I remember the first time I witnessed a seizure in one of my dogs. The year was 2001…the night before the seizure was the last time I ever really slept.
You’ve probably heard the phrases “Life imitating art” and “Art imitating life.” Well, if you’ve never seen a seizure in person, I’m sure you’ve seen something closely resembling it in a horror movie. Let’s face it. Seizures are terrifying. I mean, honestly, there are things a lot worse than a seizure, but there are very few things where you have less control. You just have to ride it out.
The first seizure I saw was in my dog Peabody. Pea was a healthy four year old dachshund. It was about 1:00 a.m. and I woke up to my bed shaking. I was confused and when I threw back the covers I saw Pea in the midst of a grand mal seizure. I thought he was going to die. It was violent and horrifying. I was sure he had stopped breathing. Something was vaguely running through the back of my mind that I should try to keep him from swallowing his tongue. I ran through my house in a complete panic trying to find the ER vet’s phone number.
The first lesson I learned that night: Keep the ER vet’s phone number on the fridge or someplace I can actually find it.
Not being able to find the number was one of the worst minutes of my life, EVER. Mostly because it felt like a hundred years elapsed and I aged at least a thousand! When I finally found the number and called the vet, the tech who was answering the phone wasn’t impressed. She told me if he has another one tonight I could bring him in, but otherwise just give my regular vet a call in the morning. She actually yawned as she politely told me goodbye. I kid you not. I sat there…stunned.
The second lesson I learned that night: Sometimes, seizures are “Much Ado About Nothing.” Since my first experience with seizures, I’ve heard about dogs that have one or two seizures, then never have one again. Ever. I would not be so lucky.
The third lesson I learned that night: In my house, with my dogs, it will always be “Much Ado About Something.” It turns out my sweet little Peabody had epilepsy…and I learned more about epilepsy than I ever imagined possible. My life had just changed forever. Little did I know, the universe was preparing me for running a senior dog sanctuary. And I needed the preparation because old dogs can have seizures. And, in my case, lots and lots of seizures.
Now let me clear up a few things about seizures. A seizure can be caused by so many things…and chances are most of the time you’ll never find out what caused your dog’s seizure. Epilepsy is an illness where seizures are the symptom of that illness. Just because your dog had a seizure doesn’t mean your dog has epilepsy. Especially if your dog is older. Idiopathic epilepsy has an early onset, usually around 2-4 years of age. So if your dog is old and has its first seizure, it isn’t epilepsy.
A seizure is caused by unusual electrical activity in the brain. And because we’re talking about the brain, it only goes to follow that there are a zillion different things that can be causing it…including the ambiguous “nothing at all.” And now that I’ve opened that can of worms, I will add to the mix that there are several different types of seizures. The most common seizure is the Grand Mal, aka “The Big Kahuna.” This is what we typically think of when we think of a seizure. The collapsing, the whole body shaking and convulsing, the drooling, loss of bladder…the poor dog looking like he is being possessed by an over-caffeinated zombie Tasmanian devil. There are also seizures called focal seizures. This is where electrical activity only happens in one area of the brain. They are much less severe and you may not even know they are seizures. These can consist of something as simple as a blank stare where the dog doesn’t seem to know where they are. It may just look like a senior moment. It can be “fly snapping” where the dog appears to be snapping at imaginary flies. There are also psychomotor seizures. An example of this would be manic tail chasing. Or we had a dog who would jump up from a sound sleep, run hysterically across the room and straight into the wall. This type of seizure usually just looks like some sort of strange or abnormal behavior. Or, if your house is like mine, it looks like MORE strange or MORE abnormal behavior. A good way to distinguish if it is a seizure or not is that the dog will display the same odd behavior each time. They just repeat, over and over. Like in the movie “Groundhog Day.”
In my experience (and this seems like a perfect place to add my usual disclaimer that I am NOT a vet, and this is all just my personal experience) most seizures in senior dogs are caused by the following:
Low blood sugar
High blood sugar
Head injuries (acute and chronic)
Low blood pressure
High blood pressure
Malnutrition (we see this in stray dogs coming from shelters)
My husband wanted me to add “When the Denver Broncos lost Super Bowls 12, 21, 22, 24 and 48.” But that’s just not true.
What is true, though, is that a seizure is very frightening. And it’s also true that there is good news…and there is bad news. The good news is that it is much worse for you than your dog. The bad news is it is much worse for you than your dog. People tend to freak out because dogs vocalize during seizures making it seem like they are in severe pain or crying for help. The truth is, this is the electrical activity in the brain making the dog vocalize. The dog has no idea any of this is going on. Seizures do not cause pain to the dog (unless they were to fall off something or hit something during the seizure). Now, one thing that DOES cause pain during a seizure is other dogs. I have seen this many, many times. You have two dogs (or three, or four…or twelve). They are the best of friends, bosom buddies, and soul-mates. They eat, drink, play, snuggle and sleep together. They show love, tolerance and affection to each other on a daily basis. However, one of the dogs has a seizure and…BAM! The other dog will try to kill it. I’ve seen even the most docile, arthritic, half-blind, toothless, “lose-a-race-to-a-snail” dogs suddenly come alive and jump in on the action when another dog is having a seizure.
Back in the olden days, in the wild, seizures were BAD. A total death sentence. Any other dogs around will try to eliminate this dog from the pack. Survival of the fittest…and if you are having a seizure, you aren’t the fittest. A seizure is not likely to kill your dog, but another dog is. So if your dog has had a seizure and especially if they suffer from epilepsy, you must separate the dogs when you aren’t around. We use a playpen for our “seizure dogs.” This is a safe place to have a seizure if we aren’t around. It is soft, secure, and, in selfish consideration of us, it is easy to clean.
Okay, here is how it typically goes down. Epileptic seizures tend to happen at the same time. And for some inhumane reason that time is usually between the hours of midnight and 5:00 a.m. Most dogs will have seizures while sleeping. But certainly many dogs have them while awake, so it isn’t a hard and fast rule. Here’s another thing…epileptic dogs tend to have their seizures sometime around a full moon.
But as far as non-epileptic seizures go, they happen whenever. And here is what you should do when they do happen.
STAY CALM. DON’T PANIC. This is by far the most difficult thing you will need to accomplish when dealing with a seizure. If you are freaking out you are not doing your dog any favors and you’ll probably just run the risk of screwing things up. Believe me, I know.
Just simply pick up your dog and move them to a quiet place away from other dogs and noise. I use the bathroom. If you have a large dog, move any furniture and/or other dogs out of the way.
Keep your hands away from your dog’s mouth. The tongue swallowing thing is an Old Wives’ Tale. Old Wives with no fingers, apparently, because your dog could accidently bite you. Dogs can’t swallow their tongues.
I usually place my dogs on a bathmat or towel during the seizure. They will lose their bladder and sometimes their bowel. Seizures cause the body temp to rise, so don’t wrap or cover your dog with a blanket. They will be plenty warm.
Once your dogs is in a “safe” place, take a deep breath, gather your wits, and try to time the seizure. I can guarantee you that what in reality is only 30 seconds will feel like five minutes. Or five hours. Days. Years. It is excruciating. The bottom line is you can’t trust your sense of time in this situation. Now, it isn’t imperative that you get a timing on it, but it is helpful if you feel like it has been going on for “too long.” You will have an actual confirmation. If a seizure (the convulsing part of it) lasts more than five minutes you’ll need to get your dog to the vet. These are called “status” seizures and they definitely fit in the category of emergency.
Now, I don’t know if this will set your mind at ease, or make things worse for you…but I feel I owe you the truth. Seizures usually won’t kill your dog. But if your dog is having “status” seizures (the aforementioned “over five minutes” variety) it could kill your dog because their body temperature gets too high and they may incur brain damage. If your dog is having cluster seizures, which I will discuss later, it could turn into status…so get yourself (and your dog!) to the vet. I have also had dogs die during, or immediately after, a seizure. But these were very old dogs with other serious health issues. The seizure didn’t kill them, the underlying cause did. Sometimes seizures are signaling the end of the dog’s life. This is especially true of dogs with brain tumors, cancer and liver or kidney failure. This is usually the first time you will witness your dog having a seizure and, unfortunately, the last. But, this is pretty rare…so don’t despair.
Along the lines of not falling into the depths of despair, I usually sing to my dogs during a seizure. I don’t know why. I guess I like to think it helps somehow. Or, if it doesn’t help them, it sure can help me. In a situation where I can’t really do anything, at least I’m doing SOMETHING! I usually like to sing “You Are My Sunshine,” “You Shook Me All Night Long,” or “Psycho Killer.” Don’t ask me why the eclectic variety of song choice. I couldn’t tell you.
Now, I’m just going to throw this out there, but here is a little trick that sometimes works. If you have a larger dog and there is another person available, have the other person go and grab an ice pack. Or, if you have a Chihuahua or other tiny dog, you can carry it with you to the freezer and get it yourself. Place the ice pack on the dog’s lower back. Sometimes this enough to bring the dog out of the seizure. If you aren’t able to get an ice pack, use a cold washcloth. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But at least it’s something to try.
Okay, when the seizure is over your dog will likely go into what is called the “post-ictal” phase. For you, this means only one thing. It means, “Thank God the seizure is over!!” However, for your dog, this can mean a few different things. Usually the dog will be blind after the seizure. Their sight will return, so DON’T PANIC! Dogs usually start to stagger around and may run into walls, furniture, imaginary walls and imaginary furniture, etc. During this time it is best to place your dog in a play pen or put a fence around them. A kennel also works well. Don’t leave your dog unattended at this point unless they are safely contained. They will get stuck behind the toilet, under the bed and in places you haven’t even thought possible. They are also very unstable. By “unstable,” think of it like having to care for a very drunken friend. You wouldn’t leave them alone. They may fall down the stairs, whack their head on the coffee table, tumble from a balcony, jump into the lion exhibit at the zoo, or drown in the toilet. Really. Nothing is off limits as far as the trouble they can get in to.
Once you have them safe get them some ice cream. It has to be Vanilla Hagaan Daaz. HAS to. And I’m not kidding. The ice cream helps them “come to,” comparable to smelling salts for humans. And the dog needs the sugar at this point. Hagaan Daaz is perfect because it doesn’t have a bunch of chemical crap in it. The ice cream needs to be natural. Your dog may have a chemical imbalance due to the seizure, and you don’t need to make it worse. Now, don’t get crazy and give your dog too much. They already have been through the wringer and you don’t want to give them an upset stomach. For a little dog (dachshund, pug, or Chihuahua size) give a teaspoon to a tablespoon. For a larger dog give a half a cup to a cup for the largest of dogs. However, as a reward for not freaking out, you can have as much ice cream as you’d like!
Okay, at this point, some dogs are coming around. They regain their sight and their balance. But then there are some dogs that don’t come around. They still seem blind and will pace. For hours. Don’t worry…this is just the nature of the beast. I’ve had dogs who don’t fully come out of the post-ictal phase for a few days. It happens.
Once they are coherent and are seeming pretty back to normal be sure to feed them a meal. Nothing fancy! Just whatever they usually eat. Having a seizure is like running a marathon and not even knowing it. And that teaspoon of ice cream isn’t going to do it. Now, some dogs will be pretty exhausted and want to go back to sleep. Other dogs will still be whacked out of their minds and stay up the rest of the night pacing in circles, vocalizing, bumping into things and walking through the water bowl 10,000 times. You, however, are going to have so much adrenaline rushing through your body you probably won’t be able to sleep for a week. I am at the point now where I worry I might sleep through another seizure so I don’t really sleep any more. I mean, I shut my eyes and things go blank(-ish), but if someone is going to have a seizure, I usually wake up ten seconds before the seizure even starts. Intuition is an amazing thing, isn’t it?
Earlier, I mentioned something called cluster seizures. Cluster seizures mean you are in for a few long days. Just like the name implies, cluster seizures are seizures that come in clusters. Even though they can turn into status seizures, they must not be mistaken for status seizures. In a status seizure your dog never comes around. It will stay in the state where they are convulsing and shaking and they won’t stop. Cluster seizures are when the dog recovers from one seizure just to have another. They can have another immediately or in an hour or two. But there is a definitive beginning and end. And beginning. So…now what?
Well, regardless of the type of seizure, you should probably call your vet to see what they have to say. Just to warn you, like I mentioned with my first seizure experience with Peabody, they probably aren’t going to see this as the life-threatening emergency that you see it as. But call anyway, at least for your own piece of mind. And if you have an elderly dog, a seizure is usually indicative of something else going on. So, unfortunately, this may just be the beginning of a long road ahead. But, again, don’t despair! There are usually options.
Seizures usually aren’t treated with medication unless your dog is having them more than once a month and they are being caused by epilepsy. If they are being caused by something else, like kidney disease, you will be treating the kidney disease (the problem) and not the seizures (the symptom). If your vet decides to medicate, Phenobarbital is the medication of choice. It works the best and is pretty inexpensive. The drawback is that it can cause liver damage, so not a great choice for seniors…but good for younger dogs provided they dog is monitored. The runner up med is Potassium Bromide. This stuff is even cheaper than phenobarbital. It can be difficult initially to get the correct dosage…but it works well for some dogs. The downside is some dogs have been known to develop pancreatitis after taking this. Another thing is that is causes ataxia. So if you have a dog with disc problems or arthritis, this won’t be the med for you. Some of the “newer” drugs are Keppra, Felbamate, Gabapentin and Zonisimide. Some drugs need to be taken in combinations to provide the best effects.
Now, if your dog is having regular seizures, or your dog suffers from cluster or status seizures, you may want to save yourself from putting that second mortgage on your house and learn the “secret” to stopping them while at home instead of making the trek to the emergency vet.
Two things about this “secret.” Number one, you’ll need to have a pretty good relationship with your vet. Number two, you can’t be squeamish.
Are you ready for the “secret?” It’s simple. Liquid Valium. Yep. That’s the magic.
It is known as “The Valium Protocol” and it could save your bank account and your mind. You could stop the seizures at home…and for those of us who live an hour from the nearest emergency vet, it will save your sanity as well. Driving with a seizing dog in the dark during a blizzard for over an hour is about as relaxing as being audited by the IRS while simultaneously having a root canal with no anesthetic.
Here’s how “The Valium Protocol” works. Your dog starts to have a seizure. You measure out what will appear to be a whopping dosage of the liquid Valium and you give it to your dog rectally. That’s right…rectally. You can use a catheter…or if you have a small dog, just get yourself some Vaseline and use the syringe. (Hint: make sure to REMOVE THE NEEDLE before putting the syringe in your dog’s butt. I know, I know. It seems like this little detail would go without saying. But for the sake of your dog, I’m saying it anyway). This should stop the seizure. If it doesn’t you can usually give up to three doses…your vet will let you know the maximum amount you can give. Make sure to have the single dosage and the maximum dosage on the bottle. You don’t want to be working from memory on this one. Some people follow this up with oral valium over the next day…again, your vet will guide you in this. And, yes, you will be giving your dog a pretty large dose of Valium. Dogs metabolize it differently than humans do.
Now, I know you are thinking you just gave a whopping dose of liquid Valium to your dog…he’ll be sleeping for days! Finally, some rest! Think again. In my experience…valium has the opposite effect on most dogs. You give that liquid Valium and you’ll swear it was actually liquid cocaine. They get agitated, high strung, hyper…it isn’t pretty. Sorry to burst your bubble, but that is reality for you. But the other reality is that the seizure is over, and that is the goal.
Dealing with a seizure and its myriad of by-products can be stressful, frightening, and generally unsettling. But if you can just stay calm, stick with a plan of action, and remember that the liquid Valium is for the dog and not you, then the chances of you both getting through it relatively unscathed increases substantially. Hang in there!