Few things can be as terrifying for a pet owner as witnessing a dog seizure. Often, everything is normal one minute, and the next minute your beloved pet is on the floor, shaking uncontrollably. It is a helpless feeling, and one that brings in hundreds of owners to the veterinary clinic annually.
New hope may exist for owners looking to control a dog seizure, however, as research expands out of the realm of traditional pharmaceuticals and into a more natural alternative: CBD, or cannabidiol, a compound derived from hemp and marijuana plants.
In early summer of 2019, research from the University of Colorado revealed promising data on the use of CBD in dogs suffering from epilepsy. According to the report, 89 percent of dogs who received CBD in the clinical trial had a reduction in the frequency of seizures.
“We saw a correlation between how high the levels of CBD oil were in these dogs with how great the seizure reduction was,” Dr. Stephanie McGrath, lead researcher on the study, said in a press release. “It’s really exciting that perhaps we can start looking at CBD in the future as an alternative to existing anticonvulsive drugs.”
While the findings are promising in a field where little data is available, the authors caution their test pool was relatively small, and that more extensive studies are needed in order to support the findings for CBD as a means to stop a dog seizure.
McGrath and her team focused on a group of 26-client owned dogs with a history of epileptic seizures. Those dogs were then split into two groups, one which received CBD from hemp in addition to their current medications, and a group receiving placebos in addition to their current medications.
The inclusion of CBD into the therapy program with common prescription medications significantly increased serum alkaline phosphate activity in the canine test subjects. Alkaline phosphate, a type of protein commonly used to assess bone and liver health, has been linked to seizure activity in other medical conditions.
No adverse behavioral changes were noted by owners during the course of the 12-week CBD study.
While there are many other causes of a dog seizure, epilepsy is the most common neurological disorder seen in dogs, affecting as much as 5.7 percent of the canine population. Dogs with epilepsy experience recurrent, unprovoked seizures, the cause of which often, but not always, stems from an abnormality of the brain. Most canines in need of treatment are prescribed Phenobarbital and potassium bromide as standard anticonvulsant medications.
What is a dog seizure, exactly?
Modern media has given epilepsy a bad name, poking fun at the condition in people, showing video after video of seizures triggered by flashing lights. The truth is that “epilepsy” refers to a variety of seizure experiences, some of which don’t have any identifiable triggers.
In dogs, seizures and their causes are less understood compared to those in the human world, and experts are working toward better clarity on the medical conditions and causes surrounding a dog seizure.
According to the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, two broad classifications of seizures exist, based on where they originate in the brain: generalized and focal.
Generalized Seizures: Involve both sides of the brain during onset and cause symptoms on both sides of the body. Owners typically witness involuntarily muscle spasms, salivation, and sudden incontinence. During a generalized dog seizure the pet will appear to lose awareness of its surroundings.
Focal Seizures: Involve a specific area of the brain is during onset and only a single side, or specific part, of the body is affected. During a focal seizure, motor functions can be impacted, causing abnormal twitching and movement, but behavioral changes can be seen as well. Pets that are not usually fearful may become so, and similar to generalized seizures, some autonomic functions may be impacted, causing salivation, vomiting, and pupil dilatation. During a focal dog seizure, awareness may or may not be impacted, and focal seizures can sometimes spread to both sides of the brain to become generalized seizures.
Epileptic dog seizure
Epilepsy in dogs exists as both focal and generalized seizures; however, epilepsy itself has several subtypes, including: idiopathic epilepsy, structural epilepsy, and epilepsy of unknown cause.
Idiopathic epilepsy: Of assumed genetic origin, idiopathic epilepsy has no identifiable structural cause and is characterized by repeat seizures in dogs ages 1-5 years with no other neurological issues, structural abnormalities of the brain, or exposure to seizure-causing toxins. The exact cause of the dog seizures is unknown and is suspected to be inherited.
Structural epilepsy: Caused by discoverable damage or malformations in the brain, structural epilepsy can be the result of congenital malformation, injury, severe health outcomes (stroke), and any other condition where the brain has been physically compromised. These types of abnormalities are often able to been seen with clinical diagnostics, and are often the case with if a dog seizure occurs in a senior pet.
Epilepsy of unknown cause: As the name implies, if the symptoms of epilepsy are apparent, but genetics are not heavily suspected and no structural abnormalities have been seen, dog seizures of this nature fall into the “unknown cause” category.
Alternative treatment options for a dog seizure
Because many seizures are directly related to abnormalities in the brain, prescription drugs are often the only route toward treatment. That being said, they carry with them the risk of negative side-effects, just as do most prescription medications.
“They can sometimes control seizures, but the cost you pay can be severe,” said Karen Munana, DVM, a board-certified neurologist and associate professor at North Carolina State University, in a statement regarding traditional seizure medications.
And Muana is right. Some of the side effects of Phenobarbital, one of the most commonly prescribed anticonvulsants, include anxiety, lethargy, liver dysfunction, increased thirst and urination, decreased blood counts, and impaired mobility.
But there are alternative options out there for owners in need of other ways to treat a dog seizure. According to the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM), several primary alternative options exist.
Dietary management: Similar to the common human dietary treatment for epilepsy known as the Keto Diet, providing dogs with a high fat, low protein, low carbohydrate diet has shown promise in controlling dog seizures. That being said, more clinic trials are needed, and owners should never start a restrictive diet without consulting with a veterinarian first.
Vagal nerve stimulation: Still considered highly experimental in the veterinary world, studies suggest a surgical implant on the Vagal nerve could inhibit seizures. In human medicine, the treatment is already approved and being utilized, using electrical stimulation to influence brain activity and stimulation.
Acupuncture: While the use of acupuncture to control human seizures is not seen as mainstream, promising studies in dogs suggest it may be a safe option for owners looking to stop a dog seizure. As with any alternative therapy, consultation with a veterinarian should occur before any acupuncture session. Because the direct cause of seizures is widely unknown, there is always a risk a seizure could be induced as opposed to prevented.
Where does CBD for a dog seizure fit in?
Right now, the use of CBD at a therapeutic level in veterinary medicine is being explored. Preliminary studies, like the one from Colorado State University, suggest there is promise in this natural option. What remains to be seen is if CBD alone can be enough to alter a dog’s seizure frequency, or if CBD works best combined with other traditional methods.
“I think overall, it definitely shows promise,” McGrath said of her work. “However I’m not sure we’re quite at the point where we can say we can have a drug we can put widely out there [to treat] epilepsy. We have a lot more work to do. I think there are still a whole lot of unanswered questions.”
Owners interested in starting a CBD treat or a CBD oil should consult with a veterinarian. While the merits of supplemental CBD are slowly becoming known, many questions remain about proper dosing and potential medical contraindications. As long as your dog has a clean bill of health, your clinic may recommend a daily dietary CBD supplement for a trial run.