Like human beings, dogs are very active when they sleep. They go through different phases of wakefulness and sleepiness, they can get insomnia, they have dreams, and they can even have seizures while sleeping.
While they can be alarming to witness, seizures in dogs while sleeping are for the most part nothing to worry about. They can be caused by conditions such as epilepsy or congenital blood defects, but also be as benign as your dog suffering an uncommon amount of stress, or being unable to doze as easily in and out of that deepest stage of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement).
The following guide lays out the essential things to know about dog seizures while sleeping, from the difference between dreaming and seizures, to how (and how NOT) to respond to them. Remember that while seizures are often harmless, it is recommended you consult your veterinarian whenever one occurs.
The Most Common Causes Of Dog Seizures While Sleeping
A seizure is a spontaneous motor response triggered by the brain that the body cannot control, and they can happen for a variety of reasons in both human beings and dogs. The first of two common types of seizures is called a grand-mal seizure, which means the seizure occurs across the entire body. A petit-mal seizure is a tinier episode relegated to an individual body part.
Seizures in dogs while sleeping are actually quite common. According to research done by the American Kennel Club, 0.75% of the canine population are epileptic, the leading cause of seizures in dogs. And of the 0.75% of epileptic (which sounds like a small figure, but estimates as high as 9 millions dogs worldwide), 40-60% experience seizures on a regular basis.
The following are the leading causes:
Epilepsy is a neurological phenomenon which causes an alarming type of brain activity in dogs. It is a condition which is still quite misunderstood, as is particularly true in the case of idiopathic epilepsy, meaning the condition is genetically inherited. The condition is lifelong and causes repeated, though usually not permanently damaging, seizures.
Epileptic fits most frequently strike dogs when they are fading in or out of sleep, as it is a time of unique, highly charged brain activity.
Liver or Kidney Disease
Liver and kidney disease can be caused by a wide range of issues in dogs, ranging from viral infection and cancer to endocrine diseases including diabetes. Both of these diseases can produce neurological side effects, including coma and seizures.
While epilepsy, liver or kidney disease, and highly treatable conditions such as high/low blood sugar and blood pressure account for most seizure cases in dogs, if you're looking to diagnose your own dog, be aware that accidental poisoning, anemia, head injury and concussion, encephalitis, and various types of cancer can also be the culprit.
It bears repeating to contact your vet the second your dog recovers from a seizure. A fit of cluster seizures may actually be a blessing in disguise, as seeing a vet and getting your dog scanned can reveal unseen brain tumors that are easily operable when caught early.
What's The Difference Between Dog Seizures and Dreams?
One of the many joys of pet ownership, and one of the few, truly free pleasures in life, is to observe your sweet pup shaking their little paws as if galloping after a squirrel while sleeping or dreaming.
Yes, animals have dreams, and as far back as 1977, animal psychologists have recorded a markedly increased intensity in dream activity in dogs when compared to humans. It is generally fairly easy to distinguish between a dreaming dog and a seizing one — here are some of the key differences to look out for.
If your dog is dreaming, they should:
- Emit only mild yelps while sleeping, wag their tails or “run” while lying a small amount
- Be easy to wake up from sleep
- Only exhibit activity for a short period of time (30 seconds of less)
If they are experiencing a seizure, they will have:
- Stiff limbs, and a rigid neck extension
- Drooling, panting, and sometimes urinating or defecating while still sleeping
- An episode that lasts longer than one minute
- Violent movements, and moderate to extreme disorientation upon waking
To take the best care of your dogs, know the differences between dreaming and seizing.
What To Do When Your Dog Has Seizures While Sleeping
Anybody's instinct if their dog were to start grunting, foaming at the mouth, and violently kicking and thrusting with a rigid, bent-back neck would be to panic. Their next instinct might be to try and shake them out of it as quickly as possible.
As with so many difficult things in life, when your instinct is to freak out, it's best to remain calm. While they look violent, pain is a rare experience during seizure, and if they're sleeping, it's unlikely they'll remember having one at all.
If your sleeping or dreaming dog has a seizure, here's what you can do:
Keep Your Veterinarian's Number Handy
Put it on your fridge, save it to your contacts, bookmark their address on your navigation app. Very rarely will you have to escort your dog to the vet mid seizure, but you should have that number handy in case of emergency.
Watch for Cluster Seizures
If your dog has 3-4 incidents within a short span of time, take them to your vet or nearest animal hospital. These are what are called cluster seizures, and they need to be evaluated immediately.
Secure the Location
The worst consequences to watch out for aren't actually internal, they're external. Make sure your dog is kept away from anything that could tip over, break, or crash while they seize, and simply wait it out with them.
What NOT To Do When Your Dog Has Seizures While Sleeping
When dogs go through seizures they go through three phases: pre-ictal phase (aura), ictal phase (the episode itself), and post-ictal phase (the come down). You are your best asset to your pet during post-ictal, where you can console them through the process of regaining consciousness. But here is what you should NOT do during phases 1 and 2:
Jolt Them Awake
If your dog is having a grand-mal seizure, they likely won't be able to “wake up” from it. This is more for you to keep yourself safe from accidental biting or scratching. Be near them, but not too near.
Save Their Tongue
Do not, as common wisdom goes, try and save your dog from biting off their own tongue mid-attack. It is a myth that this occurs during seizure, but your finger getting chomped to pulp is a very real threat.
Remedies and Plans of Action
If your dog is experiencing particularly violent seizures or has multiple within a short span of days or weeks, make an appointment with your veterinarian. They may be able to prescribe you seizure medication such as Phenobarbital or Keppra.
There are also a whole host of natural remedies to explore. Innovet's 100% organic full spectrum CBD oil is used by pet owners to counteract crippling conditions in dogs, such as cancer and chronic anxiety. CBD can also soothe those who have sleeping issues, reducing the likelihood of seizure during those critical windows of falling in and out of sleep. Speak to your vet about whether they think CBD could be a useful supplement for your pet.
Remaining Calm and Carrying On
Seizures are a frightening, but often natural and painless experience that many dogs share. Whatever the cause, all your little one really needs is space to grit and bear through it, and loving companionship once they wake and start to reorient.
Check out Innovet's multi-purpose line of CBD, grooming, health and wellness products for pets to see how to care for your epileptic, or otherwise seizure prone dog. And remember, never forget to call your vet!