Emergencies & Pet Peeves

One of the most common emergency calls that vets get is for seizures in dogs. Other animals can have seizures, but most of the calls involve dogs.

Most people know roughly what epilepsy is, but much of the disease remains a mystery to most. Technically, epilepsy is a focus of abnormal electrical activity in the brain that suddenly takes over brain function.

The signs that you see depend on where in the brain this focus is, how severe the electrical focus is, and how quickly the brain is able to regain control of it.

Many feel that such an abnormal focus of electricity is normal in animals, including humans, but most can control it quite well and it never surfaces as a clinical problem.

So why does it suddenly become a problem in some dogs? Genetics is one factor that is part of the mystery. Certain breeds of dogs and certain lines within breeds can be prone to seizures.

In other cases, a wide variety of things can allow this focus to take over and the brain to lose control of it. Flashing lights at certain rhythms can be a factor. Some sound frequencies can be a problem.

Certain drugs and, interestingly, some foods can trigger seizures. It differs from individual to individual, and no one thing can be said to cause it.

Perhaps many other things may trigger seizures. Smells, emotions, etc. may all be a part of the puzzle. We know a great deal about the potential causes of seizures from humans who suffer from epilepsy. It’s a very complex field.

Why do so many of these emergency calls come in the night? Every vet has wondered this, but my theory is that people are home at night to see the seizure. When people are away, no one notices as quickly. The time of day likely isn’t a factor here.

Most seizures will last a short time, although it can seem a lot longer for the owner to watch it happening. This is why sometimes it’s actually better to wait a few minutes to call back. Let the seizure be over and then have a good chat with the owner. If the seizures go on for a long time, this is a very different story.

By explaining what epilepsy is and what the person has just seen, what I always did was to get the pet into the clinic during the next day and do a complete physical and blood work. This is to make sure that something else isn’t going on.

I’ve had a dog that got into an ashtray and had nicotine poisoning, and one pup that had a birth defect that was poisoning the liver. Two cases in 37 years give you an idea of how common epilepsy can be.

In this case, the physical examination will be negative and blood profile is normal. Even an electroencephalogram would be normal. Once we’ve ruled out other causes, then it’s time to decide how to treat the disease.

Humans have to function socially, operate equipment, etc. so a seizure can be devastating. That’s why most physicians will be fairly quick to treat with drugs to allow the brain to better control the abnormal electrical activity.

In other words, you treat to control it, not to cure it. Only in the most severe human cases is cure even a consideration. The best you can do is control it.

So what do we do in dogs? How frequent are the seizures? How severe are they? How debilitating to the dog are they? How much do they interfere with the family life?

All of these factors should be considered. If the seizures are mild and infrequent, it may be best to simply educate the owners about what’s going on and live with the disease. A sled dog or service dog may be best retired, but can live a normal life otherwise.

One of my pet peeves over the years has been to see people think this is a brain tumour. A brain tumour is easy to talk about, but nearly impossible to prove without an MRI and some very involved and expensive testing.

And in the end, there’s nothing you can do with it at this time. Veterinary medicine just doesn’t have the resources of human medicine. Despite what you see on Grey’s Anatomy, it’s not something that’s possible here.

Is a tumour possible? Of course it is. Ironically, one of my own former pets started having seizures at 15, and did have a tumour the size of a plum. But it’s the only one I’ve ever actually seen.

Another of my pet peeves? Every vet has experienced this one.

A real emergency call isn’t a problem to most vets. We understand that it’s part of the job. And while it might be irritating at the moment, we understand what’s happening.

But when you have to make an emergency call to your vet, stay off the phone after you’ve done it.

You’d be amazed how many people will make an emergency call, and then call all their friends to tell them about it, leaving the vet with a busy signal for 30-45 minutes.

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