Seizures or Convulsions in Dogs: What Can Seizures Look Like and What Can Cause Them?

Watching your dog having a seizure is a scary thing.

I remember how helpless I felt when Roxy had her first seizure, She had a full-blown one; she was unresponsive, laying on her side, her whole body was convulsing and foam was coming out of her mouth …

Seizures or Convulsions in Dogs: What Can Seizures Look Like and What Can Cause Them?

What is a seizure?

A seizure is abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Technically, then, a seizure is not a symptom; the resulting convulsions or other related disturbances are.

The outward manifestation can vary in severity. Signs can include:

  • loss of consciousness/awareness
  • contractions/convulsions
  • unresponsiveness
  • involuntary urination, defecation, or salivation
  • behavior changes such as pacing, running in circles, aggression, not recognizing the owner

Could you confuse seizures with syncope (fainting)? In both cases, a dog can lose consciousness. However, if there are signs of convulsive activity it is more likely to be a seizure.

Tonic-Clonic Generalized Seizures (previously known as Grand mal seizures)

The scariest and most common are grand mal seizures. These seizures have tonic (increased muscle tone) and clonic (rhythmic muscle contraction) phases.

There is a loss of consciousness and sometimes urination and defecation.  That what Roxy had. She lost consciousness and was convulsing. It didn’t last very long but it seems like forever before it passed. There is no way you wouldn’t recognize a grand mal seizure if you saw one. Though I’ve seen people worried about a potential seizure while the dog was just chasing bunnies in their sleep.

All of my dogs sometimes chase(d) bunnies in their sleep. When Roxy did have a seizure I had no doubt as to what I was looking at. The main difference is that if your dog is dreaming about chasing things, you CAN wake them up from THAT.

Petit mal seizures

Petit mal (focal seizures) can be trickier to recognize. They involve only a part of the brain and can result in:

  • abnormal contractions of just some muscles or individual limbs
  • unusual movements
  • changes or unusual behaviors such as snapping at invisible objects.

Therefore a focal seizure might go unrecognized as such.

Warning stage

The pre-seizure phase also referred to as aura, can last anywhere between a few seconds and few hours. The aura is actually a partial onset of the seizure during which unusual behavior or mentation may be seen. Your dog might be whining, hiding, shaking, drooling, seeking attention … These behaviors can have many other causes. Unless you already know your dog is suffering from seizures, you might not suspect that an upcoming seizure is imminent. If you know that your dog does have a seizure disorder, this will warn you that one is coming.

Seizures are not painful

No matter how violent the seizure might look, your dog might experience confusion or panic but not pain. Although repeated, intense muscle contractions during a seizure can become sore after the fact.

If your dog is having a seizure, the most important thing you can do is to prevent falls or injury.

A seizure shouldn’t last longer than from a few seconds to up to 2-3 minutes. If it does last longer, or your dog is experiencing multiple seizures, that can be a life-threatening situation. In such a case, your dog needs immediate emergency medical care.

After the seizure, there is usually a post-ictal period which can last from minutes to days. During this time your dog may appear dazed, disoriented or exhibit abnormal behaviors such as aggression.

Is it an emergency?

Here is the thing. I consider every first-time seizure to be an emergency. Here is why. Firstly, I wouldn’t know what caused it. Secondly, I wouldn’t know what else is coming.

Even if a seizure that falls within the 5-minute timeframe isn’t life-threatening in itself, its cause might be.

Causes of seizures or convulsions in dogs can include:
  • a head injury
  • brain inflammation
  • poisoning
  • liver failure
  • dangerously low or high blood sugar
  • kidney failure
  • anemia,
  • severe electrolyte imbalance …

I’d want to make sure none of these things are the case.

Other symptoms of the above conditions include:
Head injury/trauma
  • lethargy
  • loss of consciousness
  • confusion or disorientation
  • ataxia, coordination problems
  • bleeding from the ears or nose
  • abnormal eye movements
  • rigid or flaccid limbs
  • differences in pupil size
Brain inflammation
  • fever
  • unequal pupil size or small pupils
  • depression
  • reduced responsiveness
  • disorientation
  • weakness
  • loss of balance
  • ataxia
  • circling
  • tremors
  • head tilt
  • facial paralysis
Poisoning

Symptoms of poisoning vary widely depending on the poison but can include:

  • gastrointestinal signs such as vomiting and diarrhea
  • excessive drooling
  • neurological signs
  • bleeding
  • pale gums
  • difficulty breathing
  • unexplained bruising
  • behavioral changes
Liver failure
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • loss of appetite
  • increased thirst and urination
  • jaundice
  • weakness
  • bleeding
  • confusion
  • lethargy
  • unexplained bruising
High blood sugar (hyperglycemia)
  • increased thirst and urination
  • excessive hunger
  • depression
  • dehydration
  • slow wound healing
  • weight changes
  • cataracts
Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
  • changes in appetite
  • vision issues
  • disorientation and confusion
  • weakness
  • lethargy
  • anxiety
  • tremors
  • loss of consciousness
Kidney failure
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • increased thirst and urination
  • blood in urine
  • lethargy
  • depression
  • loss of appetite
Anemia
  • weakness
  • lethargy
  • depression
  • panting
  • exercise intolerance
  • pale gums
  • loss of appetite

What if your dog is the typical age (between 6 mths and 5 yrs) and breed to suspect idiopathic epilepsy? It still does not mean that they couldn’t have been poisoned or suffering from another acute life-threatening situation.

Seizures/convulsions in dogs are the one situation when I ignore my own rule of thumb

My rule of thumb for most issues is that a single occurrence does not a problem make. One bad stool, one vomit … though there are exceptions during which one vomit would send me to a veterinary hospital. When it comes to seizures, however, once occurrence is all it takes for me to seek medical help.

Related articles:
Really Angry Vet: Winston’s First Seizure

Further reading:
Seizures in Dogs

Categories: ConditionsConvulsionsSeizuresSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

14 Comments
  1. If any of my dogs have a seizure I will definitely be taking them to the vet right away. I always think of epilepsy when someone mentions seizures, but now I know there could be multiple causes.

  2. I’ve never had a pet who had seizures, but I had two gran mal seizures back in the 70s. They couldn’t find any reason for my seizures, so they attributed it to stress. I was on medication for 10 years, but the doctor took me off and I haven’t had any since then. It is frightening to wake up from a seizure, so I can imagine how a pet feels.

  3. FiveSibesMom

    Excellent post. As a Canine Epilepsy advocate for years, I created my #LiveGibStrong K-9 Epilepsy Awareness campaign and wrote two books on the topic in an effort to hopefully help others who may suddenly find themselves dealing with scary seizures. My Gibson was diagnosed shortly after his 3rd birthday with idiopathic Epilepsy (no known cause, however, after some investigating, he has it in his genetics), as well as my now senior Husky, who had a few adult onset seizures due to hypoglycemia, as well as hypothyroidism. The triggers can be due to so many causes, as well as no cause. The more info we keep getting out there the better so hopefully if other pet parents ever have to experience this scary experience, they will hopefully be better prepared. Bravo and thank you for covering the topic of seizures in dogs.

    • Thank you. Yes, I know about your work and compliment from you on this article means a lot. Hey, you want me to review the books?

  4. Marjorie Dawson

    Seizures are one thing that would scare me stiff and I would be at the vet faster than lightening! Anything to to with the brain needs to be treated with caution and care.

    It’s great that you give people reasons for things, and what it might be.This is going to stop a lot of people from panicking and prompt them to take action.

  5. When my mix-breed dog had her first grand-mal seizure I called my vet and he said not to worry unless she has another one, which she did a few hours later. Penny suffered from epilepsy and averaged at least 4 seizures a week even with medication. The only way to reduce it was to heavily medicate her but then she acted like an old dog at only 4 years of age. She never had an aura that I could tell other then jumping awake into in a fast run and crashing into a wall before falling over with a seizure. It was pretty scary for about two years, then she died from a snowmobile accident.

    • Not worry after a grand-mal seizure? Without knowing what caused it? That wouldn’t pass with me. So sorry about your baby.

  6. Treeno has some involuntary twitching, usually when he’s sleeping, but the vet says it isn’t seizures and he wasn’t concerned. I’ve always wondered. Even the idea is scary.

  7. Very informative, as always. I’m glad seizures is one health issues I’ve never had to deal with (knock on wood) with my boys. If I ever do, I’d for sure be getting them into an emergency vet asap.

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