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What is eclampsia?

Eclampsia is a life-threatening condition in dogs and cats that have recently had a litter of puppies or kittens. It has been seen in pets that are pregnant or giving birth, but more commonly occurs one to four weeks after giving birth. It is a medical emergency caused by a sudden drop in blood calcium levels, usually due to calcium loss during pregnancy and nursing.

Eclampsia in pets is most commonly seen in small breeds of dogs (Chihuahua, miniature pinscher, Pomeranian and toy poodle) with large litters or large pups. It can, however, occur in any breed with any size litter and at any time from pregnancy to weaning. The drop in calcium levels in the blood can cause changes in behaviour and weakness to muscle spasms and full-blown seizures.

Eclampsia in pets is also known as puerperal tetany or hypocalcaemia.

What does eclampsia look like?

Eclampsia can seem to come out of nowhere. Affected animals are usually completely fine and healthy throughout their pregnancy and have an uneventful birthing. It is only once the milk production starts in earnest – usually from one to four weeks after giving birth – that problems arise. In dogs and cats eclampsia can start out very subtly. Pet owners may notice an unusual restlessness and pacing. Some animals may get unnaturally aggressive, are sensitive to light and sound, develop a high fever, whine and pant or even begin vomiting or have diarrhoea. This may progress to weakness then muscle spasms and twitches and eventually seizures. If left without treatment, these animals may fall into a coma and can die.

Eclampsia in dogs and cats can also occur during pregnancy, but this is not very common, though the symptoms will be similar. If an animal is affected while they are in the process of giving birth, you may notice that the contractions are not as strong as they should be. This may lead to a puppy or kitten getting stuck in the birth canal or simply unable to come out all the way. These animals need immediate assistance in order to save the litter.

What causes eclampsia?

Eclampsia is caused by low levels of calcium in the blood. This is most often due to a calcium-poor or poor quality diet during pregnancy. Other causes may be from calcium loss in pregnancy due to the development of the bones of unborn pups/kittens or even a problem with the parathyroid gland, which is responsible for calcium regulation in the body.

Calcium is a very important mineral in the body. It is not only found in the bones, but also in the blood where there is a constant flux between the two. One of the most important functions of calcium in the system is its influence at neuromuscular junctions. These are like little electrical circuits that control the ability of a muscle and nerve to communicate. The calcium manages this communication by allowing messages to pass through at the correct time. When calcium levels are low, like in the case of eclampsia, the messages come through without regulation and often without stimulus, leading to muscle twitches, spasms and even seizures and fits.

What should I do if I suspect my pet has eclampsia?

Eclampsia is a medical emergency and should be seen to immediately. First remove the puppies or kittens from suckling and keep them safe and warm. Mom should then immediately be taken to the vet. If the condition is diagnosed and treated in good time, recovery is fast and total.

What will the vet do if my pet has eclampsia?

The vet will get as much information about your pet’s history as possible. This background is important so that we do not miss any other potential causes of your pet’s symptoms. Some toxins and even epilepsy can present in the same way.

The vet will likely start by performing a physical examination and recommend bloodwork in order to check the calcium levels in the blood, blood sugar levels as well as other electrolytes. Where available the vet may make use of an electrocardiogram (ECG) to monitor your pet’s heart as eclampsia affects heart rate and rhythm.

If your pet is having a seizure, the vet will correct this with anti-seizure medication before administering any other treatment. Low levels of calcium are treated by replacing the calcium in the bloodstream. This is injected directly, but very slowly, into the vein. While low calcium levels lead to a high, erratic heart rate, replacing the calcium too fast causes slowing of the heart and possible arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats), so this must be done with care.

 Giving the calcium directly into the blood usually has an immediate effect where muscles relax and seizures stop. Your pet may require hospitalisation and observation to ensure that the blood calcium levels have stabilised before being sent home. These cases will go home with calcium supplements to provide enough for the body in the long term.

Depending on whether puppies or kittens are old enough to start eating solids themselves, it is preferable to not allow them to suckle from mom for the next 12 – 24 hours after such a crisis. This is to prevent mom from losing too much calcium too fast in the milk, causing a repeat episode. Little ones should be fed milk replacer while mom recovers, and will likely need additional milk replacer supplementation until they are weaned. If the puppies/kittens are four (or more) weeks old, they should be weaned off mom, but if they are younger, they will need extra milk through milk replacer. Introducing them to solid food at three to four weeks of age will reduce the burden on mom and provide enough nutrients for the pups/kittens.

How can I prevent eclampsia in my pet?

As in all things, prevention is better than cure. The most important aspect of prevention is the provision of a high-quality, nutrient-dense, balanced and appropriate diet throughout pregnancy and lactation. Diets designed for lactating moms and little ones are ideal. The calcium to phosphorus ratio is very important and should ideally be 1.2:1.

Food and clean water should be available at all times during lactation. Removing the little ones for an hour a few times a day will give mom a break and let her eat and get enough calcium from her food. Most commercially available dog and cat foods have sufficient calcium. Do not supplement calcium during pregnancy as this will actually cause eclampsia rather than prevent it. Calcium can be supplemented after giving birth, especially in high risk cases or where eclampsia has happened before. This is most important when milk production is at its peak and the demand for calcium is at its highest.

Encourage puppies and kittens to start eating solids once they are three to four weeks old. They will start trying out mom’s food first. Once you see the interest, you can provide them with puppy and kitten mousses, which are easy to eat, and later providing them with a suitable puppy/kitten diet.

What is the prognosis for pets diagnosed with eclampsia?

If diagnosed and treated promptly any pet affected with eclampsia usually makes a full and complete recovery. Unfortunately if a pet has had the condition once, it can occur again. In this case, discuss with the vet any methods to prevent the problem from happening again.

Unfortunately once the condition has progressed to full seizure activity, this can lead to brain swelling. These cases do not respond as quickly as others as the swelling in the brain needs to be treated too. Not all of these animals go home and may have a poorer prognosis.

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