11 Vital Facts about Dog Epilepsy: causes, treatment + life expectancy

Having a dog with epilepsy can be a really scary, upsetting thing.  Especially when you're watching your dog having a seizure.

Today I want to give you nine facts about epilepsy in dogs that I believe every owner should know.  Hopefully they'll help you to understand your dogs epilepsy better and help to put your mind at ease.


What causes epilepsy?

There are lots of different causes of seizures in dogs.  My first fact about epilepsy is that what we call idiopathic epilepsy (or true epilepsy) is a condition in dogs where we don't actually understand the exact cause.  Idiopathic simply means the cause is unknown.

Despite this unknown cause, what epilepsy results in is abnormal electrical activity within the brain.  I liken it to like a short circuit where the normal conections and amount of electricity become abnormal for a period of time.  It is this abnormal electrical activity which results in epileptic seizures.

Genetics play a role

Epilepsy is a relatively common disease, affecting about 1-in-200 dogs.

My second epilepsy fact though is that genetics does play a role with certain breeds more likely to develop this disease.  For example, Border Terriers and German Shepherds are 2.7 times and 1.9 times more likely to be epileptic than cross-breeds.  On the other hand Westie's are 2.5 times less likely to be epileptic.

Anecdotally, certain lines within breeds also seem more likely to develop epilepsy. This is definitely something to consider if you're looking at getting a dog whose parents have had epilepsy, or if you've got a young dog with epilepsy that you were thinking of breeding.  One suggestion would be that that might not be the best idea because their puppies may be more likely to also develop epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a multi-factorial disease but an individuals genetic makeup can definitely contribute and be one cause of epilepsy.

When does epilepsy develop?

There are a number of different causes of seizures in dogs.  Epilepsy is just one.  The age at which seizures start can give a clue to what the underlying cause is.

Epilepsy in dogs typically develops between about six months and five years of age.

1-in-200 dogs will develop epilepsy. There are lots of different causes of seizures in dogs. Epilepsy typically develops between 6 months and 5 years of age

This means that an epileptic dog will have their first seizure between these ages. If your dog has their first seizure when they are very much younger or older than this then the chances are it's not truly idiopathic epilepsy.  They may be fitting for another reason.  A dog who starts fitting within this window may also be a result of another condition but epilepsy remains a possible diagnosis.

When to start treatment of epilepsy

If your dog has had a single seizure they do not automatically have to start treatment.  It may be that it is a one-off or they only have a few that never progress to become a more regular event.

There are no hard and fast rules about when epilepsy treatment should be started.  this will vary for every dog and their family situation.  That said The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine has produced a consensus statement recommending that the treatment of seizures (from all causes) should be started if:

  • There is an identified structural lesion

  • Prior history of brain disease or injury

  • Any seizure lasts for over 5 minutes

  • There are 3 or more seizures in 24 hours

  • There are over 2 seizure events within 6 months

  • Recovery from seizures is very long or unusual

Treatment may not prevent all seizures

The treatment that we give our dogs to reduce their seizures is doing just that.  Treatment expectation is generally to reduce the frequency and reduce the severity of a dogs seizures.  It is unrealistic to expect complete elimination of all fitting.

This is because giving the really high doses that may be needed to eliminate all seizures could result in some very severe side effects.  In other cases no matter the amount of drug given, seizures would never stop completely.  That said, a small proportion of dogs will actually be seizure free once they're started on medication.

If your dog continues to have the odd, minor seizure after starting treatment then that is to be expected.  It doesn't mean that the medication is not working.  If however the seizures are taking place at a really high frequency, or if they are lasting a long time and recovery is prolonged it may be time to reassess the diagnosis, treatment plan or both.

Treatment can take time to start working

Some of the drugs that we give to treat epilepsy can take some time to start working to begin with.  There are a number of different treatment options to consider that your vet may discuss with you.  Some anti-seizure medication is licensed and it is generally these drugs that are used in the first instance.  If these do not help enough then they may be combined or other human (unlicensed) drugs may be trialed.

Which drug your dog starts off taking will depend on many things including seizure severety and frequency, cost, availability and individual vet familiarity.

Early side effects are common

Depending on the drug that's being given, very often at the start of treatment the incidence of mild side effects is common.  This might be an increase in thirst or urinating more.  It can also be a significant increase in appetite, you dog might seem hungry all the time.  Some dogs also become pretty wobbly and unsteady on their feet.

Thankfully, in most instances, the vast majority of dogs only experience mild side effects which go away quickly once the body becomes used to having the drug in the system.

If high doses of drugs are needed to control the epilepsy then the risk of side effects does become a little bit higher.  In particular, some drugs can affect liver function and can cause damage to the liver.  It's for this reason that we'll often recommend blood testing to check that the level of the drug in the blood is correct and also ensure no hidden damage is being done.

Not all seizures in dogs are an emergency

Seizures in an epileptic dog are actually only an emergency if they're lasting for more than about five minutes, or if your dog is having several seizures in a row and they're not really recovering properly in between.

Seizures that fall into these categories though are termed status epilepticus.  This means that the electrical activity in the brain has got to such a level that it has the potential to cause some long-term damage.

75% of owners feel their epileptic dog has a good quality of life and the life expectancy of a dog with epilepsy is 4 to 12 years

Most seizures though will be short, typically lasting between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.  I know when you are watching your dog have a seizure though even this short time can stretch on forever.  It is not however an emergency and I have written separately on what to do when your dog has a seizure.

Don't suddenly stop epilepsy meds

Stopping or missing a couple of doses of medication can actually precipitate seizures in your dog.  Consistency is important.  In the vast majority of epileptic dogs, treatment will be required for their entire life.

There is a small subset of dogs though who effectively seem to go into remission.  If the decision is made to try and stop their medication then it is important that this is only carried out under the direction and supervision of your vet.

The last thing we would want to do would be to cause a dog to have a serious seizure by suddenly taking away their medication.

Quality of life is maintained

One of the big concerns we have as owners of epileptic dogs is that their quality of life will suffer.  Well, in one survey 75% of owners felt that their dog had a quality of life of 8/10 or above.  This same survey then suggested that at the same time 60% felt that epilepsy did have an impact on their dogs quality of life.

One of the big concerns however is in the quality of life of you, the owner of an epileptic dog.  It is clear that many owners do suffer anxiety and feel that they need to make significant alterations to their lifestyle to accommodate their epileptic dog.

Coping with a dog who is unwell for any reason can be demanding.  It is important that you develop strategies to help you cope and this is something I have written about here on ourpetshealth.com.  My aim is to help your pet AND yourself live a healthier, happier life.

Dog epilepsy life expectancy

The final (or sometimes first) question you might have is what is the life expectancy of a dog with epilepsy?  One study may answer this and broke our epileptic dogs into two groups.

Those who are euthanized because of their epilepsy tend to live to about 4 years of age.  It doesn't seem like the character of seizure a dog is having impacts the decision to euthanize a dog because they have epilepsy.  It is much more likely to be related to individual family factors and how well the dog appears to be coming with the condition and treatment.

One really important fact is that most epileptic dogs are otherwise completely normal between seizure episodes.

In those dogs however where the cause of death or euthanasia was due to something other than their epilepsy, their life expectancy rose dramatically to 12 years of age.  This is clearly much more encouraging!

11 vital facts about dog epilepsy

I hope these facts and discussions about epilepsy in dogs helps you understand and make managing your dogs epilepsy a little easier.  If you have any questions, comments or stories then please leave me a comment below.

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