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How Do You Diagnose Epilepsy in Dogs?

Updated: Mar 8

diagnose dog epilepsy

Seizures in our beloved furry companions can be a very distressing experience for both pets and owners alike. One can easily feel hopeless in the moment, so we hope to help give you clarity and expectations after witnessing a seizure-like episode in your dog. Understanding how veterinarians diagnose epilepsy in dogs is crucial for prompt and effective treatment. Please note that the following approach is to be expected when bringing in a stable dog, an emergency visit during a seizure will instead prioritise stabilising your beloved pet prior to investigating as we discuss below.


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Here's a breakdown of the typical diagnostic process:

Initial Consultation: Your journey begins with a visit to your veterinarian after witnessing your dog's seizure. During this crucial first appointment, your vet will ask you detailed questions about the episode and conduct various tests to determine the underlying cause. As there are a few other conditions that can look like a seizure, it is important for your vet to ask lots of questions to ensure they gather a full understanding of what occurred. If you were able to capture a video of the episode, this could also greatly assist in diagnosing.

Preparing for Your Appointment: Before your visit, jot down as much information as possible about the seizure, including when it occurred, how long for, if your dog seemed conscious at the time of the episode, what movements your dog made during ( eg. loss of consciousness, paddling movements, rigidity etc), any recent changes in your dog's routine (e.g. new shampoo, medication, food etc.), any stressful experiences and how your dog behaved before, during, and after the episode (e.g. any vomit/urination/defecation etc.). This information can greatly assist your vet in making an accurate diagnosis.

Comprehensive Physical Examination: After taking a thorough history, your vet will perform a thorough physical examination of your dog to assess their overall health and look for any signs of underlying medical conditions that could be causing seizures. This examination will likely include a detailed neurological assessment to ensure your dog's nervous system is functioning normally. This may include testing facial movements, sensation, eye movements and response to light etc.

Blood Tests: Blood tests are usually recommended to check your dog's general health and to rule out other potential causes of seizures, such as metabolic disorders or organ dysfunction. This is to ensure their general health is good prior to starting medication and to ensure that there are no problems on the bloods that could explain the seizure-like episode (e.g. elevated liver parameters can suggest that your dog has liver disease causing seizures).

Once you start to get results back, this will define the ongoing care and investigations recommended to you:

  • If your dog has normal blood tests, it is then safe to trial anti-seizure medications or continue with a 'gold-standard' diagnostics and perform specialist imaging (CT and/or MRI scan) and cerebrospinal fluid sampling (looking for inflammation/infection in the fluid surrounding the brain and spinal cord) as discussed below. It is worth noting that these further steps are very costly and often all return as completely normal, in which case your vet will diagnose idiopathic epilepsy and proceed with a treatment trial.

  • If, however, the blood tests are abnormal, then further investigations will be warranted to determine the primary cause of the seizure. For example if the liver enzymes were elevated, specific liver blood tests (e.g. pre and post feeding bile acids) and imaging of the liver (ultrasound scan) and potential sampling would allow for further information to be gathered for the best care for your dog.


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Further Investigations

Depending on the initial findings, your vet may recommend additional tests, such as specialist imaging like an MRI scan, electroencephalography (EEG - uncommonly used in veterinary medicine), and cerebrospinal fluid sampling, to gather more information about your dog's condition. These tests can be costly but may provide valuable insights into the underlying cause of their seizures.

Treatment Options

Whether an underlying cause is found or not, treatment typically involves starting anti-seizure medications. They may also send you home emergency seizure management (e.g. intrarectal diazepam) to use incase of a seizure while awaiting good control on medication and management. However, if abnormalities are detected in the tests, further investigations and tailored treatment plans will be recommended.

Conclusion: How Do You Diagnose Epilepsy in Dogs?

Diagnosing epilepsy in dogs requires a collaborative effort between you and your veterinarian. By providing detailed information and following your vet's recommendations, you can help ensure the best possible care for your furry friend. Remember, early diagnosis and appropriate treatment can greatly improve your dog's quality of life.

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