Seizures in pets – when the brain loses con­trol

Bray People - - LIFESTYLE -

THE woman on the phone was ag­i­tated. “My dog’s hav­ing a fit” she shouted. I tried to talk to her, telling her to clear a space around her dog and to try to stay calm, but she kept shout­ing “What can I do? It’s aw­ful to watch! What can I do?”

Fits. Con­vul­sions. Seizures. These words all mean the same thing: the body is over­come with ab­nor­mal elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity, caus­ing in­vol­un­tary twitch­ing, and some­times com­plete col­lapse, with the an­i­mal thrash­ing around on the ground. It’s ter­ri­fy­ing for own­ers to see their pets hav­ing a fit, es­pe­cially when it hap­pens for the first time. Peo­ple don’t know what to do, and they are afraid that their pet is suf­fer­ing, and that their pet’s life is in dan­ger.

The truth is that pets are not con­scious dur­ing a fit (so they are not aware of any suf­fer­ing), se­ri­ous con­se­quences dur­ing a fit are rare, and most fits pass sur­pris­ingly quickly. It’s im­por­tant to seek vet­eri­nary help, but it’s usu­ally more of a long term is­sue (to pre­vent the fits re­cur­ring) rather than an im­me­di­ate cri­sis. That said, if an an­i­mal con­tin­ues to have a fit for more than a few min­utes, it’s crit­i­cal to get to a vet as soon as pos­si­ble. This prob­a­bly only hap­pens in some­thing like one in fifty fit­ting an­i­mals, but it’s im­por­tant to be aware of this small risk.

The sci­en­tific def­i­ni­tion of a seizure is “the clin­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of ex­ces­sive neu­ronal dis­charges which are usu­ally self-lim­it­ing.” Es­sen­tially, the brain has an episode of in­creased elec­tri­cal ac­tiv­ity, with nerves fir­ing rapidly and strongly. This causes vis­i­ble phys­i­cal im­pair­ment (in the case of a par­tial seizure) or loss of con­scious­ness (with a gen­er­alised seizure). There are also ab­nor­mal “mo­tor phe­nom­ena” (i.e. move­ments) rang­ing from twitch­ing to col­lapse with legs pad­dling. Some­times there are “au­to­nomic” signs, which can in­clude sali­va­tion, vom­it­ing, uri­na­tion or defe­ca­tion.

While most seizures only last for a cou­ple of min­utes, to own­ers, those min­utes can feel like hours. And in­deed, in rare in­stances, a gen­er­alised fit can con­tinue for much longer, with some an­i­mals only stop­ping fit­ting with the ad­min­is­tra­tion of med­i­ca­tion. One im­por­tant tip for any­one who wit­nesses an an­i­mal hav­ing a fit is to look at the clock when it starts and fin­ishes, so that you can let the vet know how long the fit lasted.

A seizure can be a one-off event, caused by a meta­bolic dis­tur­bance, head trauma, or by poi­son­ing, but more com­monly in young an­i­mals, it’s a sign of the be­gin­ning of epilepsy. This is a dis­ease con­di­tion where seizures hap­pen reg­u­larly over weeks, months or years. In older pets, seizures are more com­monly caused by brain tu­mours.

There are four phases that hap­pen around a seizure.

First, the prodome: these are be­havioural changes that hap­pen hours or days be­fore the seizure. It’s rare for own­ers to no­tice these, but some peo­ple who know their pets es­pe­cially well may be aware of some­thing un­usual that their pet does.

Sec­ond, the aura. This is a sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ence in hu­mans: they may have a sense of a par­tic­u­lar smell, or they may have a feel­ing of deja vu. Pets can’t tell us about such things, but own­ers of­ten com­ment thta their pet be­haves oddly just be­fore the seizure starts.

Third: the word “ic­tus” is used to de­scribe the seizure it­self.

Lastly, the post-ic­tal pe­riod is the time just af­ter the seizure, as the an­i­mal re­cov­ers. An­i­mals of­ten seem ag­i­tated, pac­ing up and down, pant­ing and dis­ori­en­tated.

Epilepsy is the most com­mon cause of re­peated seizures in pets: it hap­pens in some­thing like 1 in 100 dogs. It’s much rarer in cats. The cause is un­known, but there’s a ge­netic, in­her­ited ele­ment, with some breeds be­ing more prone to epilpesy than oth­ers(such as Bor­der Col­lies).

If your pet has a seizure for the first time, it is best to call the vet at once, as the lady on the phone did. Ex­plain what’s hap­pen­ing, and the vet will tell you what to do. Usu­ally, the seizure stops very quickly. If some­one is able to take a video of the seizure hap­pen­ing, this can be use­ful ev­i­dence to show the vet later.

Once the pet has re­cov­ered from the im­me­di­ate seizure, go the the vet as soon as pos­si­ble. A care­ful phys­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion will be car­ried out, as well as blood sam­ples taken, to check for un­der­ly­ing ill­nesses that could cause the seizur­ing. If all is well on that front, the vet will nor­mally ask you to keep a “seizure diary”, writ­ing down the dates and cir­cum­stances of any fur­ther seizures.

Some dogs never have an­other fit, and no treat­ment is needed. If a fit starts to hap­pen reg­u­larly (e.g. more of­ten than once ev­ery six weeks), then daily anti-con­vul­sant tablets are usu­ally rec­om­mended. These are usu­ally suf­fi­cient to pre­vent seizures from re­cur­ring, al­though there are some cases that are dif­fi­cult to treat, re­quir­ing newer, more ex­pen­sive, stronger med­i­ca­tion.

The lady on the phone with the fit­ting dog went on to be­come an am­a­teur ex­pert in pet seizures. Her dog lived to the age of fif­teen in the end, re­spond­ing well to anti-con­vul­sant ther­apy. These didn’t up­set his qual­ity of life at all. Af­ter that first panic, she had soon learned to be an as­sured, calm, carer of an epilep­tic dog.

As a breed, Col­lies are prone to de­vel­op­ing epilepsy

PETE WEDDERBURN An­i­mal Doc­tor

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