Seizures - convulsions/fitting
Seizures are not a disease in themselves, instead, they are a symptom of many different disorders that can affect the brain. Some seizures can hardly be noticed, while others can be quite violent.
What is a seizure?
Seizures are also commonly known as convulsions or fitting and are caused by a disorder of the brain where the neurons fire in an uncoordinated manner. This disordered brain activity often results in uncontrolled contractions, jerking and twitching of the muscles in the body and an apparent lack of awareness or consciousness during the seizure.
Seizures vary in severity and this is due to the area of the brain that is affected. Generalised seizures usually affect the entire brain whereas partial seizures may only affect one area of the brain.
There are several types of generalised seizures. The most severe seizures are generally known as grand mal seizures and these are characterised by unconsciousness, convulsions, muscle rigidity (tonic-clonic seizure). Less severe seizures may show brief loss of consciousness (absence seizure), isolated jerking movements (myoclonic seizure), repetitive jerking movements (clonic seizure), muscle rigidity (tonic seizure), or loss of muscle tone (atonic seizure).
Minor seizures are not always obvious and may last only a few seconds. The animal may appear to go into a trance-like state, staring at an object, or appearing confused or disoriented.
In more severe seizures twitching or loss of bodily control can occur. The animal might lose control of their limbs or may pass urine where they are sitting/standing.
The most severe seizures will result in the animal having no control of their limbs or bodily functions. The animal will fall to the floor, lying on their side with their head, legs and body jerking in an uncontrolled manner. They may extend their limbs and head in an unusual, contracted posture and may lose control of bladder and bowels; this can go on for 1-3 minutes.
Are seizures dangerous?
The danger of a seizure depends on the cause and the severity.
Seizures can be as short as a couple of seconds or can continue with no sign of the seizure stopping. In grand mal seizures that last for more than a couple of minutes, the animal is not conscious and may thrash around an injure themselves. They also might not breathe effectively, and this can starve the brain of oxygen which can result in permanent brain damage.
If treated by a vet, prolonged and repeated seizing can usually be prevented or managed.
Why causes seizures?
There are many different causes for seizures. Some are related to an acute or immediate disease or toxic state in the body. Repeated seizures with no other sign of illness can be a result of epilepsy which is a condition of chronic seizing. Epilepsy is only rarely seen in rabbits.
Some acute conditions which may lead a rabbit to have a seizure include:
- E. cuniculi - due to inflammatory changes from the parasite within the brain.
- Heat stroke - rabbits who overheat may start to seizure as the temperature of the brain becomes dangerously high.
- Pregnancy toxaemia - seizures are more common in the latter stages of pregnancy, especially in obese rabbits undergoing a period of anorexia.
- Lead toxicity - this can result from house rabbits nibbling on lead-based paints.
- Permethrin or fipronil poisoning - topical flea treatments which are used on other species can be very toxic to rabbits.
- Brain tumour - rare in rabbits, but it can occur. Seizing is a common sign of brain tumours.
- Ingestion of certain plants - ivy and foxglove are toxic and can cause seizures if eaten.
What will my vet?
If your rabbit has had a seizure, your vet will want to know a complete history of the problem including whether your rabbit has eaten anything which may be poisonous or if you have applied any flea treatment or given your rabbit any medications recently which could have bought on a seizure. Your vet will give your rabbit a thorough clinical examination and may recommend blood tests to diagnose E. cuniculi or to rule out other causes.
A CT or MRI scan may be suggested if your vet believes that there may be a tumour within the brain. These are normally priced at several hundred pounds so may be out of the financial possibilities of some owners unless the rabbit is insured.
If no cause(s) can be found for the seizure, your veterinarian may recommend monitoring your rabbit for further seizures and if they continue, medication may be prescribed to help prevent the seizures or treat them when they occur.
What can I do to help my rabbit during and after a seizure?
During a seizure, try to remain calm as there is nothing you can do to stop it. Take note of the time to record how long the seizure lasts so you can inform your vet. You can help ensure that your rabbit doesn’t injure itself if it is thrashing around by provide padding to protect the head and eyes from injury caused by rubbing on rough surfaces. Be watchful that they maintain their airway but take care to avoid getting near the mouth as the rabbit will have no control over their behaviour and may bite down at the wrong moment. If the rabbit isn’t coming out of the seizure after a couple of minutes you must call your vet straight away and be prepared to take them to the clinic.
After the seizure stops, the rabbit’s brain will need to recover. The rabbit may appear confused and tired. It will need to be kept quiet. Dim the lights, turn off the TV/radio and make sure that there are no wires or corners of furniture that the rabbit could hurt itself on as it struggles to regain coordination.
Call your vet for advice to see if they would recommend seeing the rabbit straight away after a seizure or if they feel that it would be better to wait until the rabbit had recovered.
Try and keep your rabbit’s environment as quiet and stress free as possible. Keep food and water within easy reach and keep a very close eye on them. If they have a companion do not separate them as the other rabbit will offer comfort and help the rabbit to feel safe and secure.
Monitor the rabbit for early signs of an impending seizure. Obviously, you won’t be able to be with your rabbit 24 hours a day, and the rabbit may have a seizure when you aren’t around. Signs that this may have happened will include a messed-up bed, the rabbit appearing confused, they may break a claw or bite their lip/tongue when seizing so there could be evidence of blood or the rabbit may not appear themselves. If in any doubt call your vet straight away.