Canine Epilepsy

Our first experience was through Frosty. We'll never know what caused his epilepsy, and now strongly suspect it wasn't epilepsy at all, but a thyroid deficiency, since none of his brothers or sisters or relatives ever had it.   Thyroid deficiency can cause seizures, and if the dog is given phenobarbital, it can lower the thyroid levels even further.  So regardless whether it was thyroid undiagnosed or actual was very scary. 

Shortly thereafter we would get our second experience with this devastating disease. We purchased a dog to enhance our breeding program, but it wasn't to be. Not long after we brought Chevy home he started having seizures at just a few months old. By one year old he was having them regularly. Fortunately he was never used in our breeding program, but regardless, having a dog with seizures really impacts your life. Canine Epilepsy is a chronic condition characterized by recurrent seizures.

Canine Epilepsy is a disorder of the brain where abnormal electrical activity triggers further uncoordinated nerve transmission. There is no sure way to diagnose it except on history - which is very bad since many things can cause seizures.  We've seen Meningitis, Thyroid, and Allergies cause seizures so it's not always epliepsy and that should NOT be a veterinarian's first assumption without ruling out a myrad of other things.  Uncoordinated and haphazard nerve tissue activity scrambles messages to the muscles of the dog's body and causes erratic and uncoordinated use of the muscles - from the mouth to the tail and this can be caused by other undiagnosed disease. Epilepsy in the general dog population is estimated at .5 to 5.7%. 

Before you assume Epilepsy and put the dog on heavy duty medication that can damage internal organs, (yes, phenobarb does that) make sure you've checked the following:

  • Brain tumor, Head injury
  • Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Distemper
  • Environment - toxins
  • hyper' and 'hypo' Conditions of thyroid
  • Hypoglycemia
  • Hypocalcemia
  • Hypoxia or Hypoxemia
  • Hepatic Encephalopathy or Liver Disease
  • Renal (kidney) disease
  • Hyperkalemia
  • Hyperlipoproteinemia
  • Gastrointestinal disease ("garbage" poisoning)
  • Tick Bites
  • Toxoplamosis (Toxo)

And if that's not enough to keep your veterinarian busy... below is a list of factors that most commonly trigger seizures. This does not mean your Malamute will have a seizure each time it comes in contact with one. EACH dog is different and sensitive to certain things. This list does not apply to every dog.

Some of these factors are impossible to avoid, but are listed for your knowledge.

  1. Hair spray - Do not spray when Malamute is in the same room.
  2. Wool - Wool blankets, wool sofas, etc.
  3. Heartworm pills - A seizure may occur 1 to 1 ½ wks. after administering heartworm medication.
  4. Cigarette smoke.
  5. Environmental Pollution from chemical plants.
  6. BHA - A preservative commonly used in dog foods, read - "Additives in Malamute Foods,"
  7. BHT - A preservative commonly used in dog foods.
  8. Sodium nitrate - Proven in research studies to cause severe seizures. Sodium nitrate is found in many foods we eat. Read the ingredient labels carefully.
  9. carpet powders.
  10. Air fresheners.
  11. Fabric softeners - If exposed to clothes that have fabric softener on them.
  12. Dryer sheets - If exposed to clothes that have been in the dryer with the dryer sheets.
  13. Salt, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Calcium Iodate, Monosodium Glutamate - in excess.
  14. Sugar - Sucrose, corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar.
  15. Low quality commercial dog biscuits and treats.
  16. Low quality dry food.
  17. Low quality canned food.
  18. Fumes from all bathroom cleaners.
  19. Fumes from bleach.
  20. Fumes from dusting products.
  21. Household cleaners - Pine cleaners should be avoided.
  22. All toxic flea products - If the product states "Hazardous To Humans And Domestic Animals", it is hazardous to your Malamute.
  23. Plastic bowls - All plastics release some undetectable fumes, especially when heated. This out-gassing means the fumes can pass into the foods that are served or stored in the bowl or container. Stainless steel or glass bowls are recommended.
  24. Cheap ceramic bowls - Cause the same problem as described above.
  25. Toxic shampoos.
  26. Toxic flea collars.
  27. Dust - Change air filters in your home once a month, and wash curtains twice yearly.
  28. Crabgrass.
  29. Mold.
  30. Eating cat or dog feces.
  31. Stress.
  32. Vaccinations.
  33. Lyme vaccine.
  34. Lyme encephalitis.
  35. Rabies vaccine.
  36. Worm infestation.
  37. Lead - Malamutes like to lick lead because it tastes sweet, and lead poisoning can result from licking or eating wood chips on which there is lead paint. This can be checked when doing regular blood work, but it must be specified that you would like a LEAD POISONING TEST which is not part of a normal blood work.
  38. Paint fumes.
  39. Paint chips from lead based paint.
  40. Excessive exercise.
  41. Overheating.
  42. Abuse or neglect.
  43. Rawhides - Many are dipped in a solution of salt and bleach
  44. Cheap painted Malamute toys
  45. Loud noises - Yelling, fighting, doorbell ringing
  46. Scented candles.
  47. Vitamins with high sodium level.
  48. Inconsistent routine.
  49. FALL - Research studies have shown that more seizures occur in the fall. This is due to mold and bacteria in the air.
  50. Blinking lights - Christmas lights, bright lights, etc.
  51. Pine cleaners.
  52. Red food dye.
  53. Ethoxyquin.
  54. Fungi, Bacteria and Germs.
  55. Mobile Phones - Research carried out on animals suggests that mobile phone emissions may trigger seizures. Check out this site - Epilepsy and Mobile Phones
  56. Hereditary Factors.
  57. Certain diseases can indirectly cause seizures. For instance, Cushing's disease is usually stimulated by a microscopic tumor of the pituitary gland. But in some instances it can be large enough to pressurize the brain and hasten neurological disturbances including seizures. 

So, it's not easy to just assume it's Epilepsy...many factors can be present, some quite common, that can cause seizures.  The key is to see a pattern - weekly, daily, monthly, how often and how long and what were you and the dog doing?  Epilepsy cannot be diagnosed from just a few seizures even if they are severe.

Because Canine epilepsy is not a specific disease or even a single syndrome, many things can cause it. It's a very diverse group of disorders. Basically when your Malamute has "Epilepsy" it means they can't find any other reasons for the disturbances in the brain.  If you've looked long and hard at environment, medications, injuries, heritidary...then you MAY be able to consider Epilepsy as the primary diagnosis.

Categories of Epilepsy

Canine Epilepsy is broadly divided into idiopathic and symptomatic disorders. Idiopathic Epilepsy, also called primary epilepsy, means that there is no identifiable brain abnormality other than seizures. Symptomatic epilepsy (also called secondary epilepsy) has a direct cause such as an identifiable tumor or traumatic blow to the head - causing the seizures.

Primary canine epilepsy manifests by a first seizure between 6 months and 5 years. At 4 years and older, epilepsy can be caused by a metabolic problem such as hypoglycemia, or cardiovascular arrhythmia, low blood calcium, cirrhosis or a brain tumor. Epilepsy in dogs is also associated with hypothyroidism, a very common disease in Malamutes. Chevy eventually developed low thyroid, so we have to wonder if this was the underlying cause of his original symptoms. Frosty was never low thyroid.

Most dogs with idiopathic epilepsy suffer their first seizure between the ages of one and five years of age. A genetic basis for idiopathic epilepsy is strongly suspected in several breeds including the Alaskan Malamute. Idiopathic canine epilepsy may have an inherited basis in other breeds also. As more breeding to certain popular sires goes on, it's becoming much more common.

The terms epilepsy, seizure, fit or convulsion all mean the same thing - the physical manifestation of a sudden, excessive electrical discharge of neurons in the brain that results in a series of involuntary muscle contractions such as jerking or trembling behaviors, jerking, paddling, or just staring into space without a response.

In the Malamute, a far-away look or twitching in one part of the face is a mild manifestation all the way to the dog collapsing and pawing violently, drooling and biting the air. It's common for a seizuring dog to gnash it's teeth, urinate and defecate while thrashing about wildly.

Seizures usually appear without warning, and end just as quickly. They can last for seconds to minutes, or if a tranceline seizure, even longer. Diagnosis of epilepsy is made primarily by ruling out other possibilities, there are no specific tests for epilepsy.

What a seizure looks like

A seizure is a terrifying thing to watch. It's also dangerous as many dogs have bitten their owners in the throes of a seizure when they would have never bitten normally. It's not his fault, he has no control over the involuntary muscle spasms. The word "seizure" refers to the involuntary contraction of muscles. The seizure is caused by an electrical storm in the brain. Seizures can be broken into two types, generalized and partial. In a generalized seizure, the electrical storm appears everywhere in the brain at once. In a partial seizure, the abnormal electrical impulses begin in a small area of the brain, and may expand.

A severe seizure, now called a tonic-clonic (formerly called grand mal), seizure begins with contraction of all skeletal muscles and loss of consciousness. The dog usually collapses to one side with the legs stretched out and the stretched head back. This is the tonic portion of the seizure. He may moan, yelp or bark involuntary but that doesn't mean he's in pain. Often there is facial twitching or air-biting. Often the dog will drool excessively, urinate, defecate or eliminate his anal glands. The tonic portion of the seizure is usually very brief and gives way to the clonic phase of the seizure. Once the tonic phase begins the dog will have rhythmic movements. Typically this consists of clamping the jaws and jerking or running movements of the legs. It's important to get the dog to an area he will not hurt himself while seizuring. Because Chevy was partially blind due to the seizures, he was mainly confined to a large safe pen in our house - with everything dangerous removed. He could only come out under supervision because his seizures were so violent, he would have hurt himself on furniture or cement floors. We attempted to keep his area padded somewhat with towels and thick bedding but it wasn't always easy because before or after a seizure he would pace in circles. By the time he feel to the floor the padding was pretty well messed up. So all we could do was pad his head with the towels and mop up any pee and wait for it to subside.

Following the seizure, the dog may lay motionless for a brief period.   Eventually he will get up their feet and may appear to be perfectly normal except for periods of blindness, disorientation, pacing or running about the house bumping into things. This behavior, or "post-ictal" behavior can last anywhere from hours to days after a seizure. This is why Chevy was confined to his pen when we couldn't supervise his every move. A dog as large as a Malamute is like a bull in a china shop when coming out of a seizure so it's important he's contained to keep him as well as your home safe. 

There are other types of seizures as well, one type of generalized seizure is the tonic seizure, in which motor activity consists only of generalized muscle rigidity. Less common are clonic seizures where there is no tonic phase. Some dogs suffer milder generalized tonic-clonic seizures in they are conscious the entire time.

A Partial seizure is also called a focal seizure. In this type of seizure the electrical storm is affecting only a part of the brain. A partial seizure may stay localized or it may expand to the whole brain and cause a full-blown seizure. A seizure that starts in only a part of the brain is suspect that some underlying disease or injury caused it. A partial seizure may remain localized or spread to other areas of the brain causing more generalized muscle movement.

Partial seizures are classified as simple focal seizures when consciousness is preserved, and as complex focal seizures when the dog is unconscious. In a simple partial seizure, the area of the brain that is affected is the area that controls movement. Usually the face is affected, resulting in twitching or blinking. This is usually limited to one side of the face or body. The dog is usually aware during this kind of seizure.

A complex partial seizure will originate in the area of the brain that controls behavior and is sometimes called a psychomotor seizure. During this type of seizure, a dog’s consciousness is altered and he may exhibit bizarre behavior such as unprovoked aggression or extreme irrational fear. This is why you must be very careful when attending to a seizuring dog as a dog that has one type of seizure, may occasionally have a different type. Some of the symptoms are he may run randomly, do some reMalamuteitive senseless behavior or snap at imaginary things near his head. Some of the bizarre complex behaviors that are repeated during each seizure are lip movements, chewing, fly biting, aggressive actions, vocalization, hysterical running, cowering or hiding, in an otherwise normal dog. Complex partial seizures may include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal distress, salivation, blindness, unusual thirst or apMalamuteite, or biting itself.

Cluster seizures are multiple seizures within a short period of time with brief periods of consciousness in between. Status epilepticus seizures in dogs can occur as one continuous seizure lasting half hour or more, or a series of multiple seizures in a short time with no periods of normal consciousness. Status epilepticus and frequent cluster seizures are both considered life-threatening emergencies, and can occur with either primary or secondary epilepsy, and may suddenly arise in dogs with no previous history of seizures. If your dog continues to seizure beyond a few minutes, get veterinary help immediately.

Medical treatment is generally advised for dogs with epilepsy experiencing one or more seizures per month. Haphazard administration of prescribed medicines is worse than no treatment at all, and may cause status epilepticus, a life threatening condition where the brain is in a state of persistent seizure. Successful drug treatment for dogs with epilepsy depends upon the owner's dedication to delivering the drug exactly as prescribed by the veterinarian. While a seizure may seem scary and life threatening, many dogs have lived for YEARS with them when controlled properly with medications.

The 4 stages of a seizure:

1. The Prodome – This stage can last from minutes to hours or even days before the manifestation of the actual seizure activity. Uncannily Pod would warn us of this stage so that we could be near Chevy when he got to the next stage. Typically characterized by changes in the dog’s mood or behavior, I think this is what she picked up on to warn us one was coming.

2. The Aura – The aura stage is when owners first notice the initial signs. Some dogs will begin pacing, licking, salivating, trembling, vomiting, wandering aimlessly, hiding, whining or urinating. Some dogs will exhibit excessive barking and attempts to get an owner’s attention. If Pod didn't warn us initially, at this point she would let out a very unusual yip - a sound she only used when Chevy began to seizure - it could wake us from a sound sleep it was so shrill and piercing.

3. The Ictus- This stage is the actual seizure itself. It is a period of abnormal activity in which the most common symptoms are that the dog may lose consciousness, gnash their teeth or bite their tongue and the air, thrashing about with their head and legs, drooling excessively, whining, paddling feet as if running as well as losing control of their bladders and bowels.

Some dogs will pace or run in circles, others will just chew like a cow chewing it's cud - Chevy did both.  Some suddenly go blank and stare into space. Some dogs become very quiet and it appears the seizure is over though it isn't. We were told this is the most dangerous part of the seizure and can result in a heart attack as the heart and organs are very stressed.

4. The Ictal – This stage occurs immediately after a seizure. Owners often report the dog acts drunk, doped, blind or deaf. Other dogs will show signs of pacing endlessly or drinking large amounts of water and stumbling in circles. Some will seem to pass out and just sleep.

Whereas idiopathic epilepsy has no known or discernable cause, Secondary epilepsy may be caused by:

  1. Hypoglycemia or “low blood sugar.”
  2. Hypothyroidism – A condition in which the thyroid functions inadequately.
  3. Disease – Seizures are a common symptom of diseases such as encephalitis and distemper
  4. Lead poisoning – This can be seen in dogs that like to chew on items such as painted wood.
  5. Brain Tumors – This is the most common cause of seizures that begin after the age of 5.
  6. Hydrocephalus – The accumulation of excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) within the brain.
  7. Eclampsia – This occurs when a lactating female’s calcium levels drop to dangerous levels.
  8. Toxins – Pesticides, fertilizers, poisonous plants, arsenic, strychnine and chocolate.
  9. Trauma – Trauma can occur from some type of severe blow to the head such being hit by a car, bat, kicked or fall.
  10. Organ failure – End stage liver or renal failure can often cause seizures
  11. Infection - of the brain or spine
  12. Parasitic – Severe cases of intestinal worms, end stage heart worms or even anemia from fleas and ticks can cause seizures.

It as been proven that epilepsy often runs in bloodlines and new studies are showing that certain breeds are more likely to have the disorder. Some of the breeds it occurs in more often are Belgian Tervuerens, Beagles, Dachshunds, German Shepherds, Keeshonds, Boxers, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Irish Setters, Labrador Retrievers, Collies, Schnauzers, Poodles, Dalmatians and St. Bernards. Antecedently, we are hearing more and more about it affecting Malamutes, particularly certain lines.

If you are willing to take precautions for the dog's safety, a dog diagnosed with epilepsy can live a long, happy life. Unfortunately that was not the case with Chevy or Frosty. Both had seizures that seemed to get worse over time, particularly Frosty's. Chevy developed multiple problems including thyroid, blindness, brain damage and massive ear infections that may or may not have been related to his epilepsy. The problem is a Malamute is a large dog, so maintenance and management is difficult and daunting. It's one thing to clean up and bathe a small dog that deficates and urinates on itself at every seizure, another for a large hairy Malamute. That is why we breed carefully and avoid affected lines if at all possible.

If you suspect your dog may have epilepsy and you see seizure like activity, note of the time, date, length and type of seizure as well as the way the dog acts after the seizure is over. If you can video tape the seizure it will help your veterinarian make a diagnosis. I strongly recommend going to a specialist rather than your regular veterinarian.  If you have a teaching hospital or clinic that specializes in neurological disorders nearby, all the better.  Keep a record of these things and get assistance as soon as possible. Do NOT let the seizures go on for hours and hours, even if there is a break between them. Constant seizuring will eventually cause brain damage the longer it's allowed to go on.  

Seizure triggers

It is important to keep your epileptic dog as free from chemicals as possible. It's important to pay attention to the environment. Weather, air pressure, chemicals on the lawn and floor cleaners can affect a seizure afflicted dog. Ivermectin it has been known to cause seizures in some breeds. There are many things that can lower a dog's seizure threshold. Keep a diary of your dog's seizures. Note down anything you have done or that the dog could have come in contact with that day which could have contributed to causing the seizure. It is also a known phenomenon that some dogs may seizure around the full moon.

Vaccinations can lower a dog's seizure threshold and trigger a seizure. It's important to spread out vaccinations - do distemper one week and rabies a couple of weeks later. Many veterinary schools are now recommending that the distemper combination shot only be given every three years, and may convey immunity for much longer.  A new protocol may be coming out soon for rabies - allowing vaccinations every 5 instead of every 3 years in some states.  The rabies vaccine has been proven to be effective for up to 10 years so it makes sense to vaccinate less often so the dog's immune system isn't overloaded.

Feed a food that is preservative free. It's suspected that preservatives such as Ethoxyquin and BHT may cause seizures. Buy a high quality food made from "human grade" ingredients if possible. Many dogs have done well, and no longer seizure on a raw "barf" diet. Two good books on a raw diet are Dr Ian Billinghurst's "The BARF Diet" and Susan Johnson's "Switching to Raw" which have been recommended to us. Note that if your dog is taking Potassium Bromide be very careful when you switch dog foods. The chloride content should remain the same as the previous food, changing slowly, so that the absorption rate of the KBr remains constant.

What can you do when your dog seizures?

Keep the dog as quiet as possible. Loud or sharp noises, such as other dogs barking, may prolong the seizure or make it worse. Many dogs are fearful of other dogs in the pack during this vulnerable time, so the seizuring dog needs to be protected from others in the pack that may attack it. If the dog is close to another dog that can be trusted, it's ok to let the other dog be nearby, sometimes the seizuring dog will find it's presence comforting. Chevy, as he came out of a seizure would look for Pod and my husband. Pod's presence when Dan wasn't home seemed to help him feel less stressed. We feel it's good to make a point of calmly maintaining physical and voice contact with him throughout the seizure and during recovery. Often they can hear you, but can't react. I know Chevy looked for Dan immediately on coming out of one.

Drug therapy

Among the recommended tests that are done to rule out other diseases when epilepsy is suspected are: CBC, urinalysis, BUN, ALT, ALP, calcium, fasting blood glucose level, serum glucose level, serum lead level, fecal parasite or ova examination, and others if indicated. The point is to see if there is something specifically causing the seizures, such as thyroid disease or calcium levels.

There are several medications that are often used to control or stop the seizures. The most common medications are:

  • Primadone (Mysoline)
  • Phenobarbital - hard on the liver, dog must be tested regularly for liver damage
  • Potassium Bromide - careful of salt levels, change foods very slowly to maintain stable levels
  • Dilantin
  • Potassium Bromide
  • Valium (Diazepam)

Sometimes the medications seem to have no affect and the seizures, or they may actually cause them to worsen. In most instances dogs that are kept on medications can lead pretty normal lives with few restrictions or changes in routine. Occasionally they will build up a resistance to some of the drugs and will need to change over to others or receive Valium injections to stop the seizures once they occur. There is also the more rare occurrence we discovered with Chevy, in that he was allergic to Potassium Bromide. For almost two years we were told the drunken uncoordinated behavior was a symptom of the Phenobarbital. Finally, after seeing no improvement, changing vets and switching to JUST Phenobarbital we found the dopey uncoordinated behavior stopped. He was apparently reacting badly to the potassium bromide.

If you are into holistic medicine, you will probably still need one of the above medications for your dog. Alternative therapies, including acupuncture and vitamin therapy, are usually not adequate to control serious seizures, but can be used with the above medications. Some studies suggest some forms of epilepsy in dogs respond to supplementation of vitamin B6, magnesium, and manganese.

In order for any drug therapy to be effective, the amount of drug found in the body should be consistently monitored. Three dogs given roughly the same dose of Phenobarbital can have very different seizure control. The amount of drug found in the body correlates much better with seizure control than daily dosage. It is important to work with your veterinarian and have him test the dog's serum levels often to make sure he's receiving the appropriate amount of drug to control the symptoms and avoid side effects.


This page is dedicated to Chevy and Frosty - beautiful dogs dealt a bad lot in life...