It is estimated that 1% of the canine population has some form of seizure disorder. Any dog breed can develop epilepsy caused by infections, toxins, trauma or other underlying conditions, but congenital or primary epilepsy is caused by genetic abnormalities. The incidence of idiopathic (inherited) epilepsy in certain breeds of dog can be as high as 15% to 20%, commonly affecting Belgian Tervuren, Shetland sheepdogs, beagles, Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, keeshond, vizslas, and German short haired pointers.
Popular oral and topical flea and tick preventative products are commonly linked to seizures. The federal Food and Drug Administration has issued a warning about four chewable flea and tick medications, cautioning that the products could lead to neurological issues such as seizures. (It’s about time!) Isoxazoline drugs affect GABA receptors in the brain, which can lead to seizures or tremors (and potentially death).
A seizure is a sudden, uncontrolled surge of electrical activity released by the cells in the brain. This causes small electrical signals to be sent through the nerves to the body’s muscles, causing a change in how the body appears or acts for a short period of time. Seizures may produce physical shaking, minor physical signs like twitching, thought disturbances, lack of consciousness, or a combination of these. Temporary loss of vision, aggressive behavior, or inability to walk may occur.
Conventional treatment for seizures includes use of drugs such as phenobarbital, levetiracetam, zonisamide, and potassium bromide. While all these drugs may help decrease seizures, they do not cure they underlying cause and many pets will become refractory to these drugs over time, resulting in increased frequency of seizures. Side effects of the drugs can include increased thirst and urination, vomiting, obesity, lethargy, lack of coordination, and liver or kidney disease.
From a Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine standpoint, seizures are a disorder of Wind, which causes shaking (think of the leaves on the trees during a windstorm). Wind can be internal or external. Internal Wind may be generated from an imbalance in the body, most commonly in the Liver. This makes sense, since Liver is the element of Wood, which is the season spring and the color green (trees/leaves). Any treatments will be directed at balancing the liver, but may also include treatments for kidney, heart, Yin, Yang, Blood, and Qi.
Acupuncture is generally performed every two to four weeks for five to eight treatments, then once every three to six months, as needed for maintenance. Acupuncture or acupressure of the liver points, such as Liver 3 (on top of the hind foot between the second and third toes), can help decrease Wind issues. When combined with herbs, these treatments can be very effective, allowing gradual reduction or discontinuation of anti-epileptic medications.
Herbal remedies are commonly prescribed by TCVM practitioners. The most frequently used Chinese herbal medicine in the management of seizures is Di Tan Tang (Chinese herbal equivalent of phenobarbital). It contains Uncaria, Arisaemi, Acorus, Poria and Glycyrrhiza, which have been shown to possess anti-epileptic activity in animal models. Other herbal formulas may be added to this to treat specific underlying imbalances. For seizures secondary to head trauma, a blend of thirteen herbs called Stasis in the Mansion of the Mind, has been very effective when combined with acupuncture.
Foods that will help support the liver and Blood include liver, sardines, eggs, and parsley. Dark leafy greens are also beneficial, including kale, dandelion greens, spinach, broccoli, and mustard greens. Specific diets to help drain the liver may be found here. Ketogenic diets have been shown to help decrease seizures in children and adults and may hold the same promise for dogs.