Understanding and managing seizures in dogs

June 21, 2024 - 8 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Dr. Rebecca MacMillan on June 21, 2024 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

Close up photo of an old gray-haired dachshund resting his head on the floor

Key points:

  • Seizures in dogs can be caused by genetics, medical conditions, toxins, and dietary imbalances.

  • Recognize symptoms like convulsions and twitching, and respond by moving hazards out of your pet's way and timing the length of the seizure.

  • Depending on the cause of the seizures, treatment may include medications like phenobarbital and potassium bromide.

  • With proper management and veterinary care, many dogs with seizures (even recurrent ones) can live happy lives.

Watching your dog have a seizure can be a scary and confusing experience.

By learning about the causes, recognizing the signs, and exploring treatment options, you can better manage this condition and help your furry friend live a happy life.

Let's dive into everything you need to know to keep your dog safe and healthy!

Brown English Bulldog lying down looking up into the camera

What is a seizure?

A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled burst of electrical activity in the brain that disrupts normal brain function. It can cause convulsions, twitching, staring spells, or a temporary loss of awareness.

Seizures can be brief, lasting only a few seconds, or more prolonged, potentially indicating a medical emergency.

Explain it to me like I'm five:

Imagine that your dog's brain is a big orchestra.

Each musician (or neuron) plays either loudly (excitatory) or softly (inhibitory), and when they play together in the right balance, the music (signals) sounds perfect.

Sometimes, though, too many musicians might play too loudly at once, causing a big, noisy mess—that's like a seizure.

Want to get deeper into the science? The Canine Epilepsy Project is a fantastic resource.

What causes seizures in dogs?

A close up of a Basset hound dog's face on a light pink-beige background

Dogs can have seizures for various reasons, ranging from genetic predispositions to environmental factors.

Here are a few of the most commonly studied.


Portrait of a golden English Cocker Spaniel looking up with a soft expression against a plain beige background.

Some dog breeds are genetically predisposed to seizures.

Researchers are racing to figure out what makes a breed prone to developing a condition and which breeds are most susceptible.

According to Cornell's Canine Health Center, some of the most vulnerable breeds include:

Interestingly, Cornell also states that some breeds, including German Shepherds, Border Collies, Irish Setters, Golden Retrievers, Siberian Huskies, Keeshonds, and Saint Bernards, are prone to having more "difficult" or prolonged seizures than others.

While you can't shield your purebred from every possible accident or illness, you can start by buying from a reputable breeder who doesn't breed dogs with any known health issues.

A pile of Golden Retriever puppies

And if you do have a breed that might be prone to seizures, it's a good idea to be aware of the signs (below) so you know what to do if they have one.

Medical conditions

Vet dog eye exam

Sometimes, the root cause of a seizure isn't actually related to a brain disorder but rather another health condition.

Some diseases that might trigger seizures include:

  • Liver disease

  • Kidney failure

  • Insulinomas (a tumor that releases excessive amounts of insulin, causing abnormally low blood sugar)

  • Brain tumors or other structural abnormalities

  • Some infections (like distemper)

The bad news? Some of these diseases can be deadly serious, especially if they're not dealt with early on.

The good news? If your dog's seizures are rooted in one of these conditions and they're successfully treated or medically managed, they may never experience a seizure again.

Toxin exposure

Dog sitting in an apartment and looking at an aloe vera plant

Exposure to toxins can impact a dog's neurological health and potentially trigger seizures. Some well-documented environmental toxins include:

  1. Pesticides: Certain pesticides, such as organophosphates and carbamates, can cause neurological damage, leading to seizures. Dogs exposed to these substances might exhibit symptoms like tremors, convulsions, and loss of coordination.

  2. Rodenticides: Chemicals used in rodenticides, particularly bromethalin, can lead to severe neurological symptoms, including seizures, if ingested by dogs.

  3. Heavy metals: Exposure to heavy metals like lead and mercury has been linked to seizures in dogs. These metals can be found in contaminated water, old paint, or certain household products​.

  4. Household chemicals: Common household items such as antifreeze (ethylene glycol), certain cleaning agents, and even some air fresheners can be toxic to dogs and lead to seizures.

  5. Plants: Some plants, such as sago palm and castor beans, contain toxins that can induce seizures when ingested by dogs.

Diet and nutritional imbalances

Dog laying on the floor next to opened chocolate bar

Certain dietary factors and nutritional imbalances can also play a significant role in triggering seizures in dogs.

  1. Chocolate: Contains theobromine, which is toxic to dogs and can cause seizures along with other symptoms like vomiting and diarrhea.

  2. Caffeine: Similar to chocolate, caffeine is a stimulant that can lead to seizures in dogs if consumed in significant amounts.

  3. Xylitol: This artificial sweetener, found in many sugar-free products, can cause a rapid release of insulin in dogs, leading to hypoglycemia and seizures.

  4. High salt intake: Excessive salt intake can lead to sodium ion poisoning, which manifests as seizures and other neurological symptoms.

  5. Nutritional imbalances: Deficiencies or excesses in certain nutrients, particularly calcium and glucose, can lead to seizures. Hypocalcemia (low calcium levels) and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels) are common triggers.

Always keep coffee and chocolate out of your pup's reach (beware holiday candy hauls, especially if you have kids), and check out our database on safe vs. unsafe foods for pups if you're wondering whether you can treat your pup to human foods.


Happy brown and white mixed breed dog with a large tongue hanging out, showing clean teeth, while being held on a leash by a person with blue gloves.

If your dog has recurrent seizures, they may be diagnosed with "epilepsy," which is actually the most common neurologic disease in dogs. Your dog's epilepsy may be dubbed "idiopathic," which means your vet hasn't pinned down a specific cause.

"Idiopathic epilepsy" is the most common type of epilepsy. It's defined as "two or more unprovoked seizures at least 24 hours apart with no identifiable underlying etiology other than a suspected genetic origin."

Treatment for idiopathic epilepsy should reduce seizure frequency to a manageable level. Seizures may not be eliminated altogether with medication, meaning that your dog may still have the odd episode.

The main aim is to ensure that your pet has a good quality of life for as long as possible. Some dogs can be well-managed for many years, but epilepsy can have a negative impact on your pet’s lifespan, especially if seizures are not well controlled. 

Types of seizures in dogs

The Merck Veterinary Manual provides a detailed classification of the types of seizures that dogs can experience.

Seizure term What it looks like
Generalized seizures Generalized seizures include both "grand mal" and "petit mal" seizures. Grand mal seizures are typically dramatic with full-body convulsions and loss of consciousness, while petit mal seizures are less severe, characterized by brief lapses in attention or minor physical movements.
Focal (partial) seizures Often manifests as unusual movements or behaviors such as twitching, head shaking, and repeated motions.
Psychomotor seizures Symptoms can include twitching or jerking of a specific muscle group, such as facial muscles or one limb, and behaviors like fly-biting (snapping at the air) or sudden behavioral changes.
Cluster seizures This condition involves multiple seizures occurring within a short period, usually 24 hours. Immediate veterinary attention is required to prevent the progression to status epilepticus.
Status epilepticus (prolonged seizures) A medical emergency where a seizure lasts more than five minutes or multiple seizures occur without recovery between them. This condition can lead to permanent brain damage or death and requires urgent veterinary intervention.

What does a dog seizure look like?

Recognizing the signs of a seizure can help you respond quickly and effectively.

Pre-seizure signs

small yellow dog hiding under furniture

Before a seizure, your dog may show any of the following signs:

During a seizure

Golden retriever resting on the living room floor

During a seizure, you may see the following:

  • Collapsing

  • Convulsions

  • Excessive drooling

  • Loss of bladder and bowel control

  • Paddling limbs

  • Temporary unconsciousness

Post-seizure behavior

cocker spaniel puppy sitting and leaning against a gray sofa

After a seizure, dogs often experience a period of confusion, disorientation, and weakness.

This post-ictal phase can last from minutes to hours, and your dog might need extra care and comfort.

Can you stop a dog's seizure immediately?

Unfortunately, you cannot stop a dog's seizure immediately once it has started. However, you can help ensure their safety during the episode. More on that next.

What to do if your dog has a seizure

Akita inu puppy near puddle on blue rug at home

If your dog is having a seizure, don't panic! While you can't just snap your fingers and stop a seizure, there are a few things you can do.

  1. Move any objects that could potentially harm your dog away from their immediate area.

  2. Dim the lights to help reduce seizure intensity 

  3. Time the seizure. If your dog's seizure lasts longer than five minutes or they have three seizures in a day, call your vet or head to an emergency vet hospital immediately.

  4. Avoid touching your dog's mouth, as they might unintentionally bite.

  5. Speak softly and reassuringly to your dog, and keep a close eye on them until the seizure ends.

And as always, call your vet as soon as you can (even during the seizure) for their advice.

When are dogs most likely to have a seizure?

adult Cocker Spaniel dog lying on warm floor indoors

While we might assume that dogs are more likely to have seizures when they're overstimulated, it's actually the opposite, according to Dennis O'Brien, DVM, PhD Diplomate, ACVIM.

Your dog's most prone to having a seizure when they're totally relaxed—even sound asleep. If your dog tends to have seizures when they're excited or exercising, it could indicate an underlying health condition related to their heart or blood sugar.

However, in many cases, there is no pattern for when a seizure might occur.

Treatment options for seizures

A nervous Jack Russell is calmed by a female veterinarian in an animal hospital prior to a surgical procedure.

The management of seizures in dogs typically involves a combination of medications, dietary changes, and sometimes alternative therapies.


For emergency/acute seizure control, your vet might use benzodiazepines such as diazepam and midazolam. These drugs quickly stop seizures by enhancing the calming effects of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain.

For recurring seizures, phenobarbital and potassium bromide are commonly used as first-line treatments. Phenobarbital stabilizes brain activity, while potassium bromide alters chloride transport to reduce "neuronal excitability."

golden retriever taking a medication from human hand

Typically, the latter drugs are prescribed when your dog is actually diagnosed with epilepsy, not if they have a single episode. Your dog will need to take them orally at regular intervals every day.

However, medications like these can come with some side effects that require careful monitoring. So how does a vet make the call?

Dr. O'Brien explains this decision-making process well:

Any decision to begin a therapy involves weighing the risk of not treating the disease against the risk of side effects of the medication. Many factors weigh into this decision [to start medication], but in general, if a pet is having more than one seizure every couple months, risk of brain damage and worsening of the epilepsy tips the scales toward treating. If the pet has had clusters of seizures or status epilepticus, then we are very concerned about the risk of a life threatening seizure as well. Other factors we take into consideration include the general health of the pet, the home environment, and economic considerations.

Thankfully, new drugs like levetiracetam (Keppra) and zonisamide are gaining popularity due to their effectiveness and minimal side effects. But every drug comes with potential downsides.

Your vet can discuss whether or not medications would be right for your dog. Don't be afraid to ask questions!

Dietary Changes

Nutrition and weight can play a crucial role in helping to control seizures.

Your vet might recommend you switch to a "medium-chain triglyceride (MCT)" diet or use an MCT supplement, which contains special fats called medium-chain triglycerides that are easier for the body to use than regular fats.

(Here's an example of a prescription food that contains MCT, and here's an MCT oil supplement.)

If your dog's on medication, you'll need to keep a close eye on their diet with your vet's help. Some meds, like potassium bromide, can be less effective if your pup gets too much sodium.

And weight gain is a big deal for medication dosing, too—if your dog gains weight (even a few pounds), it can reduce the effectiveness of their drugs.


CBD oil is being researched as a potential adjunctive treatment for epilepsy in dogs.

Initial studies have shown a reduction in seizure frequency in some dogs treated with CBD oil compared to placebo groups.

However, more research is needed to fully understand its efficacy and safety, and many CBD products are unregulated​. As always, ask your vet before you try CBD on your pup!

Vagal nerve stimulation and acupuncture

Vagal nerve stimulation involves using a small device implanted under the skin to send electrical pulses to the vagus nerve, which can help reduce seizure activity.

Acupuncture involves inserting thin needles into specific points on the body to improve energy flow and reduce seizures.

Both of these options are being explored as alternative treatments for managing epilepsy in dogs, but they're still being studied. If you're interested, ask your vet before you make an appointment!

Should you put a dog down if it has seizures?

Many dogs with epilepsy live happy, fulfilling lives with proper treatment and care.

If seizures are infrequent and manageable with medication, the outlook can be good. However, if the seizures are severe and frequent and treatments aren't working, euthanasia might be a humane option.

Always discuss your dog's situation with your vet to explore all possible treatments before making any decisions!

And by the way, in cases like these, it's wonderful not to have to worry that the cost of care will impact your decision.

Pet insurance can help you pay for unexpected accidents, illnesses, and even the cost of medications to treat conditions like epilepsy*. Learn more.

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Living with a dog with recurrent seizures

Living with a dog that has seizures involves careful management and ongoing support.

Home care tips

Creating a safe environment is crucial for dogs with seizures. Remove sharp objects and hazards, and provide a comfortable, quiet space for recovery. Keep a seizure diary to track frequency, duration, and triggers to share with your vet.

Long-term management

Long-term management of seizures involves regular veterinary check-ups, medication adjustments, and monitoring your dog's overall health. Stay vigilant for any changes in behavior or health that might indicate issues.

Support and resources

Living with a dog that has seizures can be challenging, but you're not alone. Many online forums, support groups, and resources can provide valuable information and support. Your veterinarian can also offer guidance and answer any questions you may have.

By understanding and managing seizures in dogs, you can help your pet lead a happy, healthy life. Regular veterinary care, a safe environment, and appropriate treatments are key to handling this condition effectively.

And finally, consider exploring buying a dog insurance policy. Pet insurance is designed to reimburse you for covered accidents and illnesses. But keep in mind that no insurance covers pre-existing conditions, so you'll want to get your pup covered ASAP (before those conditions emerge). Learn more now!

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*pre-existing conditions excluded. See your policy for details.

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.