cause paddling movements, chattering of teeth, mucous membranes can change colour to dark red or bluish red, maximal dilation of pupil, after a while consciousness is restored, the animal gets up, disorientation and possible temporary blindness. Cats specifically can start running suddenly.

Recovery phase

Being put out, restlessness, slow reactions, tendency to eat and drink, needing attention.


Epileptic pets can react to certain things with an epileptic seizure. You have to be careful with:

  • conservatives. Especially BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin can cause seizures
  • flea control treatments, use natural flea control products instead
  • vaccinations, especially the vaccine against distemper seems to cause many epileptic seizures.
  • shampoo


1. Anti-convulsive effects of Chinese Materia Medica. China Bulletin of Pharmacology. 1989;6(1):32-34.

2. Chinese Materia Medica effect on the central nervous system. China Bulletin of Pharmacology. 1989;6(1):34-35.