Why does my dog get fits?

When your dog has a fit, it can be a very scary time. You don’t know what to do, how you can help or why it is happening. In most cases, seizures are short – from the earliest signs to complete resolution will usually be less than 2 hours; the fit itself should be less than 2 minutes. You may notice behavioural changes that occur leading up to a fit, allowing you to predict when they are going to happen but do not panic. Below are a few of our tips to help increase the safety during the course of a fit, to help explain why these fits might be happening and to reduce your anxiety throughout the process.

Common reasons for fits

There are many reasons for dogs having fits (also widely referred to as convulsions and seizures). The most common is idiopathic epilepsy. This happens when there are imbalances in the amounts of neurotransmitters in the brain, leading to an “electrical storm”. Generally, this overexcitement of neurotransmitters is caused by a specific stimulus, but with idiopathic epilepsy it can be caused by anything. The exact causes are unknown, but there seems to be a strong genetic component. In dogs, this is by far the most common cause of fitting disorders.

Eating toxins or poisonous substances can affect the balance of activity within the brain by preventing certain pathways from working normally. Toxic substances causing these effects include: anti-freeze products, slug and snail bait and some spot-on flea product if used in massive overdose, or in the wrong species (e.g. permethrin in cats). Many others exist and some adverse reactions may result in fitting. Different toxins have different pathways, but should your dog eat any of these things, you should seek veterinary attention immediately.

Any issues related to poor circulation of the blood to the brain, or tumours within the brain, can lead to fitting episodes. So underlying diseases affecting the circulation and perfusion of the brain may lead to fits. Likewise, low blood sugar levels (also known as hypoglycaemia) caused by an overdose of insulin, or some types of liver and pancreas disease, can also cause fits as nerve cells are starved of fuel.

If your dog suffers from narcolepsy, a disease where your dog suddenly falls asleep, this can cause fits too, as can electrolyte and mineral imbalances. Different ions (e.g. sodium and calcium) control both muscle contractions and brain activity. Alterations in sodium (e.g. salt poisoning) or calcium (e.g. eclampsia in bitches) and other electrolytes therefore affects the release of neurotransmitters in the brain (causing seizures) and, in some cases, making the muscle contractions uncontrolled (causing twitching or rigidity). The imbalance of ions can be affected by diet, hormonal conditions, energy balance and medication.

How do I know if my pet is having a fit?

There are 3 phases to a fit. The ‘pre-ictal’ phase which occurs immediately before the fit, then the “true” seizure occurs, followed by the ‘post-ictal’ period. During the post-ictal phase, your dog may seem confused, lost, walk around aimlessly, eat and drink more, seem blind and be disorientated.

Your pet will usually appear to have the following symptoms: collapse, very stiff, shaky, jerky muscles (often “paddling” or “jerking”), facial tremors, hyper-salivation (drooling or frothing at the mouth), urinating and passing faeces.

What should I do when my dog is having a fit?

You should then leave your pet to have the fit – any interference may prolong the episode. Try to clear the area around your pet from sharp objects and large obstacles so, as they move around, they will not suffer any traumatic injuries. Do not move the dog, or try to put your hand anywhere near their mouth – they are unaware of what they’re doing and will bite! Fortunately, there is no real risk of them “swallowing their tongue” during a fit.

If possible, videoing the seizure is a good idea as it means you can show the vet exactly what it looked like. However, it is often worth calling us for advice regarding whether a visit is needed. This will be dependant on current medication, health and history.

If a fit lasts more than 2 minutes, or two occur without complete recovery in between, call us IMMEDIATELY. This may be an emergency called status epilepticus which is often fatal without treatment.

Many seizures occur just once but you can never be sure, so you should bring your dog to the vets should a fit occur. Younger dogs are at a higher risk of suffering from severe epilepsy. If your dog has multiple fits within a short period, they could be at risk of suffering from brain damage. Thermoregulation becomes impaired following seizures, which can affect other organs. You should bring them to the clinic as soon as possible.

After your dog has stopped fitting, they will not be aware of what has just happened. They might be very confused and look lost. Do not rush to fuss them when they are in this state. Just allow them to recover peacefully. Recovery can take seconds or up to 24 hours. Keep an eye on them to make sure a second fit does not occur.

Can I prevent my dog from having a fit?

You need to find the underlying cause of the fit. Many fits are stimulated by specific environmental conditions. If you are lucky enough to be able to identify the specific cause, avoid this stimulus as much as possible! Maintaining a routine life, feeding your dog a healthy, balanced and consistent diet will help to reduce the risks of fits.

Longer term, medications are widely used in dogs with a fitting disorder. In the vast majority of cases, with appropriate medical treatment affected dogs can live a long and normal life with only very infrequent episodes.

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