Seizures in older dogs can be caused by all sorts of health conditions, however sometimes what looks like a seizure is something completely different.
If your senior dog has a seizure, or dramatic symptoms which appear to be seizure-like or stroke-like…
… or he collapses or loses consciousness, it’s going to be pretty awful, and undoubtedly scary, for everyone.
There are potentially a myriad of causes for his symptoms or ‘episode’, ranging from relatively harmless, to life-threatening.
Of course, in a situation like this you NEED to get your dog to your veterinarian’s office as quickly as you can, so that you can find out what’s going on.
Having some background information and an understanding of the causes, symptoms and treatment for canine seizures (specifically in old dogs) will help you make sure that Fido gets the help he needs.
About Seizures In Older Dogs
First of all, let’s talk about what a seizure looks like.
That way you have a better shot at telling the difference between a seizure and other health problems which cause ‘episodes’, ‘fits’ or other odd behavior.
For younger adult dogs, epilepsy is the most common problem.
Puppies and young adults of the tiny/toy breeds can also have a seizure caused by a sudden drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia).
But neither of these are common causes of first-time seizures in senior dogs.
According to the United States National Library of Medicine, a seizure is:
‘…the physical findings or changes in behavior that occur after an episode of abnormal electrical activity in the brain.’ (see this page for more)
In non-medical terms this means that a seizure is the sudden physical result (the symptoms you can see) of abnormal electrical activity in the brain, most commonly when a large number of neurons send a signal at the same time.
When you think ‘seizure’ you might also think ‘epilepsy’ (most people do). It’s important to remember, epilepsy causes seizures, but seizures are not always caused by epilepsy.
You might also think that a seizure is the same thing as a convulsion (again most people don’t know that there’s a difference). Convulsions are the result of muscles uncontrollably contracting, which causes the body to shake, tremble or even contort. Seizures can cause convulsions, but not all convulsions are caused by seizures.
It’s not always easy to recognize a seizure when you see one, because they can have several different symptoms and can last for varying lengths of time.
What also confuses things further, is that seizures can be full or partial (also known in the human world as grand mal or petit mal; although these terms are typically not used in the veterinary world). Full seizures are likely to display obvious seizure-like symptoms, whereas partial seizures may simply cause twitching, stiffening or other subtle movements, without a loss of consciousness.
Seizures often have three ‘phases’ or stages.
The first and last stages could last for minutes, hours or even longer.
But the acute, middle phase, the seizure itself, could be anything from a ‘brain blank’ which lasts a second or two, to a full blown convulsion seizure which causes the dog to lose consciousness.
Although at the time it seems like forever, most active seizures in dogs only last for between 30 seconds and 2 minutes.
It’s unusual for one to last longer than 5 minutes, but if you do find that happening you need to get veterinary help immediately as a prolonged seizure can cause severe complications, even death.
If your dog has one seizure, it’s very common for him to have more.
This is because whatever triggers the seizure leads to changes and electrical misfirings in the brain which take a while to settle down.
Get your dog examined by your vet as soon as you can after a seizure to try to prevent him from having any more, as well as find the original trigger.
The Pre-Ictal Stage
This could show up as a change in behavior or attitude.
Perhaps fearfulness or anxiety, or unusual aggression, your dog may want to hide/sleep or he might cling to you.
Your dog is likely aware that something ‘odd’ is happening.
It’s also includes the ‘Aura’ phase, the early stage of the seizure itself.
Some dogs cry, whine, howl, pace, or drool.
He may seem to have lost a little of his co-ordination or balance
The Ictal Stage
This is the ‘active’ stage and it’s when your older dog is going to show the most severe seizure symptoms.
During partial seizures Fido may seem to ‘blank out’ for a little while, or seem confused/dazed or just ‘out-of-it’.
More obvious partial seizures might include twitching, jerky movements, growling or snapping. He may not seem to know where he is or who you are.
However, in full seizures, he may go into a full convulsion or stiffness, and be unable to control his body’s movements. These seizures usually also result in a loss of consciousness.
The most common symptoms of a full-blown seizure in older dogs include drooling, teeth-grinding, violent muscle spasms, scrabbling or running movements of his legs, loss of bladder and bowel control.
The Post-Ictal Stage
This is like the ‘recovery’ phase.
And although your dog won’t be showing the symptoms of a seizure, his body and brain are still suffering some significant after-effects.
He’s likely to be wobbly and his co-ordination will be ‘off’.
Many dogs are weak, confused, and dizzy.
Some will be sleepy or lethargic.
This stage can last for a few minutes, or a few hours.
A lot depends on how severe the Ictal Phase was.
The type of seizure symptoms your older dog has are linked to what is causing the problem in the first place, so let’s take a look at those next.
What Causes Seizures In Senior Dogs?
Although epilepsy is the leading cause of seizures in younger dogs (those less than five years old), in senior dogs that changes.
There’s a lot going on inside your older dog’s body, and the aging process is taking its toll.
This can lead to a bunch of different health problems and conditions, some of which could cause seizures.
Health conditions which could cause seizures in older dogs include:
If your senior dog has liver disease, or is in liver failure, it’s possible that it could cause him to have seizures.
BUT, there are many other symptoms of liver problems which are likely to show up before a seizure does.
The first one is usually a loss of appetite (but of course, this can be caused by a LOT of other things!).
Abdominal swelling, digestive upsets (vomiting, diarrhea or constipation), dark orange urine and a yellow tint to the skin, gums and mucus membranes are also symptoms of liver problems.
Other symptoms of brain problems being caused by the build-up of toxins and ammonia in the blood include weakness, poor co-ordination, personality changes and lethargy.
These are also likely to be obvious well before the risk of seizure occurs.
The term for the secondary effects the liver has on the brain is hepatic encephalopathy, and a common symptom of this, as well as the ones listed above, is head pressing against vertical surfaces.
Tumors (also known as neoplasia) are much more common in senior dogs than they are in younger ones.
Some tumors are benign, others cancerous.
A brain tumor can cause seizures as well as other neurological symptoms.
A cancer that starts off in another part of the body can metastasize (spread) to other parts of your dog’s body, including the brain, and cause similar problems.
Because cancer affects so many different organs and systems, not all symptoms can be covered here. But usually the symptoms relate to the organ which is predominantly affected. That is why brain tumors, whether they are primary tumors or metastasized tumors, can result in seizures.
If your older dog has kidney disease or kidney failure, toxins build up in his bloodstream and can’t be excreted the way they would normally be.
This build up of toxins in the blood can cause seizures in senior dogs, but it’s pretty rare.
Other symptoms are much more likely to show up first. Including increased thirst and urination, lethargy, weight loss and nausea.
Seizures or a coma don’t usually happen until the disease is very advanced.
Trauma or Injury
An injury to the brain can cause a seizure in dogs of any age.
Older dogs are more prone to falling than younger ones, and a fall down some steps resulting in a blow to the head could cause brain damage or bleeding.
If your dog shows any signs of illness, stroke or seizures after falling or injuring himself (even if you didn’t see him hit his head), take him to be examined by a veterinarian at once.
Although Diabetes itself doesn’t cause seizures, they can be an indirect result of this disease.
This is because if your older dog is being treated with insulin for his diabetes, he could have a seizure if he develops hypoglycemia because of accidentally receiving too much of it.
It’s easy to do, especially if your senior dog decides not to eat a meal after having his injection, or you forget whether you’ve given it already, so you give a double dose.
To prevent these scenarios, always give the injection after or towards the end of a meal, and if you’re in doubt whether you’ve given it or not, it’s best to skip a dose than give too much.
Hypoglycemia happens when your dog’s blood sugar plummets.
Every brain needs glucose in order to function properly, and if the supply of that drops seizures can happen.
This condition is most often seen in small or tiny breeds (and puppies) as they have more difficulty regulating their blood sugar levels, however it can also be seen in active dogs, and dogs with pancreatic cancer and diabetic dogs, as already discussed.
Seizures or coma are the most severe results of hypoglycemia, other signs can usually be seen first.
These can include:
- Loss of co-ordination
If your older dog is having a seizure and you are sure hypoglycemia is to blame, you can try rubbing some Karo syrup (or ice cream – NOT chocolate flavor – Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream is a good choice) onto his gums to raise blood sugar.
Don’t try to put the syrup/ice cream/your fingers inside his mouth, that’s dangerous for you both.
Obviously if your dog isn’t a small or tiny breed, and has been eating regularly and normally, then hypoglycemia isn’t a very likely culprit.
Getting close to your dog’s mouth when he’s having a seizure does carry the risk of getting bitten, so it’s a step to take only if you’re reasonably confident it will help.
Adverse Reaction to Medication
All medications (and also, to a lesser degree, natural remedies) can have side effects.
Many are mild and can include vomiting, diarrhea and reduced appetite.
Others severe reactions are less common, but definitely do happen.
Seizures in dogs can be one fairly rare, but serious, side effect to certain medications.
It’s important to note that sheepdog-type breeds are sometimes deficient in a gene which helps filter out drugs from the brain, which can result in seizures. This is particularly true for ivermectin and similar drugs, but not limited to them.
There are several things in our dog’s environment that can potentially cause seizures.
- Rodent poison
- Garden weedkiller
- Insect poisons
- Lead paint
- Black mold
You may not even know that things like black mold, or lead paint are in your home.
If your dog has unexplained seizures, having your ductwork and heating/ac and any old paintwork checked out is a good idea.
Blood tests can determine lead levels too.
These things can affect human health as well.
What To Do If Your Senior Dog Has A Seizure
Of course you’re going to be scared if your senior dog is having a seizure, but it’s important to stay calm.
It won’t help him keep calm if you’re also panicking.
Many seizures in older dogs are so short that they’re over before you know it.
Here’s what veterinarians recommend that you should do (and shouldn’t do):
Keep Him Company
Even though your dog may not be able to hear or see you in the normal way, he may be calmed and comforted because he is aware of your presence on some level.
Talking to him in a low, gentle, and soothing voice might help too.
If he’s not a big dog who’s thrashing about, gently touching or stroking him might be reassuring.
But if he’s in the grip of strong muscle spasms (even if he’s a small dog), don’t get too close if there’s a chance you’re going to get bitten or hurt.
Don’t Put Your Hand/s Near His Mouth
Just as with people who are having a seizure, it’s not a good idea to try to put your hand in his mouth to stop him ‘biting himself’ or ‘swallowing his tongue’.
The muscle spasms will be VERY strong, you won’t be able to prize his jaws apart, and you run the risk of getting bitten… hard.
Of course, your dog wouldn’t bite you on purpose, but in the grip of a seizure he has no control over his bodily functions/movements.
Even in a partial seizure, he might snap or bite you in his confusion, or out of fear or anxiety.
Make Notes & Call Your Veterinarian
If your older dog is having a seizure, you’ll probably be worried, scared and not sure what to do… but try to keep your wits about you.
The more details you can remember about what’s happening the easier it will be for your veterinarian to figure out what’s going on.
You probably won’t have a pen and notebook handy, but as soon as your dog is recovering and safe, jot down what you can remember about the seizure, as well as the period leading up to it, and his recovery.
Make a note of –
- Your dog’s activities before the seizure
- His behavior right beforehand
- The symptoms he showed during the seizure
- How long it lasted (time it on a watch or phone as it will seem much longer than it actually was!)
- What he was like during the recovery period & how long that lasted
Unless this isn’t his first seizure, and your vet has told you otherwise, it’s important to call your veterinarian as soon as the seizure is over, and your dog is recovering.
IF THE SEIZURE LASTS MORE THAN 5 MINUTES YOU NEED TO CALL FOR EMERGENCY HELP regardless of whether it’s his first one or not.
Treating Seizures In Older Dogs
When younger dogs have seizures, the most likely cause is a condition called epilepsy, but in older dogs this often isn’t the case.
Because seizures in older dogs are most likely being caused by some underlying health condition, your veterinarian needs to figure out what it is before treatment begins.
Once that root problem is being treated, the seizures should be under control, and maybe even not recur.
If the treatment is likely to take some time, your vet might be able to prescribe medication that will help control the seizures.
Or at least reduce their severity, until the other treatment takes effect.
ALL dogs are different, your veterinarian is the very best person to answer any questions you might have and to reassure both of you.
Conditions Which LOOK Like A Seizure, But Aren’t
There are a few different conditions which can cause your dog to look as though he’s having a seizure of some sort even though he isn’t.
One very common senior dog health issue called Old Dog Vestibular Disease produces neurological symptoms which could be confused with the early stages of a seizure, or a minor one.
A Transient Isechemic Stroke (TIA) is sort of a mini-stroke and happens when there is reduced blood flow to the brain. Usually because of a blood clot. It’s generally short lived but symptoms of a TIA can mimic Vestibular Disease, or a seizure.
A severe ear infection can cause loss of balance and co-ordination, and sometimes affect the nerves that control facial movements.
An irregular heartbeat can cause weakness, dizziness, loss of co-ordination and fainting (loss of consciousness).
Even a very severe allergic reaction could cause strange behavior, loss of balance, difficulty breathing and even loss of consciousness.
Other Causes of Seizures In Dogs Of All Ages
There are lots of other conditions and problems that can cause a dog of any age to suffer a seizure.
As already mentioned, epilepsy is the number one in younger dogs, but others include….
Distemper, rabies, hypoglycemia, low calcium levels, poisoning, heat stroke, allergic reaction, parasites such as heartworm or ticks (Lyme Disease), brain injury, infection or inflammation.
Some breeds are more likely to have seizures due to congenital problems, the shape of their skulls, or just because of a generalized predisposition to them. They include….
Beagles, Belgian Teruverens, Boxers, Chihuahuas, Cocker Spaniels, Collies, Dachshunds, Keeshonds and German Shepherds.
Take Home Message
Seizures in older dogs can be a cause for concern, so if your golden oldie is experiencing seizures for the first time, or for an unknown reason, it is important to take him to the vet once he’s come out of the seizure. Until then, remember to stay calm, be comforting, and ensure it doesn’t last more than five minutes.