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What to Do When Your Dog is Diagnosed with Cancer: Treatment, Prognosis, and Costs

By David F. Kramer

Few diagnoses in the veterinary world bring more pain to a dog owner than one simple word: cancer. The mind instantly goes to the perceived harshness of chemotherapy, surgery or radiation treatments, the likelihood of remission, and the possibility of losing the battle altogether. And while conditions such as kidney and heart disease can be more difficult to treat and have a poorer chance of survival than some types of cancer, this doesn’t stop the specter of cancer from casting a dark shadow over your pet and family.

An obvious first question to a diagnosis of cancer in our dogs is simply, why? The truth is that there is often no definitive reason. While some cancers are more common in certain breeds and in a few cases, causative links to specific genes or toxins have been identified,  for the most part luck plays the biggest role in determining whether or not your dog may one day be afflicted.

RECOGNIZING THE SIGNS OF CANCER IN DOGS

According to Veterinary Oncologist Dr. MJ Hamilton of Crown Veterinary Services in Lebanon, NJ, there are many signs that could be indicative of cancer. “Usually, we’ll see big changes at home. So things like decreased mobility, lethargy, changes in appetite, collapse, or inability to urinate,” says Hamilton. The specific symptoms that a dog develops depends on the type of cancer involved, where it is located, and how far it has progressed.

Hamilton, says a diagnosis of cancer comes from further testing. “Usually it’s during a workup that you’ll find it; either through an ultrasound, biopsy, or cytology.”

TREATING CANCER IN DOGS

When it comes to treating dogs with cancer, chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery are typically recommended either alone or in combination. Veterinary medicine has made some recent strides in other treatments, such as immunotherapy or antibody therapy, but these are less prevalent than the first line treatments.

The course of your dog’s treatment will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary oncologist, and will depend on the type of cancer, as well as other factors. Whenever it is feasible, surgery to physically remove as much of the cancer as possible is usually part of treatment. Surgery may be the only type of therapy that is recommended, or it will be performed before or after chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

While chemotherapy is a blanket term for using drugs to combat disease, such treatments for cancer come in several forms. According to Dr. Joanne Intile, staff oncologist at the East End Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Center in Riverhead, NY, chemotherapy can be administered orally, intravenously, topically, subcutaneously, intramuscularly, intratumorally (directly into a tumor), or intracavitarily (into a body cavity).

Chemotherapy can be adjuvant: used after a tumor is removed in the hopes of killing the remaining or residual cancer cells; neoadjuvant: which is used prior to surgery to reduce the size of an existing tumor; or induction: which is used to hopefully bring about a remission for specific types of blood borne cancers.

The majority of dogs treated with chemotherapy don’t suffer much in the way of serious side effects. Most dogs will not lose their fur during chemotherapy, but some breeds (those with continuously growing haircoats like Poodles and Old English Sheepdogs) might experience some thinning of hair. Your dog might also experience temporary diarrhea or vomiting and have less of an appetite. Bone marrow suppression is another worry with chemotherapy treatments because it can lead to anemia and/or increased risk of infection. But these types of side effects are typically treatable. The Clinical Oncology Service at the Veterinary Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania estimates that the chance of “severe side effects… is estimated to be less than 5% of all pets receiving chemotherapy. With proper management, most animals recover uneventfully within a few days.”

Your vet will keep track of your dog’s progress through regular examinations, bloodwork, and discussions with you regarding what you observe at home. He or she may make changes in the dosage or choices of drug that are used for treatment based on how your dog responds to them.

Depending upon the type of cancer and how it is affecting your dog, your vet may recommend radiation therapy rather than chemotherapy.

Dr. Rick Chetney Jr., of VRC in Malvern, PA, is a veterinary oncologist who specializes in radiation treatments to fight cancer. “Radiation therapy is a localized therapy, like surgery,” says Dr. Chetney.

“It’s often used for tumors that we can’t surgically remove because they’re up against necessary structures such as the heart or brain. Chemotherapy is a systemic treatment—once we inject it, it goes all throughout the body battling microscopic disease when it starts spreading to other locations. Again, radiation is more localized.”

“A definitive radiation therapy protocol is given once daily—usually with between 16 and 20 daily treatments—so it takes about three or four weeks,” says Dr. Chetney. “An individual treatment takes about an hour and a half to two hours, and most of that time is spent waiting for the patient to become sleepy from the sedative, and then later to recover from the anesthesia. The treatment itself only takes about 5-10 minutes.”

Animals are given varying levels of sedation for radiation treatments, mainly to keep them still. There’s no direct pain from the radiation treatment itself although some discomfort, skin problems, or fatigue may be associated with its effects.

If you live close to your treating oncologist, you might be able to bring your dog to its daily radiation treatments. If distance is an issue, the animal can be boarded during the week for treatments and be permitted to go home to recuperate over the weekend. 

HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO TREAT A DOG FOR CANCER?

Once a cancer diagnosis is determined, among the first considerations is cost. Even with research into this topic, you may find very little definitive information. Consulting with your vet or oncologist will certainly help get you a ballpark figure, but he or she may be hesitant to nail down a specific figure since it’s impossible to predict just how your dog will respond to treatment. 

Veterinary insurance is an option and many types cover cancer treatment (most likely partially)—but as is the case with people, rules concerning pre-existing conditions will generally prevent you from getting coverage once your dog has been diagnosed. Your veterinary oncologist will lay out a treatment plan and proposed rate, but there are many factors that can affect the eventual cost.

“It varies wildly, and it’s something I really can’t answer,” says Hamilton. “There are some cancers that are very affordable and inexpensive to treat, and others that really start to add up. Some cancers can be a couple hundred dollars a month, and others that start to add up into the thousands before you’re done. Everything is completely customized to that pet, what we know, and what the wishes of the family are.”

According to the National Canine Cancer Foundation, an initial visit to confirm a cancer diagnosis can be upwards of $200. Major surgery to remove a cancerous tumor deep inside the body, or that will require reconstruction, can start at $1,500. Chemotherapy treatments might range from $200 to $2,000, depending upon the type and severity of the cancer. Radiation therapy can range from $2,000 to $6,000 or higher. You will also need to factor in additional medications that might be needed—such as pain relievers or antibiotics—which could cost another $30 to $50 per month for an indefinite period.

NATURAL REMEDIES AND DIET FOR DOGS WITH CANCER

During and after treatment for cancer, dog owners might be tempted to look to the East for a different approach to medicine. One veterinarian who uses the Eastern approach is Dr. Patrick Mahaney of Los Angeles, CA, who specializes in natural and alternative treatments for pets. According to Mahaney, this type of pet care is imperative before, during, and after a cancer diagnosis.

“It’s crucial that all veterinarians and pet owners be attuned to whole-body health, especially when a pet is diagnosed with cancer and is going through surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy,” says Mahaney. “What’s not totally addressed in the veterinary oncology community is nutrition. We’re so dependent on processed, commercially available pet foods, primarily kibble, and really it’s not the ideal thing for any pet to eat. It’s fairly simple to make dietary changes to a whole-food based diet that can really benefit whole-body health.”

Mahaney is dubious of the current state of most available pet foods that make up the multi-million dollar pet food industry. It all begins, he says, with the concept of “feed grade” products that are welcome for animals, but judged unsuitable to be fed to humans. Mahaney believes in a life-long pet diet that consists of whole and human grade foods.

“Whole food feeding is key. Human grade ingredients have lower thresholds for certain substances that can be toxic—even carcinogenic. Mold-produced toxins (called mycotoxins), including aflatoxin and vomitoxin, can irritate the intestines, suppress the immune system, and are carcinogenic (cancer causing). You want to be sure that while your pet is being treated that their food is not going to further contribute to cancer,” he says.

While a diagnosis of cancer in your dog is by no means a certain death sentence, it’s sure to be a stressful time for both dogs and their families. Your veterinarian and veterinary oncologist will work with you to give you options for treatment and help walk you through any difficulties that come with it.

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Dead Tail in Dogs

by Jennifer Coates, DVM

Dogs use their tails all the time. They use them to express emotions. Think of the rapid wag of a dog looking for attention, the slow wag of wariness, and the rigid tail of aggression. They use them for balance when they’re moving quickly on land and as a rudder when they’re swimming. So what does it mean when a dog’s tail suddenly goes limp?

The condition goes by many names—dead tail, limber tail, swimmer’s tail, cold tail, frozen tail, sprained tail, limp tail, sprung tail, broken tail, and more.

Any dog can be affected but Pointers, Labrador retrievers, Flat-coated retrievers, Golden retrievers, Foxhounds, Coonhounds, and Beagles seem to be at highest risk, particularly if they are working dogs. Young dogs are diagnosed with dead tail more often than are older individuals; females and males at approximately equal rates.

The symptoms of dead tail can vary a little bit between individuals. Sometimes the tail is completely flaccid, hanging down limply from its base. In other cases, the first part of the dog’s tail may be held horizontally with the rest hanging more vertically. Some dogs are obviously uncomfortable, particularly if you push on or try to move the tail. Dogs may be lethargic, whimper, whine, or lick and chew at the tail. The fur over the top of the tail may also be raised, which can be a sign of tissue swelling underneath.

What Causes Dead Tail in Dogs?

Veterinarians think that the underlying cause of this condition is a sprain or strain of the muscles used to wag and support the tail. Scientific studies have supported this assumption. The authors of one paper report:

We examined 4 affected Pointers and found evidence of coccygeal muscle damage, which included mild elevation of creatine kinase early after onset of clinical signs, needle electromyographic examination showing abnormal spontaneous discharges restricted to the coccygeal muscles several days after onset, and histopathologic evidence of muscle fiber damage. Specific muscle groups, namely the laterally positioned intertransversarius ventralis caudalis muscles, were affected most severely. Abnormal findings on thermography and scintigraphy further supported the diagnosis.

Muscle sprains and strains are often associated with overuse injuries and that also appears to be true in cases of dead tail. Dogs who develop dead tail usually have a recent history of relatively intense physical exertion involving the tail. Other risk factors include underconditioning, prolonged cage transport, and exposure to cold, wet weather.

Anecdotally, swimming appears to be one of the biggest risk factors for dead tail, probably because dogs use their tail more than they are used to when they are in the water and most bodies of water that dogs swim in are quite cold.

Treating Dead Tail in Dogs

Most of the time, dogs with dead tail recover on their own within a few days to a week or so. Rest is the most important aspect of treatment. Giving dogs with dead tail anti-inflammatory medications soon after the condition develops may speed their recovery and does help ease discomfort while they are healing. One study did report that approximately 16% of dogs with dead tail do have some permanent changes to their tail anatomy.

Some dogs who have recovered from one bout of dead tail will go on to experience another in the future. The best way to prevent this from happening (or to prevent a first occurrence) is to gradually increase the amount of exercise your dog gets. Dogs who are in good overall shape are less likely to experience muscle strains and sprains when they are asked to exert themselves. Canine “weekend warriors” are at increased risk of injury, just like their human counterparts.

If you think your dog has dead tail, try to get a feel for how much pain he might be in. If he seems relatively comfortable, it should be okay to give him a few days of rest to see if he will recover on his own. If, on the other hand, your dog appears to be in a lot of pain, an anti-inflammatory medication is probably called for. Talk to your veterinarian to determine which drug would be most appropriate for your dog.

Conditions that Can be Confused with Dead Tail

It is possible that you might think that your dog has dead tail when in fact something else is going on. Conditions that can be confused with dead tail include:

  • Trauma to the tail
  • Tail fracture
  • Cancer of the tail
  • Diseases of the lower back, like diskospondylitis, cauda equina syndrome, and intervertebral disk disease
  • Impacted anal glands
  • Prostatic disease

If at any point you become concerned that your dog might be suffering from something more serious than dead tail, make an appointment with your veterinarian. He or she will probably be able to rule out these other conditions with a complete history, physical exam, and possibly some x-rays.

Reference

Coccygeal muscle injury in English Pointers (limber tail). Steiss J, Braund K, Wright J, Lenz S, Hudson J, Brawner W, Hathcock J, Purohit R, Bell L, Horne R. J Vet Intern Med. 1999 Nov-Dec;13(6):540-8.

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Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?

By Jennifer Coates, DVM

Anyone who has spent enough time around dogs understands the compatibility between the canine and human species. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, we “goes together like peas and carrots.” What makes the human-dog partnership so perfect is our unique combination of similarities and differences.

But sometimes our similarities have a dark side—like the diseases that affect both dogs and people. These include certain types of cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, and congestive heart failure to name just a few. Down syndrome is a common chromosomal abnormality in people. The question that naturally follows is “Can dogs have Down syndrome?”

What is Down Syndrome?

To answer that question, we first have to understand what Down syndrome is. The National Down Syndrome Society provides a good explanation:

In every cell in the human body there is a nucleus, where genetic material is stored in genes.  Genes carry the codes responsible for all of our inherited traits and are grouped along rod-like structures called chromosomes.  Typically, the nucleus of each cell contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, half of which are inherited from each parent. Down syndrome occurs when an individual has a full or partial extra copy of chromosome 21.

What Are the Symptoms of Down Syndrome?

The presence of this extra genetic material can have a wide range of effects. People with Down syndrome have some degree of intellectual impairment, but this can vary widely between individuals. According the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), some of the common physical features of Down syndrome include:

– A flattened face, especially the bridge of the nose
– Almond-shaped eyes that slant up
– A short neck
– Small ears
– A tongue that tends to stick out of the mouth
– Tiny white spots on the iris (colored part) of the eye
– Small hands and feet
– A single line across the palm of the hand (palmar crease)
– Small pinky fingers that sometimes curve toward the thumb
– Poor muscle tone or loose joints
– Shorter in height as children and adults

People with Down syndrome may also have a range of medical problems. The CDC reports these as the most common:

– Hearing loss (up to 75% of people with Down syndrome may be affected)
– Obstructive sleep apnea, which is a condition where the person’s breathing temporarily stops while asleep (between 50 -75%)
– Ear infections (between 50 -70%)
– Eye diseases (up to 60%), like cataracts and eye issues requiring glasses
– Heart defects present at birth (50%)

Can Dogs Have Down Syndrome?

Determining whether dogs can have Down syndrome depends on how you look at the question. The CDC estimates that about 1 in every 700 babies born in the United States has Down syndrome. The same certainly can’t be said about dogs. If Down syndrome does occur in dogs, it is a much rarer event.

Genetically, dogs and people have many similarities but important differences obviously do exist. For example, people have 23 sets of chromosomes while dogs have 39. Therefore, duplication of all or part of chromosome 21 would have different effects in the two species. Interestingly though, scientists are using genetically engineered mice as animal models in Down syndrome research. These mice carry an extra portion of their chromosome 16, which carries genes comparable to those included on human chromosome 21. The result is a mouse who has some characteristics similar to human Down syndrome. Keep in mind, however, that these are not naturally occurring mice; they have been genetically engineered.

Even expanding the definition of canine Down syndrome to include any genetic duplication that results in clinical abnormalities similar to those seen in people with Down syndrome, the condition simply has not been described in dogs. Three explanations are possible:

– These types of chromosomal abnormalities typically lead to early death in dogs.
– The genetic testing needed to identify dogs with Down syndrome simply isn’t done.
– The condition truly doesn’t exist.

Conditions that Look Like Down Syndrome in Dogs

On the other hand, congenital or developmental conditions are routinely diagnosed in dogs that have some clinical similarities with Down syndrome. Congenital hypothyroidism is a good example. It is caused by low or absent levels of thyroid hormone at birth and early in life, which results in some combination of the following:

– Slow growth eventually resulting in small stature
– Broad head
– Large, protruding tongue
– Short limbs
– Abnormal gait
– Poor muscle tone
– Mental dullness
– Delayed opening of the eyes and ears
– Delayed tooth eruption

Other conditions that could be confused with Down syndrome in dogs include pituitary dwarfism, congenital hydrocephalus, growth hormone deficiency, and portosystemic shunt.

If you think that your dog could have a condition like Down syndrome, talk to your veterinarian. He or she can recommend an appropriate diagnostic plan and make treatment recommendations once a diagnosis is in place.

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Can Pets Get Cancer from Owners’ Smoking?

By Jennifer Coates, DVM

The Dangers of Second Hand Smoke for Pets

You must have been living on a desert island for the last few decades if you are not aware of the danger that smoking poses both to smokers and to the people who come in contact with second hand smoke. Less well known, however, is the effect that a smoke filled home can have on pet health.

First some definitions. Second hand smoke is smoke that is exhaled or otherwise escapes into the air and can then be inhaled by non-smokers, including pets. Third hand smoke is the residue from smoke that remains on skin, fur, clothing, furniture, etc. even after the air has cleared. Both second and third hand smoke can be referred to using the term “environmental tobacco smoke,” or ETS.

Now let’s take a look at the scientific studies that reveal a link between environmental tobacco smoke and serious diseases in cats and dogs.

The Effects of Tobacco Smoke on Cats

A study published in 2002 demonstrated a greatly increased risk of malignant lymphoma (also called lymphoma or lymphosarcoma) in cats with exposure to ETS. The relative risk for malignant lymphoma in cats with any household ETS exposure was almost 2 ½ times higher than that seen in cats who lived in smoke-free households.

For cats with five or more years of ETS exposure, the relative risk climbed to 3.2. In other words, these poor cats were more than three times as likely to develop lymphoma as were cats who lived in a home where no one smoked.

This study and others also strongly suggest a link between oral cancers in cats and third hand smoke. It is thought that cats groom the toxins contained in tobacco smoke out of their fur, which damages tissues in their mouths. This eventually leads to oral cancer.

The Effects of Tobacco Smoke on Dogs

Dogs can become seriously ill after long term exposure to second and third hand smoke as well. Two studies, one published in 1992 and the other in 1998, determined that cancer of the respiratory tract was more common in dogs who were exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. Interestingly, the type of cancer the dogs got was influenced by the shape of their heads.

The risk of nasal cancer increased by 250% when dogs with long noses (picture a Collie) were exposed to tobacco smoke. On the other hand, dogs with short or medium noses tended to develop lung cancer under similar conditions.

When you think about it, these findings aren’t all that surprising. The extensive nasal passages of long-nosed dogs are good at filtering out the toxins contained in cigarette smoke, which protects the lungs to the detriment of the nose. These same toxins pass right through the relatively shorter noses of other dogs and then become lodged in and damage the lungs.

Many other studies underline the damage that tobacco smoke does to the lining of the respiratory tract and a possible link to non-cancerous diseases such as chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Do Alternatives Help?

By now you might be thinking, “I’ll just smoke outside.” While direct research into the effect that outdoor smoking has on pet health hasn’t been performed, we can look at a 2004 study on infants and draw some conclusions. It found that smoking outside of the home helps but does not eliminate smoke exposure to babies. The infants of parents who smoked outdoors but not inside were still exposed to 5-7 times as much environmental tobacco smoke in comparison to the infants of nonsmokers. Similar results could be expected for pets.

And what about vaping? Again, no direct research into the health effects of second and third hand vaping solution on pet health has been done, but according to the American Lung Association:

In 2009, the FDA conducted lab tests and found detectable levels of toxic cancer-causing chemicals, including an ingredient used in antifreeze, in two leading brands of e-cigarettes and 18 various cartridges. A 2014 study found that e-cigarettes with a higher voltage level have higher amounts of formaldehyde, a carcinogen.

It’s hard to imagine that inhaling substances like these or licking them off their fur could be completely risk free for pets.

Conclusions

Looking at the science brings us to the inevitable conclusion that second and third hand smoke exposure is very dangerous for pets. If you must smoke, do so outside or switch to vaping, but know that you are still likely putting your pets’ health at some degree of risk… to say nothing of what you are doing to yourself.

References

Environmental tobacco smoke and risk of malignant lymphoma in petcats. Bertone ER, Snyder LA, Moore AS. Am J Epidemiol. 2002 Aug 1;156(3):268-73.

Passive smoking and canine lung cancer risk. Reif JS, Dunn K, Ogilvie GK, Harris CK. Am J Epidemiol. 1992 Feb 1;135(3):234-9.

Cancer of the nasal cavity and paranasal sinuses and exposure to environmental tobacco smoke in pet dogs. Reif JS, Bruns C, Lower KS. Am J Epidemiol. 1998 Mar 1;147(5):488-92.

The dog as a passive smoker: effects of exposure to environmental cigarette smoke on domestic dogs. Roza MR, Viegas CA. Nicotine Tob Res. 2007 Nov;9(11):1171-6.

Demographic and historical findings, including exposure to environmental tobacco smoke, in dogs with chronic cough. Hawkins EC, Clay LD, Bradley JM, Davidian M. J Vet Intern Med. 2010 Jul-Aug;24(4):825-31. 

Methylation of free-floating deoxyribonucleic acid fragments in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of dogs with chronic bronchitis exposed to environmental tobacco smoke. Yamaya Y, Sugiya H, Watari T. Ir Vet J. 2015 Apr 29;68(1):7.

Households contaminated by environmental tobacco smoke: sources of infant exposures. Matt GE, Quintana PJ, Hovell MF, Bernert JT, Song S, Novianti N, Juarez T, Floro J, Gehrman C, Garcia M, Larson S. Tob Control. 2004 Mar;13(1):29-37.

Image: MaxPhoto / Shutterstock

Related health content:

Electronic Cigarettes Connected to Canine Fatalities

Finding the Causes of Cancer in Cats and Dogs

Tips for Preventing Cancer in Cats

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Tremors and Seizures in Dogs: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment

By David F. Kramer

Perhaps one of the most disturbing things a dog owner can experience is a bout of uncontrollable shaking in their pet. Involuntary movements can be caused by tremors or seizures, but the two conditions differ with respect to their origin, diagnosis, and treatment. Knowing what makes tremors and seizures alike and different will help you get the help your dog needs. 

What Are Tremors and Seizures?

Dr. Sarah Moore, Associate Professor of Neurology and Neurosurgery at the Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center, describes the difference between tremors and seizures:

“Tremors are an involuntary muscle movement. During an episode of tremors the dog is awake and aware of its surroundings, which can help distinguish tremors from seizures (where the dog usually has decreased consciousness).”

A seizure, on the other hand, is evidence of a sudden abnormal and uncontrolled surge of electrical activity in the brain, which often results in altered consciousness. Where the activity occurs in the brain determines the signs that are seen. A seizure is not a disease in and of itself, but a symptom of something else that is going on in the body or brain.

Are Some Dogs More Likely to Have Tremors and Seizures?

“Some of the early signs of neurologic dysfunction can be vague, such as decreased activity levels or changes in personality. Other things to look for would include difficulty using one or more limbs, loss of balance, trouble jumping on or off furniture, or difficulty climbing stairs,” says Moore. But in some cases seizures or tremors seem to strike out of the blue.

Sometimes, the breed of your dog can make it a candidate for specific types of neurological disorders.

“We definitely see a predisposition for particular problems in certain breeds. For example, there is an autoimmune problem of the cerebellum that is more common in young adult toy-breed dogs. And some diseases that cause tremors due to weakness are more common in large breed dogs,” says Moore.

Dr. Adam Denish of Rhawhurst Animal Hospital in Pennsylvania says he has “seen hundreds, if not thousands, of dogs with seizures.”

“I do see a hereditary pattern in some animals, but we often don’t have information on the parents or littermates. In-breeding and poor breeding choices can lead to these repetitive disease conditions being passed on unnecessarily,” says Denish.

What Causes Seizures and Tremors?

Moore says that “tremors can be caused by a variety of problems, such as behavioral causes (fear, anxiety), electrolyte imbalances, problems of the nerve or muscle, weakness/fatigue, exposure to certain toxins, and problems in certain areas of the brain such as the cerebellum.”

Dogs can suffer from seizures after serious traumas, such as being struck by a car, or other accidents that might result in brain injury. “Another common cause of seizures in dogs is idiopathic epilepsy, a condition that seems to have a strong genetic component but for which no other underlying cause of the seizures can be found,” says Dr. Jennifer Coates, a veterinarian in Fort Collins, CO. “Other possible causes of seizures include brain infections, brain tumors, inflammatory disorders, stroke-like events, low blood sugar, liver failure or other metabolic conditions, hormonal disorders, electrolyte imbalances, and the ingestion of toxins.” 

Types and Phases of Seizures

There are many different ways to classify the different types of seizures that dogs can have. Coates uses this system:

  • Focal Seizures (sometimes called partial seizures) – in these cases, only a particular area (or several particular areas) of the brain are being affected by the seizures. Dogs will typically exhibit specific movements like lip licking or fly biting (snapping at the air). Dogs may or may not experience altered consciousness with focal seizures
  • Generalized seizures – in these cases, most if not all of the brain is involved in the seizure. The most common type of generalized seizure we see in dogs is the tonic-clonic (also called grand-mal) seizure where dogs fall over, become stiff, paddle their limbs, and may urinate or defecate. Other types of generalized seizures are also possible, but in all of them the dog appears unaware of its surroundings.

Seizures also have specific phases. “Some animals will have what we call a pre-ictal phase. That is, some behavioral or medical sign that shows that a seizure is impending. Animals will also have a post-ictal phase, which is the period after the seizure when their body is coming out of it but they still seem to be ‘off,’” says Denish.

Some of the pre-ictal symptoms to watch for include sudden, unwarranted fearfulness; sniffing, maybe in response to the phantom smells that some people report prior to a seizure; licking the lips; and pawing at the head, perhaps in response to a headache.

What to Do if Your Dog Has a Seizure 

Perhaps the most difficult part of dealing with your dog’s seizure is keeping yourself calm. Seizures are disturbing and heartbreaking to witness, but keeping a clear head will help you deal with the situation. It’s best to keep your distance and not try to hold the dog down or put anything in its mouth because they can easily bite without meaning to.

While people often hear that it’s necessary to keep a seizure victim from swallowing their tongue, there’s no need to worry about this in dogs. Again, it’s best to just let the seizure take its course, but be aware of the dog’s surroundings and remove any objects or hazards that could potentially injure your dog.

Once your dog recovers from a seizure, you can use pillows or a blanket to cradle his head. Keep other pets clear and give the dog a chance to rest and recuperate. Your dog may feel confused, sleepy, or unresponsive, and may remain fearful. Once your dog is aware again and able to walk and drink, offer him some water and give him an opportunity to urinate or defecate in his usual spot.

Seizures in dogs are often an ongoing issue, so keep a log of when they occur, how long they last, and any unique information associated with them. This information can be of great help to your vet, and can also help you to recognize factors and situations that might trigger your dog into a seizure and give you a chance to avoid or remove the triggers.

Seizures that are especially severe, last for more than a few minutes, or occur in clusters are especially dangerous and warrant an immediate trip to the nearest veterinarian.

Treatment for Seizures and Tremors

If your dog suffers from tremors or seizures, your vet might employ a battery of medical tests to find the cause, including MRIs and CAT scans, blood work, urinalysis, or X-Rays. Your vet may take a sample of your dog’s spinal fluid to check for abnormalities. Once your dog receives a diagnosis, your vet will devise a course of treatment that could include therapies aimed at specific underlying causes and/or medications to control the tremors or seizures, assuming they are severe enough to warrant treatment. 

“With animals, we do use the same medications that are useful in human subjects. Obviously, there are some cost issues with using the newer human medications. We generally start with the older, simpler medications like phenobarbital or diazepam (Valium), however we also use medications like Keppra and potassium bromide, as well as gabapentin and zonisamide,” says Denish.

While there are vets who specialize in neurological issues, you might not necessarily need to enlist the help of a specialist.

“Most cases of seizures or tremors can be handled by a conventional vet,” says Denish. “However, even we will seek the help and guidance of a veterinary neurologist in difficult cases, or cases that don’t respond appropriately to medicine. Additionally, stress and other secondary diseases like Diabetes, Cushing’s Syndrome, and Hypothyroidism can all play a role in making seizures worse in the patient.”

Seizure and Tremor Management

If your dog is affected by tremors, some life changes may need to be made, but this depends on their severity. It may be best to avoid excessive excitement or stress in your dog, and sometimes even vigorous play should be avoided. If your dog is going to exercise, it’s best to keep it as low key and sedate as possible, like a walk around the neighborhood. Your vet can offer you guidelines based on your dog’s specific condition..

Recommendations for seizures are a little different. “Luckily, most dogs are normal between seizure episodes. That’s good news for the pet but it can make it difficult to see when a seizure actually occurs. Owners could be at work while the dog has a seizure and come home to find a normal and happy-go-lucky dog,” says Denish. Coates adds that depending on the cause of the seizures or what it is that seems to trigger them, lifestyle modifications may be in order.

With proper veterinary care, a dog’s prognosis is often good.

“Many of the potential causes of tremors [and seizures] can be managed effectively so that pets can live a normal lifespan and have a good quality of life,” says Moore.