Focal Seizures in Dogs: A Vet’s Guide for Dog Owners

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This article was updated on May 2nd, 2023

“Doc, I think my dog is hallucinating,”  began the call of one of my clients when I was in veterinary practice. After collecting details about the dog’s unusual behavior and examining her in my clinic, I confirmed focal seizures. In this article, we’ll discuss focal seizures, their signs, treatment, and recovery.

We’ll also go over what you can do for your pooch if he has a focal seizure and when you should take him to the vet. 

To help you prepare for the appointment, we’ll explain what to expect when you visit the vet and how focal seizures are treated. Finally, we’ll give you tips to help prevent focal episodes in your furbaby.

What are focal seizures?

Seizures involve abnormal electrical activity in the brain. Usually, seizures occur unexpectedly and have no known trigger. When dogs have a focal seizure, the atypical activity is isolated to a part of the brain. As a result, there are limited effects on the body. The signs of the seizure will depend on where the unusual impulses occur in the brain.

What are the signs of a focal seizure?

The signs of a focal seizure can vary widely but can include:

  • Staring into space
  • Dilated pupils
  • Fur standing up
  • Unusual head/eye movements
  • Muscle contractions in one limb or one side of the body
  • Signs of vision or hearing changes
  • Repetitive, non-purposeful actions
  • Signs of hallucinations

What do focal seizures look like?

Depending on the area of the brain that’s affected, focal seizures may be difficult to detect. Sometimes you’ll see unusual muscle contractions in one part of the body. However, other dogs may do nothing more than stare into space. Usually, dogs remain conscious during a focal seizure. Below are examples of different focal seizures.

In this video, notice the facial muscles are contracting. The seizure lasts for less than a minute.

This chihuahua stumbles and falls over while pawing at her face. Notice she is alert at all times.

The focal seizure in this Boston terrier is characterized by repeated circling to the right. 

Here’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel licking the air.

This is another Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that looks like she’s snapping at a fly.

When should I get emergency veterinary help?

Normally, a focal seizure resolves without complications. However, if your dog’s seizure persists non-stop for more than five minutes, you should get veterinary help. Even with localized events, the electrical activity can elevate your dog’s body temperature to unsafe levels.

You should also seek emergency care if your dog has repeated seizures in 24 hours. More than three seizures in one day are considered a cluster and warrant veterinary observation.

Another time you should contact your veterinarian immediately is age dependent. If you observe a focal seizure for the first time and your furbaby is a puppy under 6 months or a senior dog over 5 years, there may be an underlying condition triggering the episode. In the case of puppies, you could be dealing with a brain infection. Seizures in older dogs may point to a tumor.

How are focal seizures treated?

Dogs with focal seizures are usually treated with the same anti-seizure medications as dogs that suffer from grand mal seizures. The most common drugs are phenobarbital, levetiracetam, potassium bromide, and zonisamide. Usually, treatment is recommended in dogs with

  • Cluster seizures
  • Seizures that last more than five minutes
  • Two or more seizures in six months
  • Signs of a brain lesion on an x-ray, CT scan, or MRI
  • A history of brain trauma

How to care for a dog at home who just had a focal seizure

Immediately after your dog has a seizure, you should 

  • Remain calm and speak to him in soothing tones
  • Let your pup rest if he’s tired
  • Observe him and make sure there are no recurring seizures
  • As a precaution, take steps to make the environment safe for your dog during recovery
    • Block access to hazards like stairs, ponds, or pools
    • Leash walk your dog and watch for stumbling, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Keep a log of your observations and possible triggers

If your furbaby has had seizures before, there may be some things you can do at home to help him. Some of these remedies or lifestyle changes may help to reduce the frequency or severity of episodes. 

  • Feed a ketogenic diet. Foods that are lower in carbs and higher in fats may help manage seizures and improve cognitive function in dogs.
  • Supplement the diet with MCT oil. Medium chain triglycerides show promise in managing the frequency and severity of seizures in dogs and laboratory animals
  • Some dogs have reduced seizure activity with non-traditional holistic treatments like acupuncture or acupressure
  • Schedule routine check-ups with your veterinarian to monitor your dog’s seizure history and overall health

What is the prognosis for focal seizures in dogs?

If your pooch has occasional focal seizures that don’t progress to generalized episodes, the prognosis is favorable. In these cases, treatment is usually not necessary.

Dogs that have frequent partial seizures will probably need treatment to reduce the frequency and severity of episodes. With treatment, dogs can have a high quality of life with a good prognosis. Rarely, focal seizures can progress to full grand mal seizures. 

How are focal seizures diagnosed?

A definitive diagnosis is only possible by measuring the brain’s electrical activity during a focal seizure. Unfortunately, seizures are usually infrequent and unpredictable. 

Veterinarians generally diagnose seizures based on the history and signs of your dog’s episodes and by ruling out other potential causes. To rule out other conditions, your pup’s doctor may:

  • Run bloodwork to check the function of organs including liver and kidney
  • Run titers to check for infectious diseases such as encephalitis
  • Take an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan to check the brain for lesions

When should I take my dog to the vet if they’re having a seizure?

Under some circumstances you should take your dog to the veterinarian immediately:

  • If your dog’s seizure lasts longer than five minute
  • If he has repetitive seizures without recovering
  • If you suspect he ate something poisonous
  • If there was a recent head trauma

However, if the seizure lasts a few minutes, keep her calm and safe at home until it’s over. After the convulsions or unusual behavior end, contact your veterinarian. If it’s the first time you’ve noticed a seizure, schedule an appointment so the doctor can evaluate your pooch and rule out other conditions.

What should I expect when I take my dog to the vet?

When you take your furbaby to the vet for an exam, the doctor will want to know details about the seizure including:

  • When and where the seizure started
  • What was happening before the seizure and any possible triggers
  • How long the seizure lasted
  • What you observed about your dog’s behavior during the seizure
  • How your dog behaved after the seizure and how long it took to return to normal
  • Any changes in schedule, food, or behaviors in the past few days before the seizure

After getting a history, the vet will conduct a thorough examination including testing for nerve deficits. To check for underlying conditions or infections that could trigger a seizure, she may also take:

  • Blood samples
  • Urine sample
  • CSF tap
  • X-rays, CT, Scan, or an MRI

Can a focal seizure evolve into a generalized seizure?

Although uncommon, some focal seizures can evolve into generalized seizures. The progression is more likely when dogs have a history of frequent episodes or the seizure is prolonged. 

How can I prevent focal seizures in my dog?

There are several things you can do that may help to prevent focal seizures in your pooch 

Start with genetics 

When you’re choosing a dog, ask the breeder about any history of seizures in the parents or line. Some breeds are more likely than others to develop seizures.

Get a health history

If you’re working with a breeder, ask about the health history of the parents and breeding line. Some hereditary diseases like liver disease can trigger seizures in dogs.

Pay attention to nutrition

Feed your pooch a nutritionally well-balanced meal and talk to your veterinarian about any helpful supplements to prevent seizures. You may want to consider feeding a ketogenic dog food or supplement the diet with:

Regular check-ups

Whether your pup has already had a focal seizure or not, you should work with your veterinarian to monitor health parameters that may trigger or predispose your dog to seizures:

  • Senior dog blood work to check organ function
  • Blood sugar levels
  • Lab tests for blood or brain infections
  • Brain scans for tumors if your dog has seizures

Find the right medication

If your pup has a history of seizures, work with your veterinarian to find the best medication to control the episodes. 

Alternative options

You may also work with a holistic veterinarian to find alternative treatments such as acupuncture or herbal remedies. Many times, these approaches can be used to support prescription medications. However, if your pup is on an anticonvulsant drug, talk to your vet before trying anything else.

Minimize triggers

Keep the home environment calm and low stress. If you can identify any potential triggers for your pooch, remove them if possible. 

Frequently asked questions

What does it cost to treat focal seizures in dogs?

The cost of treatment for focal seizures in your dog can vary widely depending on the severity and frequency of the seizures. Usually, the initial office visit and tests for seizures cost around $500. However, when advanced diagnostics are needed, the cost can climb to $5000 or more.

Dogs with focal seizures receive the same medications as dogs with generalized seizures. The cost of the drugs is usually several hundred dollars a year and depends on your dog’s weight, the type of medication, and the frequency of the doses.

How long can a dog live with focal seizures?

The life expectancy of a dog with focal seizures depends on the severity of seizures, how you treat him, and what you do to protect your pooch during seizures. After dogs develop seizures, the median life expectancy is 2.3 years.

Are focal seizures curable?

If an underlying condition triggers a focal seizure, treating the cause may cure the seizures. However, in most cases, focal seizures are idiopathic and may have a genetic link. These types of episodes are not curable. If they’re frequent or severe, they can be managed with medications.

Do focal seizures go away?

Focal seizures will not go away on their own. However, sometimes the underlying trigger can be treated. In other cases, they are generally well-managed with treatment and monitoring.

What’s the difference between vertigo and focal seizures in dogs?

Sometimes, the symptoms of vertigo and focal seizures can look alike. Below is a chart demonstrating the differences between the conditions:

Focal SeizuresVertigo
Cause/locationLocalized abnormal electrical activity in any part of the brain; usually idiopathicInfection(ear), lesion, or trauma to central or peripheral vestibular system 
SymptomsTwitching of one limb, part, or side of the body; repetitive non-purposeful movements; hallucinations; dilated pupils; staring into spaceCircling to one side, head tilt, leaning to one side, falling over, rhythmic movement of eyes, loss of coordination, vomiting
TreatmentAnticonvulsant medicationsAntibiotics for ear infections, anti nausea drugs, surgery for any lesions
PrognosisVariable depending on frequency and severityExcellent in most cases

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  • Dr. Liz Guise, Veterinarian

    Dr. Liz (Elizabeth) Guise graduated from the University of Minnesota with a doctorate in Veterinary Medicine (DVM). She worked as a veterinarian for two years before working for the US Department of Agriculture for 13 years.

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Disclaimer: This website's content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your veterinarian for healthcare decisions. Read More.

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