Vol 4 No 4

Fall 2002

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Understanding Seizures in Your Golden

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 Understanding Seizures in Your Golden

The reason for this article is simple:  Seizure conditions affect Golden Retrievers.  Not every Golden, of course, but enough of them to rank seizures among the most common ailments within the breed.

This article presents an overview of the different types of seizures, their symptoms and possible causes; the diagnostic procedures commonly used by veterinarians; and the options for medical management.  It also offers some practical advice in the event that your Golden Retriever experiences a seizure.

Witnessing a seizure for the first time is disturbing, frightening and heart wrenching.  Seizures come on suddenly and without warning, and convulsions can be extreme. You'll feel helpless, frustrated and panicked.

Clinical signs and symptoms of a seizure vary widely.  However, most seizures last from several seconds to a few minutes and fall into two broad categories: partial (focal) and primary generalized.

It's not important that you be able to identify which type of seizure your dog has experienced, but you may be able to help your veterinarian make a diagnosis if you can keep your emotions in check and make note of the symptoms your dog is presenting. (We'll talk more about note taking later.)

Following are symptoms that bear noting.

 Symptoms of Partial (Focal) Seizures
* twitching
* muscle rigidity or muscle jerking of an extremity
* head turning
* confusion
* restlessness
* absent stare
* dilated pupils
* slight twitching of facial muscles
* barking or howling
* involuntary movements, such as licking or chewing
* aggressive or defensive behavior
* impairment of consciousness
* intense sniffing
* excessive salivation

Symptoms of Primary Generalized Seizures
* loss of consciousness
* frozen stance
* no reaction to stimuli
* fixed and/or dilated pupils
* light salivation
* symmetrical, fine, frequent twitching of lips and eyelids
* sudden, brief jerks of one or more muscles
* rhythmic muscle contractions
* slight change in behavior (minutes to days before seizure begins)
* restlessness and anxiety (trembling, whimpering, hiding)
* excessive salivation
* sniffing
* vomiting
* muscle rigidity in all skeletal muscles
* muscle jerking
* open or clenched jaw
* violent jaw movements
* defecation
* walking or running movements

When seizures occur consecutively, they're considered cluster seizures, and the dog should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.  When consciousness is not regained between these seizures, the dog is in a state called status epilepticus, a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.

Once a seizure is over, your dog will enter what's known as the post-ictal phase, during which your dog may be exhausted and may remain motionless for minutes or hours.  Alternatively, your dog may rise quickly and wander around restlessly or frantically.  He/she may seem disoriented, unresponsive, and possibly deaf and blind.  This, too, can last as little as a few minutes or as long as several hours.  After the dog begins to return to normal, he/she may become very hungry, thristy, or clingy.

When seizures recur, the condition is called epilepsy.  Sometimes, the underlying cause can be determined, but one of the more frustrating aspects of seizure conditions is that quite often, despite thorough diagnostics, the epilepsy is deemed idiopathic, or without known origin.

Some breeds, such as Golden Retrievers, are prone to the inherited form of epilepsy, which typically presents between ages one and four. 

Other possible causes are classified as either intracranial (within the brain) or extracranial (outside of the brain) in origin.

Intracranial Origin
* Brain malformations
* Inflammatory disorders (e.g., distemper)
* Nutritional disorders (e.g., thiamine deficiency)
* Brain tumors (cancer is common in Golden Retrievers)
* Trauma to the brain
* Degenerative conditions
* Brain hemorrhage

Extracranial Origin
* Low blood sugar
* Lack of oxygen (as a result of heart or lung problems)
* Liver disease
* Intestinal parasites
* Heat stroke
* Electrolyte disturbances
* Low calcium levels
* High lipoprotein levels
* Kidney disease
* Underactive thyroid (thyroid conditions are common in Golden Retrievers)
* Poisonings (various plants, heavy metals [especially lead], organophosphates, chlorinated hydrocarbons, chocolate, rat poison, weed killer)

During the first year, seizures are most often a result of brain malformations, brain injury due to trauma, inflammatory or infectious diseases of the brain, metabolic disorders, or toxic disorders.  After age four, brain lesions/tumors and metabolic extracranial diseases are common.

Your veterinarian will take a complete medical history of your dog and will perform general physical and neurological examinations.  Additionally, a complete blood count and routine blood chemistry will be ordered.  An examination of the cerebrospinal fluid and a recording of the dog's brain waves with an electroencephalograph may be necessary.  Your veterinarian may have X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI performed as well.

Treatment for your dog's seizures is dependent on the diagnosis.  Typically, anticonvulsants are prescribed, except when the cause is an acute or treatable extracranial disorder.

For dogs with brain tumors or lesions, surgery may be an option.  This depends on the location of the tumor and the type of cancer it represents, as well as the prognosis for quality of life afterward.  Even after surgery, seizures may continue; therefore, medications (e.g., anticonvulsants, anti-inflammatory drugs) are often prescribed.

Unfortunately, many of the drugs necessary to control seizures have undesirable side effects, such as excessive sedation, lack of coordination, extreme hunger or thirst, and liver damage.  Additionally, tolerance often develops and dosage levels need to be adjusted periodically.  Therefore, it's important to weigh the risks and benefits of drug therapy on an ongoing basis.  If your dog has one or two seizures a year, it may not be necessary to begin treatment.  It's important to discuss these concerns with your veterinarian.

If your dog is having a seizure for the first time, the most important thing you can do is to remain calm.  There is virtually nothing that you can do to stop a seizure.  And keep this in mind:  although the seizure looks awful, and is awful, your dog is not experiencing pain. 

Don't try to restrain your dog or put anything in his/her mouth.  This can lead to unintentional injury to you or your dog. 

Some dogs may also become aggressive during seizures.  This is NOT common, but it does occur. When a dog is in the throes of a convulsions, he is in a completely disoriented state and doesn't recognize you or the setting he's in; sometimes, this leads to aggression.  For this reason, it's best to prepare for the worst and hope for the best by giving your dog plenty of space and remaining  at a safe distance until the seizure is over.

If you can safely do so, move all furniture away from the dog so that he/she does not get injured.

Get out a pad and paper, and take notes about what's occurring.  If you have a video camera, tape the seizure.  These pieces of information will be VERY helpful to your veterinarian.

Jot down the start time, each of the behaviors and symptoms your dog is exhibiting and the end time.

If the seizure lasts longer than five minutes, or if your dog begins to experience cluster seizures, bring him/her to an emergency veterinarian immediately.  Prolonged seizures can deprive vital organs of oxygen and immediate medical attention is of utmost importance.

If your dog is prone to seizures, it's a good idea to have an emergency plan in place.  Have the phone number of your emergency veterinarian in an accessible and easy-to-remember area.  Keep ice bags or packs on hand, and place them near or on your dog after the seizure is over.  This will cool down the core body temperature, which rises dramatically during a seizure.

Valium has the capability to stop a seizure in its tracks.  Therefore, ask your veterinarian for a supply of valium suppositories.  Unfortunately, suppositories need some time before they take effect; therefore, if you know how to administer intravenous injections, try to obtain injectable valium.  It works much faster.
Develop a plan for getting your dog to the veterinarian.  If you have a large dog like a Golden Retriever and you live alone, it may be a challenge to carry him/her to your car, especially if the dog is in the middle of a seizure.  If you live with someone else, decide ahead of time who will drive and who will be the dog's caretaker.  Being prepared can save crucial minutes during a crisis. 

Additionally, be aware of the fact that your dog can suffer respiratory arrest and/or heart failure during a seizure.  Therefore, it's important to know canine CPR, which can sustain his/her life until an emergency veterinarian takes over.  (For Information about Pet CPR Classes in New Jersey, visit

Once the seizure has passed, speak to your dog in a calm voice.  Provide plenty of water and offer lots of love and comfort.  Your dog will be uneasy and confused and will need your support and reassurance in order to return to normal.

For more information about seizures, visit

Thanks to Annette Skiendziel for providing this article to the GRRI News!