Epilepsy in dogs: symptoms, treatment, and managing care

4 July 2024 - 5 min read

Epilepsy, a neurological disorder characterised by seizures, affects dozens of species, from humans to birds. The condition is also the most common neurological disorder in dogs—a fact that many pet parents first discover only after they’ve seen their furry friend in the grips of an epileptic episode.

Here’s the good news: with dedicated veterinary care and the right medication plan, it's very possible for dogs with epilepsy to lead joyful, fulfilling lives. Let’s dive in. 

What's epilepsy in dogs?

Epilepsy is a brain disorder that causes dogs to have unexpected, uncontrolled seizures. These seizures can vary widely in both frequency and intensity.

The condition is generally classified into two main types:

  • primary (idiopathic) epilepsy, which has no identifiable cause and is often believed to be inherited

  • acquired epilepsy, where there's an underlying cause such as a brain tumour or injury.

Types of epilepsy in dogs Cause
Primary (idiopathic) epilepsy No identifiable cause, potentially hereditary
Acquired epilepsy Potentially caused by a brain tumor, injury, environmental factors, exposure to toxins, etc.

Symptoms of epilepsy in dogs

Dog Barking

Symptoms of epilepsy in a dog can be mild, such as brief moments of confusion or staring. But they can also be much more severe, involving intense shaking and loss of consciousness.

Some dogs may exhibit pre-seizure behaviour, known as an “aura,” where they appear restless, whine, or seek out their owner. It can also take dogs a while to recover from a seizure, during which time they may be disoriented, unsteady on their feet, and sluggish.

Here’s what you should look out for:

  • Pre-seizure signs (Aura): dogs may exhibit changes in behaviour or mood just before a seizure occurs. This can include appearing restless, anxious, or seeking comfort from their owner.

  • Types of seizures: seizures can be generalised, affecting the whole body, or focal, affecting only one part of the body or one side. They can also start as focal seizures and then become generalised.

Here are some detailed symptoms during a seizure:

  • Convulsions: The most recognisable sign involving uncontrollable muscle movements. Dogs may fall over and paddle their legs as if swimming.

  • Staring: Some dogs may simply stare off into space and be unresponsive to their surroundings.

  • Unusual behaviour: Biting at invisible “flies,” tail-chasing and other odd behaviours can be caused by seizure disorders.

  • Vocalisation: Whining, barking, or howling can occur, even if the dog is generally quiet.

  • Drooling or foaming at the mouth: This can be a sign of a more intense seizure.

  • Involuntary urination or defecation: This can occur during a seizure due to a loss of body control.

  • Loss of consciousness: Dogs may collapse and be unable to wake up or respond.

  • Post-seizure behaviour (postictal phase): After a seizure, dogs may seem disoriented, confused, or temporarily blind. They may also exhibit excessive thirst or hunger.

Understanding these signs and symptoms can help pet owners respond appropriately during and after their dog’s seizures. If you think your dog has had a seizure and it’s their first one, get them in to see their veterinarian.

The doctor will need to look for underlying causes. It’s also important to keep a detailed record of each subsequent seizure, noting its duration, symptoms, and any potential triggers. This information is invaluable for veterinarians in diagnosing and treating epilepsy effectively.

What causes epilepsy in dogs?

When it comes to epilepsy in dogs, pinpointing the exact cause can be challenging. Idiopathic epilepsy, the most common form, is often genetic, with certain breeds being more predisposed to the condition. 

On the other hand, acquired epilepsy results from identifiable issues such as brain tumours, injuries, or infections. Environmental factors and exposure to toxins can also play a role in triggering seizures.

The diagnosis of epilepsy is a thorough process that begins with a detailed medical history and a physical and neurological examination. Veterinarians may recommend a variety of tests, including lab work, to rule out conditions that could cause seizures. Advanced imaging techniques, such as MRI scans, are crucial for identifying structural brain abnormalities, while an EEG (electroencephalogram) can assess electrical activity in the brain.

Early diagnosis is key to managing epilepsy effectively. By identifying the condition as early as possible, pet owners can work closely with their veterinarians to develop a management plan that minimises the impact of seizures on their dog's life.

How is epilepsy treated in dogs?

To manage your dog’s epilepsy, your vet will focus on treating any underlying conditions that are present and reducing the frequency and severity of seizures. While there's no known cure for primary epilepsy, the condition can often be managed effectively with medication, lifestyle adjustments, and supportive care.

Seizure medications

Medications such as phenobarbital and potassium bromide are commonly prescribed to control seizures. These drugs aim to reduce the occurrence of seizures, but they do come with potential side effects, which makes regular monitoring by a veterinarian crucial. Adjustments to the medication dosage or type may be necessary based on the dog's response and any side effects. Other, more expensive medications are available if a dog doesn’t respond well to phenobarbital and potassium bromide.

Diet and lifestyle changes

Some studies suggest that a ketogenic diet, high in fat and low in carbohydrates, may help reduce seizure frequency in some dogs, though more research is needed. Maintaining a consistent routine, avoiding known seizure triggers, and ensuring the dog has a stress-free environment can also help.

Pet owners need to work closely with their vet to tailor a treatment plan to a dog's specific needs. This collaborative approach will help your dog lead their most comfortable life. 

How to care for an epileptic dog

A cartoon illustration of an owner on facetime to a vet while stroking her dog

Caring for a dog with epilepsy involves more than just managing their physical health; it also involves providing a supportive and understanding home environment.

Keep a dog seizure diary

Keeping a detailed seizure diary is invaluable. Note the date, time, duration, and characteristics of each seizure. This information can help your veterinarian make informed decisions about your dog's treatment plan. In addition, understanding the warning signs of an impending seizure can help you prepare. 

Administer seizure medications consistently

Above all else, make sure your dog takes their medication without fail. Missed doses can lead to breakthrough seizures, so be sure to establish an ironclad routine for administering their medications. If your dog is reluctant to take pills, try hiding them in a favourite treat or using a pill dispenser designed for dogs.

Seizure-proof your home

To make sure your dog isn’t injured during a potential seizure, you can take steps to make your home a safe place. Clear areas around your home of anything that could harm your dog, such as sharp objects or sharp furniture they could bump into. You can even use items such as corner protectors and edge guards to cushion sharp edges, much as you would with a child.

Stay calm during episodes

If your dog does experience a seizure, stay calm and move your dog to a safe location, but avoid placing your hands near their mouth, as they may inadvertently bite. Most seizures aren’t dangerous in and of themselves.

However, get your dog to a veterinarian immediately if they have:

  • a seizure that lasts for more than five minutes

  • seizures that occur so closely together that your dog can’t fully recover in between

  • more than two seizures in 24 hours

Regular veterinary check-ups are vital for monitoring your dog's condition and adjusting their treatment as needed. 

How much does it cost to care for an epileptic dog?

dog carrying a stethoscope in its mouthCaring for a dog with epilepsy involves various expenses, from diagnostic tests to ongoing treatment and medication. The initial phase of diagnosing epilepsy can be particularly costly, as it may include comprehensive blood work, MRI scans, and consultations with veterinary specialists. These diagnostic tests are critical for developing an effective treatment plan, but they can add up quickly.

Once a diagnosis is made, the cost of medication becomes a regular expense. The price can vary depending on the type of medication prescribed and the dosage required for your dog's specific condition. In addition to medication, regular veterinary check-ups are necessary to monitor the dog's health, adjust medications as needed, and manage any potential side effects. Emergency care for seizures, especially if hospitalization is required, can also contribute to the overall cost of managing epilepsy in dogs. 

How pet insurance can help

Dog insurance can help you prepare for medical conditions like epilepsy.


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David Teich
Lead Content Editor

David Teich is Lead Content Editor at ManyPets. He loves pets, Scrabble, Oxford commas, and typing loudly.