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The Most Common Types of Canine Seizures

Dog owners must sometimes contend with canine seizure disorders, which can be frightening and confusing. Seizure disorders, generally known as “epilepsy,” fit into two major groups: idiopathic (also called “primary” or “true” epilepsy) and secondary. 

The Two General Types of Epilepsy

Idiopathic epilepsy is the most common. It’s an inherited condition, while secondary epilepsy can have a wide range of causes. Both can cause seizures (involuntary contractions of the skeletal muscles), which are described below. 

Unfortunately, primary epilepsy is prevalent in some of the most common and beloved dog breeds, such as Beagles, Dachshunds, Collies, Cocker Spaniels, Dalmatians, and Golden and Labrador Retrievers. Scientists are not entirely sure how primary epilepsy develops, but it appears to be caused by faulty electrical signals in the brain, and may result from cross-breeding to maintain purebred bloodlines. It is most common in purebreds under five years and lasts for life, although it can be effectively treated.

Secondary epilepsy, on the other hand, can develop in dogs of any age and can be chronic or temporary. Seizures caused by anything except genetically inherited conditions are considered secondary epilepsy, so they can have many sources. The range of causes may include physical damage to the brain, brain tumors, thyroid disorders, poisoning (pesticides, chocolate, or lead, for example), and infections.

The Various Kinds of Seizures 

Both the primary and secondary forms of epilepsy are characterized by the same array of seizure types.

The most common is the “Generalized Seizure,” which in humans is known as “Grand Mal.” These seizures involve loss of control over the entire body and often unconsciousness.

Less common and less serious is the “Focal Seizure” (also called “Petit Mal” or “Partial Seizure”), which involves the loss of function in a single isolated area and little or no loss of consciousness. The “Complex Partial Seizure” is a type of Focal Seizure that results in a recurring behavior: the dog will remain conscious but behaves in a disturbing or repetitive manner. This may include aggression, jaw-snapping, compulsive scratching, or hysterical barking and running. In people, this type of seizure may be expressed in the form of hallucinations and extreme anxiety.

Some types of seizure can be more frequent or longer lasting. “Cluster Seizures” occur when a dog experiences multiple seizures (usually of the Generalized type) within a short period of time. This is usually defined as more than three seizures in a single 24-hour period. If a dog seems to be suffering from continual seizures without regaining consciousness or muscle control, this is called “Status Epilepticus.” Either is a sign of extremely serious problems that require immediate attention.

Although serious and frightening for owners, seizures are not a death sentence. Both types of epilepsy and all types of seizures are cause for concern, but they are not necessarily cause for despair. Idiopathic epilepsy is quite manageable, and secondary epilepsy is often caused by other factors that are treatable or temporary.

Properly cared for, a dog with these conditions can still live a normal life. Speedy attention from a veterinarian is the critical factor.