How do dogs get epilepsy? Is it hereditary?

Epilepsy, a condition in which animals suffer recurrent seizures (commonly known as fits) is usually classed as either “true” or “acquired”. True epilepsy, which has no other identifiable cause, may be inherited. Although there appear to be different types and different degrees by which they are inheritable, the basic problem would appear to be a biochemical defect in the nervous tissue of the brain, allowing the uncontrolled electrical discharge from the brain cells that results in seizures.

Acquired epilepsy, on the other hand is the result of some outside influence affecting the brain, and resulting in residual damage to the brain cells. The initial effect, which may have been the result of toxicity or trauma for instance, may have been of a minor nature and not even noticed by the owner of the animal at the time, and it may not be until months or years later that the epilepsy develops.

Before a diagnosis of epilepsy is made, however, other possible causes of seizures need to be investigated – various toxicities such as lead poisoning will cause fits, as will such problems as meningoencephalitis, brain tumours and head injuries. Low blood sugar and various electrolyte imbalances may also result in seizures, and young animals carrying large numbers of intestinal worms may also be subject to fits.

Do cats have epilepsy?

Yes, cats may also be epileptic, although the problem is more common in the dog.

The inherited types are much better documented in various dog breeds, but acquired epilepsy occurs in both species.

Can epilepsy be controlled and is the treatment expensive?

In most cases, epilepsy can be controlled with medication. However, the decision to begin what will inevitably be a lifelong treatment depends on how badly the animal is affected. Seizures vary markedly in their severity and frequency, so that an animal suffering mild seizures less than once a month for instance would probably not be medicated.

Seeing their pet having convulsions can be very upsetting for pet owners. However it is usually worse for them than it is for the pets themselves. From human experience it seems there is no perception – or certainly no memory – of the actual process, and as long as the animal is in an environment where it can’t hurt itself, the fit itself is unlikely to cause suffering or pain.

More frequent or severe seizures do warrant treatment, and this usually takes the form of daily medication, which is not enormously expensive. There are a number of different drugs available, and it may take some time to find the right drug, at the right dose, to suit the individual animal without such side effects as drowsiness. Regular blood tests are advised to make sure that the body is coping with the drugs.

In some cases, acupuncture treatments can be helpful in reducing the severity and frequency of fits, and in reducing the amount of medication an animal may need.

– Virginia Williams