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Clients commonly ask if dogs can die from seizures. The answer is yes. The risk largely depends on the underlying cause of the seizure. Seizures that result from head trauma, brain tumors, organ malfunction, toxins, and other serious medical problems are at high risk for dying. Learn more about the possible Causes of Seizures in Dogs.
Seizures caused by epilepsy, which means there is no known underlying cause for the seizures, are at much lower risk of dying from a seizure. Epilepsy most often occurs in young healthy dogs. Even though a seizure is scary and it seems like your dog is in pain or may die, this is unlikely when there is a single seizure event in a young healthy epileptic dog.
Situations that Increase the Risk of Death from Seizures
As identified above, the risk of death from seizures in dogs will be very dependent on the underlying cause. If the cause is from a serious medical problem, the risk of death can be high.
If a seizure occurs once in a young healthy dog with no trauma or toxin exposure, the risk of death is lower.
However, prolonged or recurrent generalized seizures can be life-threatening and increase the risk of your dog dying during or from secondary complications from the seizure. Two multiple seizure events include:
- Cluster seizures occur when multiple seizures occur in one day.
- Status epilepticus occurs when there is continuous seizure activity or seizures that reoccur without recovery between seizures.
When either of these multiple seizure situations occurs, there is potential for the body temperature to increase due to the increased muscle activity associated with the padding and muscle movements. Some dogs can quickly increase their body temperatures from normal (which is 100 to 102.5°F degrees Fahrenheit) to over 108°F. This produces a potentially life-threatening problem of hyperthermia (high body temperature). This is a form of a Heat stoke. At temperatures > 109°F critical organ failure can develop.
The elevated body temperature can lead to additional abnormal neurological symptoms such as lethargy, weakness, or coma. Life-threatening secondary complications may include disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), gastrointestinal ulceration, low blood pressure (hypotension), low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), infections, and/or renal failure.
The treatment for hyperthermia from seizure activity focuses on immediately stopping the seizures and decreasing the body temperature. Intravenous (IV) diazepam (valium) is commonly used to stop seizure activity. If that doesn't work, other injectable drugs such as propofol may be used. Cooling methods may include a cool water bath, cool fan, and IV fluid therapy. For more information on various cooling methods, please read Heat stoke in Dogs.
Hyperthermia is an emergency and is why if a seizure lasts longer than 5 minutes - you should head to your veterinarian or your closest veterinary emergency clinic.
When To See Your Vet
It is best to see your veterinarian for the following:
- Any Seizures that lasts longer than 5 minutes
- When there are more than three seizures in a 24 hour time period
- Seizures that begin before your pet has completely recovered from the previous seizure
- Abnormal signs such as vomiting, diarrhea, coughing, bleeding or any other concerns develop as or after your dog is recovering from the seizure
How to Help Your Dog if They are Having a Seizure
During a seizure event, the best things you can do are to ensure your safety and your dog's safety.
The general rules of how to help your dog if he or she is having a seizure include:
- Be safe. Don't move your dog unless he in a location where he can be injured during the seizure. If your dog is near the stairs, gently move him away from the stairs. The safest way to do this is to gently drag your dog by his back legs. If your dog is outside, make sure he is not near the road, sharp objects or bodies of water such as a pond, lake or swimming pool where he could fall in and drown. Again, if he is near anything dangerous, carefully and gently drag your dog by his back legs to an area of safety.
- Don't touch your dog's mouth. There is an old wives tale that a dog will swallow their tongue during a seizure. This is NOT true. Do not get near your dog's mouth and don't put anything your dog's mouth. Many pet owners get bit from being too close to their dog's mouths or worrying about them swallowing their tongue during a seizure.
- Time the Seizure. Check your watch and notice how long the seizure lasts. Many pet owners believe a seizure lasts several minutes when it is only seconds. The seizure event is a stressful time and the actual seizure can seem to last longer than it actually is.
- Start a Seizure Log. Develop a system or calendar to document this seizure, time of day, length of seizure and anything your dog was doing immediately before the seizure.
- Call Your Vet. If you have any questions or concerns, please call your veterinarian. They can help guide you on when you should have your dog evaluated and if treatment or testing is indicated.