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Idiopathic epilepsy in dogs: causes, symptoms, and how to treat it

Dog suffering a seizure

Dog epilepsy can give its owner a real fright. Imagine your little furball exhibiting strange and scary symptoms, seemingly out of nowhere! This neural nightmare is often a result of genetics, specifically idiopathic epilepsy. It happens when there’s a bizarre electrical discharge in a part of the dog’s brain, leading to convulsions. These spasms can affect just one part or the whole body.

Ready to learn more about this common canine condition?

What is idiopathic epilepsy in dogs?

Dogs can experience different forms of epilepsy:

  • Symptomatic epilepsy: This can happen after a stroke, congenital malformation, tumor, brain inflammation, or brain injury.
  • Reactive epilepsy: It’s triggered by hypoglycemia, presence of a toxic product in the blood, or diseases like kidney or liver failure.
  • Idiopathic epilepsy: This is the primary form of the disease. There’s no particular reason behind it.

Epilepsy is the most common neural disorder in dogs, affecting between 1 and 5% of our canine companions. Idiopathic epilepsy is often the culprit here. It typically appears in dogs between six months and six years old and is a result of a genetic inheritance.

Certain breeds are more likely to experience idiopathic epilepsy including German Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, Poodles, Golden Retrievers, Labradors, and Dachshunds. Also, similar genetic abnormalities have been discovered in Lagotto Romagnolo, Belgian Shepherd, and Boerbull breeds.

What does a seizure look like?

A dog’s seizure can look different depending on its breed and individual characteristics. Seizures can last from a few seconds up to 2 or 3 minutes, affecting a specific area or the dog’s whole body.

Symptoms might include:

  • Dog lying on its side
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chewing motions
  • Jerky movements
  • Excessive drooling
  • Urination
  • Defecation
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irregular breathing
  • Muscle contractions

Treatment options for epileptic dogs

Diagnosis through eliminating other causes:

Idiopathic epilepsy in dogs occurs without any identifiable trigger. As such, vets often resort to a process of elimination for a definitive diagnosis. How so?

  • They look into all potential epilepsy triggers for your four-legged friend.
  • They consider breed, age, potential underlying diseases (like a brain tumor), possible ingestion of poison, and medication history.
  • They ask owners about the duration, nature, and timing of the seizures.

These crucial pieces of information are supplemented with blood tests, CT scans, or MRIs. If no apparent cause for seizures is found, a diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy is confirmed.

Note: if your dog has seizures after swimming in mucky water, it might be serious: cyanobacteria poisoning is fatal and seizures are one of the symptoms.


A dog diagnosed with epilepsy will be put on a lifelong treatment plan to reduce the frequency and intensity of seizures. This might include:

  • Regular anti-epileptic medication.
  • A rectal injection of Valium at home for severe seizures lasting over 3 minutes.

Living with a seizure-prone dog

Symptoms and treatmentKeeping an eye on your dog’s behavior and adapting its lifestyle can help ensure a good quality of life.

Here are a few tips:

  • Keep tabs on your dog’s weight because prescribed meds can increase appetite.
  • Avoid causing your pet stress and sudden changes.
  • Go for walks with your pup, but keep any potential fatigue in mind.
  • Never halt the medical treatment without a professional’s advice.
  • During seizures, make the area around your dog safe (remove sharp objects…) and let your pet calm down.

Smart tip about dog epilepsy

Avoid breeding a dog that suffers from idiopathic epilepsy, as the disease could pass onto offspring. It’s also wise to spay epileptic female dogs, as heat can intensify seizures.

Images: CC BY 2.0: Andrew Bone, Tracy Donald

Written by Lydie Dronet | With over 20 years in the field of animal care, Lydie shares her paws-on expertise and experience. Other topics she loves delving into are nutrition and the medicinal uses of plants.
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