Pet Talk: Protecting your pet during a seizure

COLLEGE STATION, Texas—Sudden seizures can be frightening to you, but life-threatening to your pet.

Almost any animal can suffer a seizure, but dogs and cats top the list, says Dr. Alice Blue-McLendon, a veterinarian in Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

Blue-McLendon says a seizure is defined as an uncontrolled event of electrical activity within the brain. These impulses from the brain can cause uncontrolled movement to other parts of the body, and the result can be muscle contractions, severe shaking, convulsions, possibly progressing to a coma-like state. The cause of these electrical events is still a mystery in both animals and humans.

“The good news is that most seizures in animals last only a short while, usually only a minute or two,” she says. “Anything over five minutes is considered a life-threatening situation and the animal needs medical attention immediately.”

Seizures are classified into two broad categories—generalized and partial.

A generalized seizure occurs when the animal’s limbs become stiff with paddling movements. The animal may fall on its back or side, have excessive salivation and can have a bowel movement.

A partial seizure often involves movement of one portion of the body, such as facial or limb twitching. The animal may act like it is trying to catch a fly. Evidence of a partial seizure may be the beginning of a generalized seizure.

If an animal has more than one seizure, the event is termed epilepsy. Epilepsy can occur from an unknown cause (asymptomatic) for which there may be a hereditary basis, or from a known cause (symptomatic).

Asymptomatic epilepsy is most common in dogs and cats between 1 and 5 years of age, and may have a hereditary basis, Blue-McLendon adds.

Certain breeds such as German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, dachshunds, collies and beagles are prone to having hereditary epilepsy. “If epilepsy is inherited, it can be passed on to the next generation, and there is a lot of research being done on this very topic,” she notes.

Examples of symptomatic causes for epilepsy include toxicity (sometimes from flea products), infectious diseases, nutritional deficiencies and brain tumors. “If a dog or cat is 5 years or older and suffers from seizures, there may be a greater likelihood of a brain tumor,” Blue-McLendon explains.

Research has shown that if a seizure lasts longer than 30 minutes, the odds of surviving are reduced.

“If a seizure does occur, the first thing to do is not to panic,” she says.

She adds: “The owner should make sure that the animal can’t hurt itself, such as knocking its head against a hard object or falling down a flight of stairs. And you should never put your hand down the animal’s throat even if it appears to have trouble swallowing. That will do more harm than good with potential risks of being bitten.”

Treatment for seizures usually involves short-term and long-term therapies, Blue-McLendon explains.

Valium is the most commonly used drug to stop a seizure, and there are other drugs used such as phenobarbital and potassium bromide.

“An animal that suffers from seizures can still live a relatively normal life,” she adds. “The goal of treatment is to decrease the duration, severity and frequency of seizures. Early intervention with medication will most likely provide better success in the long-term seizure management of a pet.”

From the Jan. 3-9, 2007, issue

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