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Old Dog Seizures: Why They Happen and How to Help

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Old Dog Seizures: Why They Happen and How to Help

Dog seizures are scary. They happen suddenly and you might feel helpless and unable to comfort your pet during an episode. While the event may only last for a few seconds, a seizure is a serious health problem. 

As dogs age we know to expect new health problems, but we are never fully prepared. Having information about what is going on can help turn some of the anxiety of having a sick pet into a plan to help your old dog feel better. 

What is a Dog Seizure?

A seizure is a neurologic event where your dog loses the ability to respond. They may collapse and lay stiff or their entire body may shake violently. Often pets will urinate and defecate during a seizure because they lose control of their muscles. 

Other types of seizures may cause abnormal movements or behaviors without affecting the whole body or impairing consciousness. Your pet may be “out of it” or seem tired and abnormal for minutes to hours following a seizure.

Sometimes seizures are difficult to distinguish from fainting. Fainting (syncopy is the medical term) is more often associated with diseases of the heart rather than the brain. Usually a dog who faints will be back up and feeling normal within seconds to minutes. 

Seizures are caused by abnormal electrical activity in a dog’s brain. In aging or older dogs, seizures can be due to a variety of reasons. These include:

  • Pressure on the brain from trauma, a tumor, or abscess
  • Chemical irritation from exposure to a toxin 
  • A metabolic problem
  • Degenerative diseases

Dogs that have recurring seizures may be diagnosed with epilepsy, which is a neurologic disorder characterized by seizures. 

Why is My Old Dog Having Seizures?

old dog on bed

Unfortunately, if your otherwise healthy older dog suddenly develops seizures it is likely that they are caused by increased pressure within the skull from a tumor. The most common type of tumor that causes seizures in older dogs are called meningiomas. These tumors may grow over time and cause other symptoms in addition to seizures. 

Seizures in older dogs can also be caused by toxin exposure or some types of medications. In those cases, seizures should stop after the toxin or medication is fully removed from the body. Some breeds of dogs are more sensitive to certain toxins and medications including Collies, Dobermans, and Boxers.

There are several types of metabolic problems that can lead to seizures in older dogs. These unfortunately often involve dysfunction of another organ such as the liver or kidneys or serious diseases like diabetes. If your older dog’s sudden-onset seizures are also accompanied by other signs of not feeling well, the cause of the seizure could be metabolic. 

Symptoms of Seizures in Senior Dogs

Symptoms associated with seizures in senior and geriatric dogs vary widely. You may notice no other symptoms until the seizure occurs.

As abrupt seizures in senior dogs are often the result of a brain tumor, you may also notice other types of changes associated with the brain including behavioral changes such as changes in personality, agitation, or your dog’s level of fatigue and tiredness.

Physical symptoms associated with epilepsy or seizures in older dogs may include difficulty walking, a head tilt, or pain. 

You may also only notice a urine spot on the rug and your dog being tired if a seizure happens while you are out of the house. This after-effect is called a post-ictal period and it can last from minutes to hours. Dogs may be unable to walk normally, may appear blind, or may not recognize you during this time following a seizure.

General symptoms of seizures in older dogs include:

  • Tiredness (lethargy)
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased thirst
  • Hiding 
  • Head tilt
  • Walking in circles
  • Pain
  • Blindness
  • Urine and feces in the house
  • Changes in personality
  • Aggression
  • Sensitivity to touch

What to Do if Your Senior Dog is Having a Seizure

Woman calling veterinarian

If you see your senior dog having a seizure, it’s a scary moment. But there are things you can do to help your dog through the event and make sure they get the help they need. Follow these steps if your dog is experiencing a seizure. 

Stay calm. If your dog is having a seizure, do your best to keep calm. Staying calm helps you make better decisions. 

Note the time. If you have a watch with a second-hand that is best so that you can determine how long the seizure has been going on. Seconds feel like hours when you are watching your dog have a seizure.

Remove dangerous objects. If your dog is having a seizure that involves shaking or spasming, move all objects from close by that could cause injury. Do NOT put your hand in your dog’s mouth or try to place an object inside the mouth as you are likely to be bitten. 

Call your vet or the emergency clinic. Stay by your dog and call your veterinarian or the local emergency clinic. Hopefully by the time you get on the phone, the seizure has stopped. But if it has not, they can advise you on how to get your dog to the veterinary hospital. Some seizures can go on long enough that they can lead to severe injury or even death. At the veterinary hospital most seizures can be stopped with medication. 

Record a video if possible. If you can, record a video of the seizure to show your veterinarian. This will help in diagnosis and also give you something to do to help you stay calm during your dog’s seizure. Only do this if you are able. 

Keep your dog comfortable following a seizure. After a seizure, during the post-ictal period, keep your senior dog quiet and comfortable. This includes minimizing sounds, lights, and other disturbances until your dog is ready to interact. A seizure takes a lot of energy out of your dog and they may need to nap for a while. That is okay. Just monitor your dog’s breathing to make sure it is regular and rhythmic. Your dog may not be hungry for many hours after a seizure but be sure to offer small amounts of fresh water. 

Get your dog to the veterinarian. Even if the seizure is short or stops, call your veterinarian and schedule an appointment as soon as possible. 

How to Treat Old Dog Seizures

Woman hugging her senior Beagle

The first step of treating seizures in older dogs is to determine the cause of the seizure. Your veterinarian will start with a full physical examination, basic blood work, and urine tests to look. Seizures caused by metabolic issues or exposure to toxins will be treated based on their cause and are unlikely to occur again if the underlying disease is addressed. 

A physical exam may be normal for a dog with seizures or your veterinarian may detect abnormalities that are subtle (like changes in reflexes) or easily identified (a head tilt). These findings tell your veterinarian that the problem is on the head or inside of the skull. 

Next, your veterinarian may recommend X-rays of the chest and abdomen to look for evidence of cancer or may directly refer you for advanced imaging such as a CT Scan or MRI of your dog’s brain. Most veterinary clinics do not have the machinery for advanced imaging and will refer you to the local specialty clinic or the nearest veterinary school’s hospital. 

If imaging reveals a tumor as the cause of the seizure in your senior dog, your veterinarian may recommend surgery. 

Medical treatment of old dog seizures is aimed at reducing the frequency of the seizures and keeping your dog comfortable. Sometimes anti-seizure medications will be recommended, but medication may not be used in every situation. 

Starting seizure medication for your older dog is a commitment because it cannot be easily stopped without risking new seizures. Therefore the decision is often made to wait until additional seizures occur before starting a prescription medication routine.

Your veterinarian may also explore dietary changes for your dog or recommend other lifestyle changes. Foods high in medium chain triglycerides such as raw, unrefined coconut oil may help reduce seizure recurrence. And according to new research and a clinical trial at Colorado State University, dogs taking CBD oil may experience a reduction in seizure frequency. If you are interested in exploring CBD products for your senior dog with seizures, talk to your veterinarian to see if hemp oil may benefit your dog’s needs and lifestyle.         

Seizures are scary—no matter your dog’s age. Hopefully with this information they are a little less overwhelming and you can get your pup the help they need. 

Hanie Elfenbein, DVM