Vet corner: Is my dog dreaming or having seizure?

If your dog seizes more than 3-4 minutes continuously, prevent him from overheating by gently cooling him with cool wet towels on the head, neck, and groin. Picture: SUPPLIED

The old saying: “let sleeping dogs lie” was said for good reason!

You may have witnessed your dog sound asleep and periodically making twitching movements or even vocalizing little yelping or “crying” noises.

A dreaming dog can show twitching, paddling, or kicks of their legs.

These movements are often brief (lasting less than 30 seconds) and intermittent.

This is a normal behavior.

Dreaming seems to be a way the mind processes various memories.

We don’t know for sure, but it appears that dogs seem to dream about running, chasing, playing, or protecting.

As in humans, dogs have stages of sleep: short-wave sleep (SWS) and rapid eye movement (REM), so it’s common to see rapid eye movement in dogs when they dream.

Seizures are abnormal, uncontrolled muscle movements that start from the brain.

The more common seizures that people recognize are grand mal-type seizures, in which the animal has severe thrashing or tremors (a “fit”) over his entire body, they have fallen or stay on the ground often with violent movements of limbs which tend to be rigid and stiff.

Some seizures, however, can be petit mal, in which just a portion of the body experiences a rhythmic, uncontrolled movement, tremor, or behavior (such as fly biting a behavior which looks like a dog biting the air as if after a flying insect but none is there).

Most dogs have a seizure while awake or shortly after waking up.

Dogs experiencing a seizure cannot be easily woken, while dreaming dogs can.

Dogs having a seizure often are disoriented afterwards and may drool and pant; dreaming dogs wake quickly to normal.

Seizuring dogs may urinate or defecate on themselves, while dreaming dogs usually do not.

If you are unsure whether your dog is having a dream or a seizure, you should videotape the event on your smartphone and show it to your veterinarian at your appointment.

Signs your dog is having a seizure

If your dog is suddenly spacing out and is nonreactive, it may be the first sign of a seizure.

The first few signs can be mild.

To test and see if your dog is having a seizure, you can call their name and try to get their attention with a favorite treat or toy.

Seizures can also cause uncontrollable muscle twitching, which looks like trembling.

This often leads to more violent tremors and thrashing.

For seizures that involve the entire body and brain, your dog can thrash and fall to the floor.

This is the most commonly seen type of seizure.

It is uncomfortable and dangerous because while your dog is thrashing and moving involuntarily, the activity can hurt their heads or cause other damage.

Your dog’s eyes may roll back inside their head, and may become red and inflamed from the reaction and stress.

Some dogs recognise something is going on before a seizure and might have different behaviors such as clinging to you just before a seizure happens, particularly with epilepsy.

After the epileptic seizure there is usually a return to completely normal routines, though the time to get there might be minutes or hours.

Causes of seizures

There are many potential causes of seizures: toxins (poison), tumors, infections, disease in other organs such as liver or kidneys, even scarring in the brain from past trauma and epilepsy.

Seizures resulting from metabolic problems or toxicity (i.e. when the brain itself is normal) are called reactive seizures.

Seizures resulting from identifiable brain abnormalities are called structural seizures.

Seizures for which no clear cause can be found are called primary seizures and the patient is said to have epilepsy.

Tremor diseases, fainting, narcolepsy, dizziness, and painful muscle spasms can mimic seizures.

Importantly here in Fiji common causes of seizures involve overheating and dehydration.

Your dog’s body can react to overheating, and a lack of hydration with a seizure, and this can be dangerous, even fatal.

Does age matter?

Dogs of certain age groups tend to have common causes for their seizures.

This means that certain diagnostic tests are important in dogs of particular age groups – provided these tests are available – in determining
cause of seizure.

In animals less than 12 months, seizures are usually caused by brain infections.

For dogs, the most common infectious diseases would be canine distemper or a parasitic infection such as with toxoplasma or neospora.

Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid, obtained under anesthesia, would be important though now that PCR technology is available for detecting DNA of infectious agents, less invasive testing may be recommended depending on the infection under suspicion.

This requires appropriate veterinary and laboratory facilities.

Between 1 and 6 years the most common reason for a dog, particularly a purebred dog, to begin having seizures is genetic epilepsy (also called primary epilepsy).

Epilepsy is diagnosed when no other cause of seizures can be found, there are no neurologic symptoms between seizure events, and the first seizure episodes begin in this age range.

Usually basic blood work is done to rule out certain causes of seizures but more sophisticated and expensive testing (such as advanced brain
imaging) can be performed if available.

Schnauzers, basset hounds, collies, and cocker spaniels have two to three times as much epilepsy as other breeds.

Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers are also predisposed to epilepsy, but tend to begin their seizures relatively late, closer to age five.

In animals more than 5 years old, seizures are often caused by a tumors either pressing on the brain or directly affecting the brain.

A CT scan or MRI would be the next step.

Again, advanced testing and treatment requiring appropriate facilities – often this diagnosis is made on signs and lack of response to treatment.

What to do if your dog is having a seizure

Stay Calm!

If possible, try to time the length of the seizure.

If your dog is thrashing, you need to let the seizure or epileptic episode end on its own course.

Try to protect him from falling or hurting himself and stay with him.

If you want to help your dog so they don’t harm their head or body, you can add cushions and blankets near them for the duration of the seizure.

Block off steps and stairwells, move furniture out of the way.

It is important not to put yourself in danger around a seizuring pet.

Involuntary jaw motion may cause your dog to bite you.

This can happen during the seizure, and in the period of recovery when they may not recognize you.

Do not try to prevent him from swallowing his tongue (cannot happen in any event).

Once your dog stops thrashing and starts to respond allow them to recover before checking for any injuries and provide your furry friend with comfort.

It is likely that your dog has no recollection of what just happened.

When he is coming out of a seizure, even though you may have felt panicked, try to be calm and reassure your dog, as he has no idea what just happened.

An isolated seizure at home probably does not require more than staying out of the way and keeping the pet from hurting himself.

That said, there are some critical situations you should be aware of, and get veterinary assistance as soon as possible: Seizure activity non-stop for five minutes or more is called status epilepticus.

One seizure after another repeatedly is called cluster seizures.

If your dog has more than one seizure or their health does not improve, you should take them to their vet.

If your dog seizes more than 3-4 minutes continuously, prevent him from overheating by gently cooling him with cool wet towels on the head, neck, and groin.

Any activity which looks like a seizure needs to be diagnosed by a veterinarian – this because there are other disorders which can mimic a
seizure and many causes of seizures.

Dreaming dogs can easily be woken but it is best not to do so.

Importantly do not to touch a dog when he is dreaming, as it may startle him, and he could possibly bite or scratch unknowingly.

If you feel the need to wake a sleeping dog because you are concerned by his movements, it is better to call his name loudly or make a noise, such as dropping an object on the floor, and see if he responds.

If he wakens, he was probably dreaming, and then you can gently reassure him if he is startled.

Best to just watch quietly and don’t be alarmed.

Let sleeping dogs lie!

• JO OLVER is a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM). The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the views of this newspaper.

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