Staring Into The Void. My Dog’s Mysterious Seizures


Seizures in dogs involve abnormal electrical brain activity that can cause intense muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, and unusual behavior like staring into space. Though seizures may resolve on their own, frequent staring spells can indicate an underlying chronic condition requiring veterinary attention. According to the International Veterinary Epilepsy Task Force, seizures are one of the most common neurological conditions in dogs
[1]. While brief seizures may not require treatment, clusters of seizures known as status epilepticus can be life-threatening. Thus, staring episodes in dogs should not be dismissed and require further investigation.

What Causes Seizures in Dogs

There are several potential causes of seizures in dogs, but some are more common than others:

Idiopathic Epilepsy – This is the most common cause of seizures in dogs. It is an inherited disorder, but the exact genetic cause is still unknown. Idiopathic epilepsy usually develops between 6 months and 6 years of age. [1]

Metabolic Issues – Metabolic disorders like low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), kidney failure, or electrolyte imbalances can trigger seizures. These types of seizures may indicate an underlying disease process. [2]

dog staring blankly during a seizure

Toxin Exposure – Ingestion of toxins like lead, fertilizers, or household chemicals can cause acute seizures in dogs. Seizures from toxins require immediate veterinary treatment. [3]

Brain Tumors – Tumors in the brain, whether cancerous or benign, can irritate the surrounding brain tissue and cause seizures. Brain tumors are most common in older dogs. [1]

Less common causes of seizures can include head trauma, liver disease, anemia, encephalitis, and congenital brain malformations. A veterinarian will perform diagnostic testing to determine the underlying cause in an affected dog. [2]

Symptoms of Seizures

Some of the most common symptoms of seizures in dogs include muscle twitching, drooling, chomping, loss of bowel control, and temporary blindness. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, during a seizure a dog’s legs may paddle as if it is running. Urination, defecation, and salivation may occur. The dog may also chomp its jaw, foam at the mouth, and appear to be chewing something 1. WebMD notes that symptoms can include collapsing, jerking, stiffening, muscle twitching, loss of consciousness, drooling, chomping, tongue chewing, or foaming at the mouth 2. Temporary blindness is also common during and after a seizure episode.

Loss of bowel control may occur during the seizure, leading to urination or defecation. The chomping motions are due to uncontrolled muscle spasms in the jaw. The drooling and foaming at the mouth is also caused by the spasms and lack of swallowing control. Muscle twitching and stiffness results from abnormal electrical activity in the brain disrupting signals to the muscles. So in summary, all these symptoms are connected to the uncontrolled muscle activity that occurs during a seizure.

Why Staring Can Indicate a Seizure

One type of seizure that causes staring in dogs is called an “absence seizure.” Absence seizures are a neurological phenomenon where the dog becomes unresponsive and stares off into space for a period of seconds or minutes. The dog’s brain activity is temporarily disrupted, causing a lapse in awareness of their surroundings.

During an absence seizure, the dog may have a blank look in their eyes and be completely unresponsive to sights, sounds, or touch. Their staring may seem aimless or zoned out. Sometimes the eyes flutter or move side to side. When the seizure ends, the dog returns to normal with no signs of disorientation or confusion.

Absence seizures are more common in certain breeds like Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Collies, German Shepherds, and Poodles. If your dog has frequent staring episodes, it’s important to consult a veterinarian, as they can perform tests to diagnose absence seizures versus other conditions.

While absence seizures themselves are harmless, frequent occurrences may require medication to control. Catching and addressing this condition early is important to minimize impacts on your dog’s quality of life.

First Aid for Seizures

If your dog has a seizure, the most important thing is to remain calm so you can help keep your dog safe. According to the Veterinary Emergency Group, here are some tips for providing first aid during a seizure:

  • Don’t restrain or restrict your dog’s movement, but do provide gentle support or blocking to prevent injury if needed.
  • Move your dog away from staircases or other dangerous areas where they could hurt themselves during the seizure.
  • Protect your dog’s head and mouth by placing a towel or soft barrier underneath. Be very careful not to put your hands near their mouth.
  • Time how long the seizure lasts. Most seizures will end within a couple minutes. Call your vet if a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes.
  • dog having a seizure on the floor

The most important goal is to protect your dog from injury during the seizure episode. Don’t try to insert anything in their mouth or restrain them unless absolutely necessary for their safety. Stay calm and time the event, then call your vet once the seizure ends.

Diagnosing the Cause

If your dog has experienced seizures, it’s crucial to get a veterinary diagnosis to determine the underlying cause. According to VCANimal Hospitals, your veterinarian will likely recommend screening tests to look for metabolic disease and other illnesses that can cause seizures.

To get to the root of the issue, the vet will perform a full physical and neurological examination of your dog. They will also recommend standard blood work, urinalysis, and potentially imaging tests like MRI or CT scans. As explained by Vet Specialists, these advanced imaging techniques can identify structural abnormalities in the brain that may be causing the seizures.

veterinarian performing diagnostics on a dog with seizures

If no underlying cause is found through the vet exam, blood work, and imaging, the seizures may be classified as idiopathic epilepsy. However, a comprehensive diagnostic workup is important to rule out other conditions before settling on that diagnosis. Getting an accurate diagnosis will allow your vet to provide the most effective treatment plan for your dog’s seizures.

Treatment Options

There are several medications available to help control recurrent seizures in dogs. According to Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine 1, common anticonvulsant medications include:

  • Phenobarbital – A barbiturate that is typically the first drug tried for managing recurrent seizures. It helps prevent seizures by slowing down nerve impulses in the brain.
  • Levetiracetam (Keppra) – A newer anticonvulsant drug that is often combined with phenobarbital. It seems to have fewer side effects than phenobarbital.
  • Zonisamide – Another newer medication sometimes used alone or with other drugs to control seizures.
  • Potassium bromide – An older drug that can be effective, but may cause side effects like sedation or hind limb weakness.

If an underlying cause of the seizures is found, such as a brain tumor, inflammation, or metabolic disorder, then treatment may focus on addressing that primary problem. In some cases, surgery can be done to remove a brain tumor triggering seizures.

Finding the right medication or combination of medications is important to minimize side effects and control recurrent seizures. Close monitoring, blood tests, and dosage adjustments supervised by a veterinarian are crucial for maximizing the benefits of anticonvulsant drugs.

Lifestyle Management

There are several things you can do at home to help manage your dog’s seizures and create a safe, low-stress environment:

  • Avoid Triggers: Some potential seizure triggers include loud noises, chemical cleaners, perfumes/oils, flickering lights, stress, and over-stimulation. Try to limit your dog’s exposure to anything that seems to trigger their seizures.
  • Monitored Outdoor Time: Don’t leave your dog unsupervised outside, as a seizure could cause them to wander off or get injured. Supervise them when outdoors and bring them inside if a seizure occurs.
  • Establish a Routine: Having a consistent daily schedule can be calming and reduce anxiety for dogs prone to seizures. Feed them at the same times each day, walk them on a regular schedule, and minimize abrupt changes.
  • Proper Rest: Make sure your dog gets adequate sleep and rest time. Lack of sleep may lower their seizure threshold. Allow them to sleep in a quiet, comfortable area without disruptions.
  • ID Tag: Have your dog wear a tag or implant stating they have a seizure disorder, with your phone number. This could alert others if a seizure happens away from home.
  • dog with id tag for seizures

  • Pet-Proof: Block stairs, remove area rugs, and pad hard furniture/edges in your home. This helps prevent injury if a seizure occurs.

With lifestyle adjustments and diligent supervision, you can help create the best environment for a dog prone to seizures.

Long Term Outlook

With proper treatment, dogs with epilepsy can often live a relatively normal life. According to a study from the University of California, the median lifespan for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy was 9.2 years, compared to 7.6 years for all dogs [1]. While epilepsy can shorten a dog’s life expectancy, treatment helps manage seizures and improves quality of life.

Anti-epileptic medications allow many dogs to have fewer and less severe seizures. With medication, some dogs can go into remission and be seizure-free. However, only an estimated 6-8% of epileptic dogs will achieve complete remission without requiring ongoing treatment [2]. For most dogs, medication is a lifelong necessity for controlling seizures.

While epilepsy can’t be cured, the prognosis is often good with proper veterinary care and medication. Most dogs with well-managed epilepsy can live happy lives without disability or impact on quality of life. Close monitoring and consistent treatment are key for optimizing an epileptic dog’s health and longevity.

When to Seek Help

There are certain seizure situations where you should seek immediate veterinary assistance:

  • Status epilepticus – This is when a seizure lasts more than 5 minutes or seizures occur one after another without the dog fully recovering in between. This is an emergency situation that requires immediate veterinary care to stop the seizures and prevent brain damage or death.
  • Cluster seizures – When multiple seizures occur within a short span of time, such as a few hours. Even if they are shorter seizures, the clustering and frequency indicates a serious underlying problem.
  • Injuries sustained – If the dog injures themselves during the seizure, such as biting their tongue or falling down stairs, seek help for any significant injuries.
  • Loss of function – Inability to walk or function normally after the seizure may indicate neurological damage and requires prompt veterinary attention.

In these urgent situations, call your veterinarian or emergency vet clinic right away. Try to time the seizure durations, document any injuries, and monitor consciousness level before and after seizures. Prompt veterinary care can help stabilize your dog and avoid lasting harm.

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