No one knows what it is that determines when an epileptic will have seizures. The only thing we can predict about epilepsy is that it's unpredictable. Some pets appear to have seizures very regularly, while in others, the seizures appear to be precipitated by specific events such as stress, or changes in the weather. However, when we try to use what's happened in the past to predict when the next seizure may occur, we usually aren't very successful. For many epileptics, there is no pattern to their seizures.
Idiopathic epilepsy is a diagnosis by elimination. That is, we look for other causes of seizures and if we can't find any, we make the diagnosis of idiopathic epilepsy. How aggressively we search for an underlying cause is a matter of clinical judgement. We always recommend a minimum work-up for any dog having seizures. This will provide us with clues to a possible underlying disease and provide the baseline from which to watch for potential side effects of antiepileptic drugs.
Since your veterinarian may not witness one of your pet's seizures, they are very dependant upon your description of the episode. This will help them decide whether these events are indeed seizures. Other problems such as fainting or dizzy spells can also come and go like seizures and may look similar to the untrained eye. Thus, your veterinarian will need a clear description of what you observe during the episode to help make that distinction. They will also be determining what type of seizure your pet is experiencing. Write down a description of what you saw as soon as possible after the episode. If you can, make a videotape of the episode to show your veterinarian or the neurologist.
In order to rule out some diseases, we would need further tests. If the animal is outside the 1-3 year old range when idiopathic epilepsy typically starts, or has any abnormalities on examination that hint of a cause, we strongly recommend such testing. Your veterinarian may refer you to a neurologist for some of these tests. Even if an animal is within the "idiopathic epilepsy" age range, we can't be sure it's idiopathic unless we perform the full compliment of tests. One study (Podell 1995) showed that over 1/3 of the dogs between 1 and 5 years of age had an identifiable cause for the seizures. Thus we can make a case for aggressive testing in any epileptic dog, but need to weigh the additional cost involved into the equation.The electroencephalogram (EEG) is a useful tool in diagnosing epilepsy, but has serious drawbacks in animals. When we see abnormalities in the EEG, that tells us this is indeed a seizure and may help us pinpoint the source. The trouble is, those EEG abnormalities, like the seizures, can come and go. If they don't happen while we are recording the EEG, we will not see them. Recording an EEG in an awake animal is difficult, so we often have to sedate or anesthetize them to get an adequate recording. The drugs used for the sedation/anesthesia also affect the EEG. Thus, we often make the diagnoses of epilepsy based on the clinical signs and don't require EEG confirmation of the disease.