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Why Do Dogs Get Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is the general term for a disorder found in dogs (as well as humans and other animals) that results in seizures. The seizures are involuntary spasms of the skeletal muscles that can cause complete loss of control and sometimes unconsciousness. If they occur repeatedly and have no obvious cause, the condition is called “idiopathic epilepsy“. 

This can be frightening for a dog owner. Fortunately, medical advances in understanding and treating human epilepsy have proved useful in veterinary medicine as well. We have a much better understanding of the causes of epilepsy and its treatment.

Seizures are the result of erratic electrical activity in the brain. They vary greatly in seriousness, length, and frequency, but are generally caused by either a genetic condition or a trauma to the brain. Some traumas may involve immediate physical injuries (like a blow to the head), while others result from temporary chemical imbalances due to low blood sugar or poisoning. (Chocolate, pesticides, and lead are common culprits.)

Less common, though still worthy of concern, are seizures caused by previously unknown food allergies or psychological factors. These could be implicated if a seizure immediately follows a sudden change in diet or a period of great stress.

Although most non-inherited cases of epilepsy are temporary, there are some cases of chronic, long-term seizures unrelated to genetics. “Idiopathic” simply means “without an obvious physical cause,” so chronic (but not idiopathic) epilepsy can arise from such factors as scar tissue that developed around old injuries, chronic thyroid or calcium imbalance, brain tumors, parasites, and many diseases, including distemper and encephalitis.

These are all very serious concerns, and the dog should be examined by a vet as soon as possible. Non-hereditary causes are most likely in dogs that experience their first seizure after age 5. They are also slightly more common in male dogs.

Hereditary seizures account for 80% of all cases of canine epilepsy. This type of epilepsy is an inherited genetic condition that can’t be cured. It can, however, be managed. Idiopathic epilepsy is usually the diagnosis for dogs between 6 months and 5 years who have had more than one incident within the week in which the seizures first appeared.

Epilepsies of this sort are slightly more common in female dogs, and especially prevalent in certain breeds. Because breed standards are so exacting, purebred dogs of a particular type will often share many of the same genetic characteristics, including (in some breeds) hereditary diseases like epilepsy.

Unfortunately, epilepsy turns up in several of the most popular and recognizable dog breeds, including Dachshunds, Poodles, Beagles, Collies, and Dalmatians, as well as Labrador and Golden Retrievers. Other dog breeds with a high risk of idiopathic epilepsy are Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Irish Setters, German Shepherds, Belgian Tervurens, Keeshonds, Schnauzers, and St. Bernards.

The potential for epilepsy should be considered when you look for a new dog, but it shouldn’t discourage a prospective owner from choosing an attractive breed. Medication and therapy have made it possible for epileptic dogs to live a full and happy life.

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