Question: My three-year-old German Shepherd, Luke, is having a seizure every month. My vet diagnosed him with epilepsy and wants to start him on a drug called phenobarbital, but we are worried, as he will have to be on it for life. Are there any alternative treatment options?
R.R., via email
Answer: Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that causes recurrent seizures or fits. It can affect both cats and dogs, but it is more common in dogs.
When epilepsy is the result of functional disturbances in a brain that is otherwise structurally normal—and so has no obvious cause except perhaps a hereditary predisposition—the condition is called 'primary idiopathic epilepsy.' The exact mechanism behind this dysfunction is still very much unknown, but it is thought to be biochemical. This type of epilepsy is especially common in male dogs.
Seizures or convulsions usually happen in dogs when they're asleep or resting. Your dog may then become stiff, collapse, salivate or drool profusely, chew its tongue, chomp its jaw or clamp it shut. Some dogs urinate, defecate, howl and may paddle with all four limbs. After the seizure, the vast majority of animals are confused and disorientated, drink lots of water and may wander or pace aimlessly.
Epilepsy is diagnosed after ruling out other causes of seizures, like poisoning, tumors, infection, fever and brain damage. The age at which the seizures started, and their type and frequency, can provide important clues for a diagnosis of primary epilepsy. Pets that suddenly develop seizures in old age may have metabolic disease or a brain lesion.
As Luke is male and only three years old, he's a good fit for primary idiopathic epilepsy.
If your dog has recurrent seizures and doesn't become fully conscious between them, or has seizures lasting more than five minutes, this is an emergency situation called 'status epilepticus.' As it can be life-threatening, it calls for immediate veterinary medical treatment. Your pet will have to be admitted and given intravenous (IV) medication, IV fluids and monitored carefully until stabilized.
No treatment is required if the seizure lasts less than two minutes and does not recur. Dogs that have a cluster of seizures (two or more in 24 hours) and those that have seizures at regular intervals of 1-4 weeks usually have to be medicated.
Phenobarbital is the main drug of choice, as it is quite effective and not too expensive. It works by decreasing and stabilizing neuronal (nerve cell) activity in the brain, as seizures are caused by sudden surges of neuronal activity. Phenobarbital increases the secretion of GABA, a neurotransmitter that has nerve-calming properties, and decreases the secretion of glutamate, a neurotransmitter that has nerve-stimulating properties.
But because of its neuron-calming effects, the drug also calms other neurons, resulting in lethargy and other side effects like anxiety, sedation, drinking more water, excessive hunger, increased urination, anemia and weight gain. The major concern is that, in a small percentage of dogs, long-term use of phenobarbital causes scarring of the liver and irreversible liver damage, eventually resulting in liver failure. For this reason, supplements of S-adenosylmethionine (SAMe), which stimulates repair, are now commonly prescribed alongside phenobarbital to combat potential liver damage.
Using a combination of holistic treatments, it is possible to avoid or at least minimize the use of phenobarbital and other pharmaceutical drugs.
Acupuncture and acupressure
Many holistic vets, including myself, have found these two traditional Chinese techniques highly effective for treating canine epilepsy. I use them in combination with Chinese herbal medicine and have had very good success. I recommend finding a vet trained in traditional Chinese veterinary medicine who can give you an accurate diagnosis and prescribe the most suitable treatment for Luke.
Milk thistle (Silybum marianum) contains silymarin, which has natural liver-supportive properties. It's available online from several producers and is also included in the product Samylin from VetPlus, which also contains SAMe.
Suggested dosage: Milk Thistle: 100 mg per 10 lbs body weight daily divided into two equal doses; Samylin: follow instructions provided
Blue skullcap (Scutellaria laterifolia) is a useful herb for epileptic dogs, as it helps to reduce nervous tension, while valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is specifically used to reduce tension, anxiety, overexcitability and hysteria, making it especially helpful in epilepsy. Skullcap and valerian are also available online.
Suggested dosage: See product label
Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis and Matricaria recutita) is a potent sedative and highly effective for reducing stress and anxiety in animals. While some dogs enjoy chamomile tea straight, some prefer to have their treats dipped in the tea. Chamomile is widely available as tablets, treats and tinctures; see right for a homemade chamomile treat recipe from my book, You Can Heal Your Pet .
Seizure Symptom Support, a liquid herbal supplement made by Prana Pets, contains passionflower, skullcap, valerian, St John's wort and oatstraw, and is available from www.pranapets.com.
Dietary changes alone can sometimes effectively prevent seizures. Numerous studies have shown some correlation between food intolerance and epilepsy. Switching to a raw diet or a home-cooked diet made with organic ingredients free of preservatives, taste enhancers and other additives can go a long way toward improving your dog's health and controlling epilepsy.
There is also evidence that meats low in glutamate, such as lamb, are best for epileptic dogs. Egg is also low in glutamate and can be safely included in Luke's diet.
High-glutamate foods, like rabbit, turkey and oily fish, are best avoided. In fact, the increased consumption of wheat and soy protein, which are high in glutamate, has been blamed for the increase in epilepsy in both pets and people. It's best to avoid commercial, highly processed food rich in grains and fats that go rancid.
Essential fatty acids (omega-3 and omega-6) from wild-caught salmon oil can be beneficial and may help reduce seizure frequency and intensity in dogs. This could be because a high-fat diet seems to decrease neuronal excitability. In addition, a ketogenic diet (low in carbs, high in fats) has been successfully used to treat epilepsy in people.
Contact healing is a fantastic complement to veterinary care and is something you can do yourself. But don't attempt contact healing while your pet is having a seizure. Instead, concentrate on keeping calm and offering distant healing until the seizure has stopped (see chapter 5 in You Can Heal Your Pet for instructions on how to give healing to your pet).
Some companies have started marketing CBD, or cannabidiol (hemp) oil, for treating epilepsy in dogs. Canna-Pet is one such product. According to Narda Robinson, DO, DVM, in an article she wrote for the June 2014 issue of Veterinary Practice News (see www.veterinarypracticenews.com/Cannabis-for-Intractable-Epilepsy/), CBD has notable anticonvulsant effects and can reliably reduce neuronal and seizure activity with minimal neurotoxicity. This could become a key antiepileptic therapy in the future.
Chamomile Tea & Honey Biscuits
4 Tbsp cold chamomile tea (steep two chamomile teabags in a cup of boiling water, then cool)
4 oz milled linseed/flaxseed meal
4 oz self-rising flour
1 free-range egg
2 Tbsp chamomile-infused honey (add a bundle of chamomile flowers to honey and leave to infuse for a week before removing the bundle)
1) Preheat oven to 375°F.
2) Grease an 8 x 11 in baking sheet.
3) Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl to form a soft dough
4) Spread mixture to a depth of ½ in on the baking tray.
5) Bake for 25-30 minutes until just firm.
6) Remove from the oven and let cool, then cut into bite-sized squares.
70 Keep in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to five days, or freeze for up to one month.
Useful tips if your pet has seizures
• Try taking video of your pet during a seizure: while it can be a distressing experience for both pets and owners, it can help the vet make a diagnosis.
• Keep a record of all seizures and their duration. Remember: your pet is unlikely to die of a seizure, but if status epilepticus develops (see main text), it's a life-threatening emergency.
• Make sure your pet cannot be injured by furniture or objects during a seizure.
• Keep an eye on your pet's weight, as pets taking antiepileptic drugs tend to become overweight.
• Be aware of the side effects of any medications your pet is taking and inform your vet if they appear.
• Make sure your pet undergoes regular blood tests when taking medication to ensure there's no drug toxicity or liver damage happening
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com