September 9, 2015
There was a tremendous commotion at the front door. I looked up to see a tiny ball of fur writhing in circles in the open doorway as her owner struggled to balance the door and simultaneously pick up her pet. Just as I reached them, the dog suddenly stopped her flailing, stood up, shook her coat and trotted the rest of the way in. Her owner looked up at me and shrugged wearily. “Coco does this every time she comes in for a bath.”
Really? Her dog had a SEIZURE every time she was groomed? I found this incredible. Actually, I didn’t believe it. There were some gaps in my medical training which Coco was going to neatly plug. Oh, I knew a lot about seizure disorders. A seizure or convulsion is when the brain has an electrical misfire and the body loses control, most often recognized when a pet falls to the ground, its legs jerking uncontrollably. In humans this is called a grand mal seizure. Any kind of animal may suffer from a seizure, sometimes as simple as staring blankly at a wall, to chasing butterflies to a full-blown fit.
There are many causes for seizures. One big group that lumps many chemicals together is “poison”. Thirty years ago strychnine poisonings were still being seen here in Merced – leftover coyote bait? I don’t know. Most of those chemicals are long gone and illegal today. Some have been replaced by less toxic yet effective products. The snail bait metaldehyde that can lead to seizures and death in pets is slowly disappearing as an iron chelate compound takes its place.
Many pets which have their first seizure at home scare their family no end, but are up and running around like normal by the time they arrive – emergency! at the clinic. Why do we ask you to come in? Because we don’t know if your dog will stop seizing on its own, and when the seizure continues over 10 minutes or longer, called status epilepticus, your pet may be at risk of dying. Dogs in status epilepticus, for example, may need to be completely anesthetized to allow his or her muscles to unclench from their rigor, and may have to be kept heavily sedated for a prolonged period of time. This requires hospitalization, IV fluid support and intensive nursing care.
If your pet DOES have a seizure, try to time it (yes, it feels like an eternity!). Most last less than 2 minutes. Do NOT try to grab your pet’s head – it may bite you. Dogs do not swallow their tongue while seizing. Most pets recover quickly from a seizure. If not on emergency, have your pet seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
If the pet is not still seizing when brought to the hospital we will want to run some blood tests. There are a wide variety of organic diseases that may lead to a seizure. Oddly enough, low blood calcium is one. Calcium is not only needed for strong bones, but it is vital for every muscle contraction, including the beating of the heart. A mother dog with a large litter of pups or possibly a poor diet may present in tetany when milk production drains her body of calcium. Low blood sugar is a common problem in toy breeds. Electrolyte disturbances, the body’s salts, can lead to seizure like activity. The liver, the pancreas, the parathyroid glands, the brain! It all becomes very complicated. Many times when we find a problem on the blood tests we can treat the underlying disease specifically and the seizures will disappear. Sometimes, when the blood tests are normal and the seizures recurrent, we diagnose Epilepsy. If there is reason to be concerned about brain cancer a test by CT brain scan is available for pets at several centers in the Valley.
Epilepsy is still incompletely understood. It may be inherited or may occur secondary to severe head trauma, like being kicked by a cow. Often we diagnose “idiopathic” epilepsy meaning “I don’t know why”. Most epileptic cases are treated with similar medications, regardless of underlying cause. Anticonvulsant medications work through their sedative effect on the brain, calming the electrical impulses so they do not cross the excitement or seizure “threshold” that results in a “fit”.
While the onset of most seizures is never understood – so there is no preventing nor anticipating the next one – Coco set out to prove that yes, doggie drama queens do exist! We ran her blood work. Normal. We started her on anticonvulsants. She seizured “like always” at her next bath. We changed meds. Another seizure with the suds. Her owner swore that Coco never had a seizure at home. We never saw a seizure with vaccinations! Not over a blood draw! Not with the clippers! Something about running water and shampoo just pushed her over the edge. It was not worth medicating her for such infrequent events. Though possibly less stylish, Coco was home bathed after that and sternly warned to stay out of mud puddles!
Christine B. McFadden, DVM