Witnessing your puppy having a seizure is a frightening experience. After your puppy has recovered and is comfortable, it's understandable that you want to get to the bottom of why this is happening. Puppy seizures can have many causes, including idiopathic epilepsy, low blood sugar, infections, head trauma, or toxins. The underlying cause of this troublesome symptom will dictate how your veterinarian chooses to treat the seizures, and whether there's a chance your puppy could outgrow them.
Symptoms of Puppy Seizures
Are you wondering if what you just witnessed was, in fact, your puppy having a seizure? Depending on the severity or type of seizure, they may show one or many of the following symptoms:
- Paddling limbs, as if swimming
- Excessive drooling
- Chomping or biting motions
- Appearing dazed or staring into space
- Stiffened body
- Loss of consciousness
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
Your puppy might appear a bit confused after the seizure; this recovery period is called the postictal phase. However, if they actively convulse for longer than five minutes or they have several seizures in a row, it's imperative you seek emergency veterinary care.
Puppy Seizure vs. Dreaming
If you're a new puppy owner and you notice your little one paddling their paw or twitching while sleeping, you might worry they're having a seizure. This concern is more common than you think. Don't panic because your puppy is probably just dreaming. During a vivid dream, some puppies twitch, kick, whimper, or stick out their tongue and suckle as if nursing.
Dream movements are short and sporadic; your puppy may twitch for a few seconds and then fall back into a restful sleep. However, the movements will persist during a seizure, and it won't be possible to "wake" your puppy from the episode. Although seizures can occur during sleep, it's not very common. Usually, a seizure will happen while a dog is awake, or just after waking up.
Causes of Seizures in Puppies
Puppies may experience seizures for many of the same reasons adult dogs do, such as brain tumors or liver disease. However, these causes are fairly rare in puppies. Given their small size and developing systems, there are more likely causes behind why your puppy may be having seizures.
One of the main reasons for recurring seizures in young dogs is idiopathic epilepsy (idiopathic, meaning there's no known cause, and epilepsy is a seizure disorder). This disorder accounts for about 75 percent of canine seizures and it's often believed to be inherited.
Puppies with epilepsy can begin having seizures as early as 6 months old, though 2 years is the average age of onset. The episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes. Some puppies bounce back very quickly, whereas others take several hours or even a full day to recover. Idiopathic epilepsy typically can't be cured, but it can be managed so an affected puppy can grow into a healthy dog with a good quality of life.
When a puppy's blood sugar falls too low, it can affect their brain function, leading to seizures. This condition is referred to as hypoglycemia. Puppies haven't entirely developed the ability to regulate their blood sugar levels, so they're especially vulnerable to hypoglycemia.
Small and Toy breed dogs are at the highest risk. A drop in blood sugar may be the result of not eating frequently enough, or could be triggered by cold, stress, parasites, or infection. With a hypoglycemic seizure, the puppy generally won't have an episode and then recover on their own. Instead, they'll continue to convulse, and it will be fatal unless treatment is initiated.
If your puppy suffers a forceful blow to the head - whether from a fall, car accident, or another event - it could lead to seizures. However, even a moderate tap on the head could possibly have the same effect. Some puppies have a gap between the growth plates of their skull, called an open fontanelle. This gap typically closes by 3 months old, but it can remain in some breeds, especially Chihuahuas, Shih Tzus, and Miniature Dachshunds. This soft spot on the skull can put these puppies at an increased risk for head trauma and may also be related to hydrocephalus.
Numerous household toxins can cause seizures in puppies, including xylitol, chocolate, alcohol, salt dough, rat poisons, Sago palms, and human medications. Puppies who have ingested these toxic materials will generally show other signs of poisoning, as well.
Unfortunately, some canine medications can also cause seizures. Puppies who have MDR1, an inherited gene mutation, are sensitive to drugs like ivermectin, which is used in many heartworm preventions. If you're worried your puppy has eaten something toxic, head to your veterinary office right away or call the Pet Poison Helpline.
Bacterial and viral infections may lead to puppy seizures. Distemper is a virus that attacks the central nervous system, and many affected puppies develop muscle tremors or full seizures. Puppies are very susceptible to distemper infection, which is why it's considered a core vaccine that all puppies should receive beginning around 8 weeks of age. Valley fever, toxoplasmosis, anaplasmosis, and rabies are additional infections that can lead to seizures.
A portosystemic shunt (PSS) is a systemic abnormality where a puppy's blood supply bypasses their liver. Prior to developing seizures, these puppies typically have stunted growth, increased thirst and urination, and neurologic problems, such as circling behavior or disorientation.
Any puppy can develop seizures, but certain breeds may be predisposed to epilepsy. These include:
- Australian Shepherds
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
- Border Collies
- Cocker Spaniels
- Fox Terriers
- Golden Retrievers
- Irish Setters
- Irish Wolfhounds
- Labrador Retrievers
- Shetland Sheepdogs
- Springer Spaniels
Petite puppies, particularly small and toy breed dogs like Yorkshire Terriers, Pomeranians, and Chihuahuas, are susceptible to low blood sugar due to their small size. In addition, Yorkshire Terriers and Miniature Schnauzers reportedly have an increased incidence of portosystemic shunts.
Of course, all dogs are individuals, so just because they fall into a specific breed group does not automatically mean this could be the cause of their seizures. However, it can allow you to monitor for the signs of these disorders and use preventive measures to keep your puppy safe.
Can Puppies Outgrow Seizures?
Yes, it's possible for a puppy to outgrow seizures. Benign Familial Juvenile Epilepsy (BFJE) is a recently discovered seizure disorder that affects Lagotto Romagnolo puppies. Puppies with BFJE develop seizures around 5 to 9 weeks of age, then they spontaneously resolve by 13 weeks.
Currently, this type of benign puppy seizure disorder has only been documented in the Lagotto Romagnolo breed, but it's possible it could affect Lagotto mixes or other dog breeds. Unfortunately, most other seizure disorders require lifelong treatment.
Managing Seizures in Puppies
The first step to successfully managing your puppy's seizures is determining the cause. Occasionally, this requires a consultation with a veterinary neurologist, although your primary veterinarian may have the resources to diagnose and treat your puppy. Infections, shunts, toxins, and other causes may require aggressive therapy, such as hospitalization or surgery. However, idiopathic epilepsy can typically be managed long-term with prescription medications. These medications do not eliminate seizures entirely, but they can minimize their severity and/or frequency. If your puppy has seizures, there's a good chance they can live a full and happy life well into their adult years.