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What Is the Life Expectancy of a Dog With Epilepsy? (Vet Answer)

Written by: Dr. Rachel Ellison DVM (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on February 13, 2024 by Dogster Team

sick dog lying on the floor

What Is the Life Expectancy of a Dog With Epilepsy? (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Rachel Ellison  Photo

WRITTEN BY

Dr. Rachel Ellison

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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If your dog has been diagnosed with epilepsy, there are likely a variety of troubling and concerning questions on your mind. The first one is most likely to be, “What is epilepsy?” and another, even more pressing one may be, “Will my dog have a shorter life span because of it?”

While there are many variables that influence the answer to this question, in this article, we’ll discover a little bit about this disease and what the overall prognosis entails, including an affected dog’s life expectancy.

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What Is Epilepsy?

Epilepsy is a neurologic medical condition where the individual has repeated seizures over time. Seizures themselves are uncontrolled and abnormal bursts of electrical activity in the brain. Depending on the type of seizure, this can bring about various signs which we’ll discuss below.

While many may worry about their dog’s life expectancy, the good news is that having the most common form of epilepsy is not an automatic death sentence; there are many epileptic dogs who are well-maintained, and with successful treatment, these dogs may have a normal life expectancy, or very near to it.

Epilepsy can be due to a wide variety of causes such as low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), toxins, brain malformations, inflammation, neoplasia, or trauma, to name just a few. However, most epileptic dogs share the most common cause, which is referred to as idiopathic epilepsy. This is a diagnosis of exclusion, meaning other causes of seizures are ruled out. The exact cause of idiopathic epilepsy is unknown, but there is no known underlying brain lesion or other neurologic signs.

It is suspected that there may be a genetic component, and some dog breeds that may have a higher incidence of it include Beagles, Siberian Huskies, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and Golden and Labrador Retrievers, among others. Dogs with this medical condition typically start their seizure activity sometime between 1–5 years old.

sick rottweiler dog at a veterinary clinic
Image Credit: Vera Larina, Shutterstock

Anatomy of a Seizure

Each type of seizure, regardless of the type, has three distinct phases.

Aura or preictal phase

This is the short period of time (maybe minutes to hours) just prior to the start of a seizure. There are often behavior changes, which may include a dog becoming restless, hiding, or crying.

Ictus

This phase is the actual seizure itself and the signs displayed will be determined by the type of seizure seen. This phase is often brief (less than 2 minutes) unless exhibiting seizure clusters (more than one seizure in a 24-hour period) or status epilepticus (seizures greater than 15 minutes in length or repeat seizures without recovering in between; a medical emergency).

Generalized seizure

The most common type of seizure in dogs is a generalized seizure where a dog will lose consciousness and exhibit one or more of the classic signs of a seizure such as:

  • Stiffness
  • Falling to the side
  • Paddling of the limbs in the air
  • Twitching or shaking
  • Convulsions
  • Excessive salivation
  • Involuntary vocalization
  • Involuntary urination
  • Involuntary defecation

Partial seizure

This type of seizure will affect a specific area of the brain. These dogs can be conscious but do have altered mentation. There may be short bursts of sudden aggression or aimless running. Fly-biting, tail-chasing, and flank-sucking are sometimes caused by partial seizures.

Postictal phase

This is a period of recovery after a seizure, which can vary in length but is often less than 30 minutes. In this phase, the dog may have behavior changes such as disorientation or confusion as well as pacing, weakness, or blindness.

a sick basset hound dog lying on the sofa
Image Credit: Daniel Myjones, Shutterstock

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Epilepsy Diagnosis

A thorough history with lots of questions regarding the experienced seizures coupled with a complete physical and neurologic exam will be the first steps. Next, different types of bloodwork and urinalysis are helpful for baseline testing as well as to rule out some causes of seizures.

The history and physical exam findings, coupled with the signalment, in some cases, may point to the need for further testing such as with advanced imaging like an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or CT (computed tomography), a CSF (cerebral spinal fluid) tap, or EEG (electroencephalography). In cases when recommended further testing is not an option, sometimes a presumptive diagnosis, or diagnosing while using all the available clues without confirmatory tests, may be done. If there is no improvement or a worsening of signs despite treatment, further testing would be the next step.

Epilepsy Treatment

Treatment recommendations for seizures, including exactly when to start it, can vary among clinicians, but one area of common concern is that if a dog is having seizures, they may get worse as time goes on if left untreated. Because of this, ideally, treatment may be started early, but usually not after the very first seizure. If seizures occur very infrequently (such as once every few years), then treatment may not be recommended at all. Some recommendations to start treatment can include if there are more than two seizures within a 6-month period, any episodes of cluster seizures or status epilepticus, or if the postictal period is very long in time or otherwise abnormal.

Anticonvulsant medications can be used to treat seizures, and sometimes more than one medication may be needed, or medications may need to be changed over time, but they should not stop suddenly. All the dosing and changes should be made under the direction of a veterinarian. These drugs can come along with side effects depending on the specific drug, some side effects could include sedation, weight gain, increased drinking, eating, and urinating as well as changes to the liver; because of this, careful monitoring and routine bloodwork are very important.

In addition, keeping a “seizure calendar” with seizure details such as date, time, length, and what exactly happened will help with continued management.

A dog with epilepsy will in most cases require lifelong medication and this can be a big commitment to consider. Unfortunately, even with medication, there is typically not a complete resolution of seizures. The goal of medication is to decrease seizures by about 50% without creating toxic or negative side effects from the medication; the hope is to allow the affected dog (and owner) to have a better quality of life than they would with untreated symptoms.

An Epileptic Dog’s Prognosis

Depending on various factors, many epileptic dogs can be well-managed and live long and happy lives while being treated. As mentioned, some epileptic dogs with successful treatment may have a normal or near-normal life expectancy.

As mentioned, idiopathic epilepsy is by far the most common cause of epilepsy in dogs. Veterinary neurologists often report that for many dogs with idiopathic epilepsy, their life expectancy is not shortened by the disease. In fact, one study found that the life expectancy for dogs with idiopathic epilepsy is around 9.2 years, which was similar to that found for dogs in the general population. Risk factor complications that may affect this can include cluster seizures or status epilepticus which can lead to a shorter life span and poorer prognosis.

According to the University of Missouri Veterinary Health Center, about 60–70% of dogs who have idiopathic epilepsy with carefully monitored treatment have good seizure control; they report that for these dogs without risk factor complications, life expectancy can be as much as 11 years. In contrast, for epileptic dogs that have cluster seizures or status epilepticus, they say these dogs may only have an expected lifespan of 8 years.

The prognosis of other causes of epilepsy would vary based on each individual disease as well as when treatment is sought and how effective it is. For example, dogs that have epilepsy due to an intracranial cause (for example, a brain tumor) may have a shorter life span.

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Conclusion

While each epileptic dog is an individual with their own set of special circumstances, their life expectancy with well-controlled medication has the potential to be just as long as for non-epileptic dogs. Despite this, most epileptic dogs will not be totally cured from having seizures, and treatment is a lifelong commitment.

For dogs that have uncontrolled seizures despite medication, the prognosis may be more difficult to predict. Regardless of your dog’s particular circumstances, if they are suffering from epilepsy, make sure to keep a detailed calendar of your dog’s seizures and communicate this information regularly to your veterinarian for the best possible planning, treatment, and overall outcome for your pet.


Featured Image Credit: EugeneEdge, Shutterstock

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