Types of Epilepsy in Dogs

Written by Kellianne Matthews
Published: May 9, 2023
Share on:


Did you know that dogs can develop epilepsy, just like humans? There are even several different types of epilepsy that can affect your beloved canine companion. Understanding the various forms of this neurological disorder is crucial for accurately diagnosing their condition and providing effective management. So, let’s dive into the different types of epilepsy in dogs and learn how we can best support our furry four-legged friends!

What is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes dogs to experience recurring seizures. When your dog experiences a seizure, their brain is functioning in an abnormal way. Sudden surges of electrical activity cause your dog to twitch, spasm, shake, or experience various forms of convulsions and tremors. It almost looks like the dog’s brain is at war with itself. However, while it is hard to learn that your dog suffers from epilepsy, proper management and support can help your pup to live a happy life. 

Seizures occur when a dog’s brain experiences an uncontrollable surge of electrical activity, which interrupts its normal functioning.

©iStock.com/Kateryna Kukota

Types of Seizures in Dogs

When a dog experiences a seizure, they may suddenly collapse to the ground and frantically convulse as their eyes glaze over. This occurs because the brain experiences an uncontrollable surge of electrical activity, which interrupts its normal functioning and activates a dog’s muscles without their control. It can be a frightening thing to watch, but your pup is not usually conscious of what is happening during a seizure. 

Although seizures are not always caused by external factors, there are some common things that can influence your dog and trigger them into a seizure:

  • Lack of sleep and fatigue
  • Stress
  • Not taking their medication
  • Thunderstorms
  • Changes to their routine or environment
  • Certain foods
  • Visits to the vet

In addition, there are three main types of seizures that dogs with epilepsy experience: Generalized or grand mal seizures, focal or partial seizures, and psychomotor seizures.

Epilepsy in dogs

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes dogs to experience recurring seizures.


1. Generalized Seizure or Grand Mal Seizure

The most common type of seizure in dogs is a generalized seizure or a grand mal seizure. During a generalized seizure, a dog may lose consciousness and their body convulses. We call these seizures “generalized” because they involve both sides of the brain right from the start. A generalized seizure can last anywhere from just a few seconds to a few minutes.

In addition to involuntary muscle movements, generalized seizures can also cause dogs to excessively drool, or they may accidentally poop or pee without meaning to. Dogs are not usually aware of their surroundings during the seizure, so they don’t know what they are doing and cannot control their bodies. That is why it is so important that you try to stay calm so that you can get them the help and support they need. 

2. Focal or Partial Seizure

While a generalized seizure affects both sides of a dog’s brain, a focal or partial seizure happens in just one part of the dog’s brain. As a result, only one part of their body ends up experiencing the seizure, such as their face twitching or one leg paddling. However, not all focal seizures cause such obvious physical effects. Sometimes when a dog is experiencing a focal seizure, they just seek extra attention from their owner and look for comfort. Sometimes dogs are conscious throughout the seizure, but other times they may not be aware that it is even happening.

Focal or partial seizures can be pretty short, only lasting a few seconds. However, they can also turn into more intense seizures. In fact, a focal seizure can spread from one side of the brain to the other, evolving into a generalized seizure.

3. Psychomotor Seizure

Also called complex partial seizures, psychomotor seizures cause abnormal movements or behaviors in your dog’s body. During a psychomotor seizure, a dog will often act rather strangely. For example, during a psychomotor seizure, your dog may suddenly try to scratch at the air or snap at imaginary objects, pace in circles, or lick the same spot repeatedly. Your dog may look like they are hallucinating, or suddenly be aggressive and seem to not recognize a family member for a brief moment. In addition, dogs might also salivate, pant, or lose consciousness (in severe cases). Psychomotor seizures appear more like abnormal “episodes” than actual convulsive seizures. 

Types of Epilepsy in Dogs

There are many possible reasons dogs experience seizures. Things like kidney failure, liver disease, toxins, brain trauma, brain tumors, and epilepsy can all contribute to and cause seizures in dogs. However, when a dog has epilepsy, they experience seizures repeatedly, and these seizures can strike at any time. Your dog might sometimes experience a single seizure,  or the seizures can happen in clusters. Sometimes you can find clues to help you predict when your dog will have a seizure, but other times they come unexpectedly. 

There is still a lot we don’t know, and scientists and researchers are still working to understand epilepsy in dogs. However, there are several different types of epilepsy they have classified so far. Let’s take a look at some of the common types of epilepsy in dogs. 

Dog being examined by veterinarian

Conditions such as kidney failure, liver disease, toxins, brain trauma, brain tumors, and epilepsy can all contribute to seizures in dogs.


Idiopathic Epilepsy

The most common type of epilepsy in dogs is idiopathic epilepsy. However, the strangest part of idiopathic epilepsy is that there is no known cause. Even after repeated tests and examinations, there doesn’t seem to be an obvious reason for the seizures to occur. Even dogs who look completely healthy on their neurological exams may still have seizures!

Idiopathic epilepsy usually happens in younger animals between the ages of six months to six years old. However, diagnosing a dog with idiopathic epilepsy isn’t straightforward or simple. Instead, it is a “diagnosis of exclusion”. This means that your vet will work to rule out other possible issues before concluding that your dog suffers from idiopathic epilepsy. They may perform a physical and neurological examination, serum biochemistry panels, MRIs and CTs, infectious disease testing, blood count testing, and spinal fluid analysis to try to eliminate any other possible causes of the seizures.

Scientists believe that genetics, as well as environmental factors, play a role in the development of idiopathic epilepsy. Even though the cause of idiopathic epilepsy isn’t always clear, it can sometimes be traced back to a specific genetic defect. In fact, some dog breeds seem to be more prone to idiopathic epilepsy than others. In addition, studies have shown that the condition can also run in families. This means it’s likely that your dog inherited this condition from their furry predecessors. 

Dog having brain MRI

Scanning a dog’s brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) can be a useful diagnostic tool for determining the cause of seizures.


Dog Breeds More Likely to Suffer From Idiopathic Epilepsy

Here are just a few of the breeds that are more prone to developing epilepsy:

Senior Boxer

Boxers are one of the breeds more prone to idiopathic epilepsy.

©Holly Michele/Shutterstock.com

Cryptogenic Epilepsy

Similar to idiopathic epilepsy, cryptogenic epilepsy (or symptomatic epilepsy) is another disorder in which the cause of the dog’s seizures is unknown. However, with idiopathic epilepsy, there is likely a genetic component, whereas, with cryptogenic epilepsy, there is no identifiable root cause. In fact, “cryptogenic” literally translates to “hidden” or “unknown origin.” However, despite the unknown origin of the condition, there are still treatment options available for dogs with cryptogenic epilepsy.

Structural Epilepsy

Structural epilepsy occurs when there is observable or visible damage or malformations of the brain — in other words, vets and scientists can actually find a problem in the structure of the brain itself. The structural problem can be caused by many different factors, such as head trauma, tumors, congenital malformations, inflammatory disease, or even a stroke. Structural epilepsy is usually diagnosed using an MRI scan or a cerebral spinal fluid analysis.

Reflex Epilepsy

When external stimuli (such as a specific location or situation) cause seizures in dogs, it is known as reflex epilepsy. Certain noises like a lawnmower, or particular situations like visiting the vet or riding in the car, can trigger these seizures. In one study, a miniature dachshund who suffered from Lafora disease had seizures that were triggered by sounds and light. Seizures can even be triggered in dogs with something as simple as eating! The most common trigger in dogs with reflex epilepsy is going to a specific place, such as visiting the vet, the groomer, a boarding facility, etc. 

Post-traumatic Epilepsy

This type of epilepsy refers to dogs who have seizures after experiencing a traumatic injury to their brain (such as skull fractures, bleeding in the brain, concussions, etc.). Post-traumatic epilepsy causes dogs who were once perfectly coordinated and in control to suffer from sudden and uncontrollable muscle spasms and convulsions. However, with the help of your veterinarian, there are treatments that can help your dog if they suffer from post-traumatic epilepsy.

Refractory Epilepsy 

Dogs who are being treated with prescribed medications for their seizures can also struggle with refractory epilepsy. These dogs are receiving therapeutic doses of anti-epileptic medication to help control their seizures, and yet they are still having them. In some cases, the medications worked initially, but over time they stopped being effective against the seizures. Finding effective treatment solutions for refractory epilepsy can be frustrating for both veterinarians and dog guardians. 

Treating Dogs with Epilepsy

Unfortunately, there is no cure for epilepsy in dogs. However, dogs with epilepsy can be treated with anti-epileptic drugs (AED). AED drugs help to stop the over-excited brain cells that cause epileptic seizures. The goal of treatment is to minimize the severity and frequency of your dog’s seizures while also making sure that they don’t suffer from intolerable side effects. 

However, not all drugs work well for all dogs, and safety and side effects can vary. So, just because your pup has one seizure, it doesn’t mean that they need to start medication right away. However, you should take them to your vet for a thorough examination in case there are other underlying causes. Anti-epileptic drugs are prescribed when a dog has had multiple seizures in a short period of time or if they have severe symptoms after a seizure.

After a thorough examination, testing, and diagnosis, your trusted veterinarian or veterinary neurologist will work with you to choose the most suitable medication for your canine companion. The trick is to balance how effective the drug is with how well your dog can tolerate it because some drugs can have negative side effects. Many short-term side effects can usually be controlled by adjusting the dosage, but some drugs can cause more serious problems.

Anti-seizure medications are another great way to treat epilepsy, and there are a variety of drugs that can be used to do so. It’s very important to understand that if your dog starts the medication, they’ll likely need to continue taking it for the rest of their life. If you stop their medication suddenly, it can cause their seizures to come back and even make their future seizures worse. But don’t worry, most dogs do well on medications and can still live a normal life. 

What Causes Epilepsy in Dogs?

Even though scientists have studied seizures in humans, dogs, and other animals, we still don’t fully understand what causes them. What we do know, however, is that seizures happen when there’s a problem with the way the brain’s electrical system works. 

You can think of it kind of like a traffic jam on the highway, but instead of cars, the signals in our brains get all tangled up and confused. For both people and pups with epilepsy, this traffic jam happens when there’s too much or too little activity in certain parts of the brain. It’s like an electrical storm; the electrical signals are going haywire, and the brain doesn’t know how to handle what’s happening. 

Researchers have found that seizures are often caused by imbalances between two types of activity in the brain: excitatory and inhibitory. When one of these gets out of whack, it can trigger a seizure. However, unless there’s visible damage or an obvious metabolic or structural issue, it can be very difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of the imbalance.

Researchers and scientists are continually working to unravel the mysteries behind what causes epilepsy in dogs and how to better treat them. This research is very important because it not only helps our beloved furry friends, but many breakthroughs will hopefully help humans who suffer from epilepsy as well. 

What To Do If Your Dog Has a Seizure

  • It can be a scary and distressing experience for both you and your dog if they experience a seizure. However, the most important thing you need to do is to remain calm.
  • Stay with your dog throughout their seizure and comfort them in a soft and calm voice.
  • Keep your dog safe during their seizure. Most seizures do not last very long, only a few seconds or a few minutes. However, because their bodies can twitch and convulse quite violently, it’s important to move anything out of the way that might hurt them, such as furniture or other objects. 
  • Do not try to restrain your dog and don’t put anything in their mouth. This could cause them further injury.
  • Try to record the time the seizure starts and how long it lasts. This can be very valuable information for your veterinarian.
  • Record what happened before, during, and after the seizure once your dog has recovered. This information can be very valuable for you and your vet in figuring out better ways to help your dog.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Kittima05/Shutterstock.com

Ready to discover the top 10 cutest dog breeds in the entire world?

How about the fastest dogs, the largest dogs and those that are -- quite frankly -- just the kindest dogs on the planet? Each day, AZ Animals sends out lists just like this to our thousands of email subscribers. And the best part? It's FREE. Join today by entering your email below.

What's the right dog for you?

Dogs are our best friends but which breed is your perfect match?


If you have kids or existing dogs select:

Other Dogs

Should they be Hypoallergenic?

How important is health?
Which dog groups do you like?
How much exercise should your dog require?
What climate?
How much seperation anxiety?
How much yappiness/barking?

How much energy should they have?

The lower energy the better.
I want a cuddle buddy!
About average energy.
I want a dog that I have to chase after constantly!
All energy levels are great -- I just love dogs!
How much should they shed?
How trainable/obedient does the dog need to be?
How intelligent does the dog need to be?
How much chewing will allow?

Share on:
About the Author

Kellianne Matthews is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on anthrozoology, conservation, human-animal relationships, and animal behavior. Kellianne has been writing and researching animals for over ten years and has decades of hands-on experience working with a variety of different animals. She holds a Master’s Degree from Brigham Young University, which she earned in 2017. A resident of Utah, Kellianne enjoys creating, exploring and learning new things, analyzing movies, caring for animals, and playing with her cats.

Thank you for reading! Have some feedback for us? Contact the AZ Animals editorial team.