Watching a pet having a convulsion is a disturbing experience even for veterinarians. But we are often able to stop a convulsion and with proper diagnostics and treatment, we can often return the pet to good health.
There are many possible causes for convulsions. Young pets, especially small ones, can develop hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) if they stop eating. My own Maltese, Pitsy, was off her food when she was first brought into my office by a commercial breeder. What I thought was a viral disease called parvovirus turned out to be another problem, possibly sepsis, that was almost fatal.
When she started to have seizures and convulse due to low blood sugar, we treated her with intravenous fluids to maintain hydration. Pitsy was so small and had no energy reserves. She continued to convulse even after receiving glucose orally and intravenously. After five days of intensive care both at my office and at a makeshift clinic at my home, she finally started to eat and eventually fully recovered.
After caring for her, I could not return her to the breeder, so I purchased her and Pitsy became my personal pet. She is now a normal, happy dog and is sitting on my lap as I write this article.
Young dogs and cats can have convulsions due to a liver shunt, a condition in which blood containing toxins bypasses the liver and goes directly to the bloodstream. These pets often act abnormally after eating. Shunts are diagnosed with bile-acid blood tests and sometimes with an ultrasound. My daughter's dog had a shunt that was repaired surgically and he is now normal.
Epilepsy in dogs is fairly common, and convulsions typically start when they are young adults. The actual cause for idiopathic epilepsy is not known; even with a full work-up it is difficult to pinpoint the cause. Fortunately, medication will often treat epileptic seizures with good results and these dogs and cats can lead a fairly normal life.
The first seizure can be very scary to a pet owner. Most seizures end in a few minutes, but if one lasts more than five minutes, the pet should be taken to a veterinary emergency clinic or a veterinary facility if one is open. It may take intravenous injections of drugs to stop longer seizures.
Continuous or repeated seizures can be disastrous and fatal. Short seizures should be reported to a veterinarian and any dog that has a seizure should be examined and blood tests taken shortly after the event. Keeping a dog quiet may be all that is necessary after a short seizure.
When we see a pet with a history of seizures, we do blood tests to look for the cause. Often the bloodwork is normal and the pet is treated for epilepsy. Phenobarbital is frequently used for a starting therapy.
Phenobarbital is inexpensive and works well with minimal side effects. Potassium bromide can also be used with good success. Other drugs are sometimes necessary for hard-to-control convulsions.
Owners can help track the occurrence of seizures by timing them and keeping a log of all abnormal brain activity. In older dogs, seizures can be problematic. Brain tumors or metabolic disturbances can be the cause for these seizures.
Older cats that have seizures from a brain tumor called a meningioma can recover with neurosurgery.
Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you'd like addressed in Pet Points, email email@example.com. Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.