I’ll never forget Holly’s first seizure.
It was August 11, 2016, two months short of her eighth birthday. We were hanging out in the kitchen–me getting ready to prepare lunch, her hoping for a handout–when suddenly her feet began to beat a rapid tattoo against the floor. At first, hearing it, I thought she was scratching herself or maybe having one of those occasional “dry humping” moments. Then I looked down … and knew at once that it wasn’t either of those things, but something new, something scary, and something definitely wrong.
Her eyes, usually soulful and mild, were wide and wild. Her feet skittered this way and that as if she was trying to keep her balance on ice or slippery polish. She collapsed onto her side, legs and feet paddling frenziedly, spine arched backward, jaws gaping so wide it was a wonder they didn’t crack, teeth bared, tongue lolling. Saliva gushed from her mouth and urine sprayed across the floor.
I yelled for my husband Ed, busy in his basement office, and fell to my knees beside her. “You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay,” I babbled, knowing she wasn’t. I held her, not restraining her, but just to let her know I was there.
This first grand mal seizure lasted approximately forty-five of the longest seconds of my life. In the time it took Ed to dash upstairs, it was already winding down. He made a quick call to the local vet clinic, and was told to bring Holly in immediately; they’d be waiting for her.
Two and a half years — and 27 grand mal seizures later — we’ve developed a routine around these events. Although it still takes a lot out of us emotionally — it’s a helluva thing to watch — we now remain calm. (For those of you who’ve never experienced a dog seizing, here’s a YouTube video to give you an idea of what it looks like. I’ve never had the presence of mind to video Holly’s seizures.)
When she drops, our eyes go to the wall clock or a wrist watch. Timing the seizure is important not just for your records (it’s imperative you keep a seizure log), but also so you can inform your veterinarian of duration, severity, and any other observations. When Holly’s seizures began, they ran roughly 15-to-30 seconds, followed by 30-60 minutes of disorientation, hunger, and thirst. Those after-effects are still in play, but now we’re unfortunately creeping up toward the five-minute duration mark; the mark that worries veterinarians and canine neurologists because a seizure that long runs the risk of literally frying a dog’s brain.
That’s why — at approximately the two-minute mark — I head for the drawer of pet medicine in the kitchen to retrieve a syringe of Valium prescribed by our vet. I insert the needle-less delivery end into Holly’s rectum and depress the plunger. Within seconds, she begins to emerge from the seizure.
That’s not where it ends, however.
Now we stay close to monitor how quickly (or not) she begins to react to our voices. Response time to gentle commands is skewed, and she often staggers and falls if left on her own. (I sometimes put her on a short leash to keep her close by.) I immediately take her outside — she often needs to urinate again, and sometimes defecate — and then bring her back indoors. Because she burns a lot of calories during seizure, she’s always ravenous afterward. I don’t want her to bolt her food, so I give it to her in small amounts, in a bowl. DO NOT try to feed your dog by hand, as you will get nipped. It’s inadvertent on their part, but I learned this the hard way. Your dog is out of it mentally and can’t differentiate between your fingers and a hot dog.
As soon as possible, we wipe down her chest and rear end to get rid of the saliva and urine. (Bath time can wait, but usually follows within 24 hours.) Within a couple of hours, she’s back to “normal.” I put that in quotes because the truth is, normal becomes a very fluid thing. Each time there’s a seizure, we must reorganize our thoughts into accepting whatever the “new normal” becomes. Holly is a little diminished by every episode — slower at regaining a response to commands (or forgetting them entirely and needing to be retrained), a temporary (although sometimes hours-long) loss of coordination, a slight difference in personality that only those who live with her can pick up on. It can be frustrating — and heart-breaking — but as I learned when dealing with my mother’s dementia, you must accept them where they are, not where you’d like them to be.
So let me share a little of what we’ve learned.
- Canine epilepsy comes in two flavors: symptomatic and idiopathic. Symptomatic epilepsy has a diagnostic root cause such as cancer, stroke, autoimmune disease, liver disease, low blood sugar, exposure to toxins, infectious disease, or congenital brain abnormalities like tumor. Idiopathic epilepsy (Holly’s version) has no identifiable cause. Although it may be inherited — certain breeds seems predisposed to the condition — this need not be the case. Research is ongoing.
- Seizures strike without warning or pattern. The dog is unconscious during the episode and experiences neither pain nor panic, even though their eyes are open and they may vocalize.
- Although your first inclination may be to hold your dog or touch it during the seizure, be extremely careful. If you must touch them, keep your hands to the rear of your pet. Keep your face and hands away from the dog’s mouth. They can, and will, bite … and because they’re unaware, they don’t automatically release. You can suffer a debilitating injury if not careful.
- If your dog has a seizure, see your veterinarian as soon as possible. If the seizure lasts more than five minutes or your pet experiences more than one seizure in a 24-hour period, seek emergency help immediately.
- There is no cure for canine epilepsy. Medication is a lifelong therapy whose goal is not to prevent seizures (that, sadly, is impossible), but to reduce their frequency and severity. Because these drugs are not “one size fits all,” it may take time for your veterinarian to determine the correct dosage/combination for your pet. And bear in mind that may change over time. In Holly’s case, we’ve used a variety of drugs and combinations. All have worked for a time, but only for a time before needing further tweaking.
- You will also deal with a plethora of drug side-effects, which might include lethargy, muscle weakness, anxiety, loss of appetite, vomiting, and periodic soft stool. Please note that anti-epileptic medication should never be discontinued without first consulting with your veterinarian. To do so could endanger the life of your pet.
- Be proactive. This is frightening, but knowledge is power. Make yourself part of your pet’s treatment team. Talk to your vet and/or neurologist and ask questions. They should be open and willing to discuss treatment options and any other concerns you have. (And if they aren’t, find new practitioners.)
- Do research, but be skeptical of anything or anyone that makes exorbitant claims. When in doubt, ask your veterinarian to weigh in. Under no circumstances should you pursue a course of treatment without first checking its validity with your pet’s doctor(s).
- Have your pet examined at least one a year for follow-up.
- Remember that your dog’s better days will likely outnumber the bad ones, so enjoy your time with your pet.