Question: My dog was just diagnosed with epilepsy. Are there holistic treatments that will prevent seizures while avoiding the use of harsh medications like Phenobarbital?
Answer: Seizure disorder and epilepsy are common ailments, seen in at least 1 percent of all dogs. Seizures, also known as convulsions, are precipitated by any process that alters normal brain function and causes inflammation. One of the difficulties in treating epilepsy is that your veterinarian may not be able to easily determine the cause of the seizures.
Veterinarians usually arrive at the diagnosis of idiopathic (cause unknown) epilepsy only after systematically eliminating all other causes of seizures, including low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), severe ear infection, head trauma, allergic reaction and reaction to environmental toxins or certain medications, severe vaccine reaction, and finally, brain tumor and liver disease. If your dog experiences a seizure and your vet suspects epilepsy, he or she will want to do a comprehensive blood panel and perhaps x-rays to rule out other possible causes. Once everything else is excluded and a diagnosis of epilepsy is made, most traditional veterinarians will prescribe anticonvulsant medications such as Phenobarbital and potassium bromide to control the symptoms.
Holistic veterinarians look for ways to treat illness on a deeper, constitutional level instead of temporarily palliating the symptoms, and can offer a variety of alternatives to anticonvulsant medication, which can have toxic side effects and cause over-sedation and personality changes when used on prolonged basis. Following is an overview of holistic approaches to treating epilepsy in your pet.
Acupuncture: In my practice, acupuncture—the ancient Chinese art of inserting fine needles into specific points in the body to gently move energy, or “chi”—is the most effective treatment for canine epilepsy. Initially, I give 20 to 30 minutes of acupuncture once a week for four to six weeks, then every six to eight weeks as needed to prevent further seizures. I often prescribe Chinese herbs in addition to regular acupuncture sessions; additionally, gold-bead implants can be used once a long-term treatment plan is in place.
Diet: Depending on your dog’s specific situation, sometimes diet changes alone can be effective in treating seizures. Numerous case studies have shown a correlation between food allergies and epilepsy. Switching your dog to a hypoallergenic diet or transitioning from an over-the-counter commercial food to home-prepared meals with organic ingredients can prevent seizures and make a huge difference in your dog’s overall health.
Essential Fatty Acids (Omega-3 and Omega-6 oils): Many humans with epilepsy have been helped by eating a ketogenic diet (high in fat, low in carbohydrates). High fat seems to decrease the excitability of the neurons in the brain, and the addition of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (both of which are found in wild-caught-salmon oil) can decrease seizure frequency and intensity in dogs.
Chiropractic Care: Regular chiropractic adjustments are especially effective in treating cases of epilepsy that follow head injuries or physical trauma, as well as chronic, recurrent ear infections that seem to trigger seizures. Make sure your pet’s chiropractor is a certified veterinary chiropractor with experience in canine epilepsy.
Nutraceuticals: The exact mechanism of action of each supplement is beyond the scope of this discussion, but a variety of vitamins and nutritional supplements have been highly effective in decreasing seizures in dogs. In my practice, we regularly recommend the following for our epileptic patients: DMG (n, n dimethyl-glycine); Choline; taurine; L-tryptophan; magnesium; melatonin; phosphatidylserine; and antioxidants such as vitamins C, A and B complex.
Western Herbs: Many over-the-counter Western herbs, in both capsule and tincture form—including chamomile, milk thistle, skullcap, valerian, oat straw and ginkgo biloba—are used to treat seizures. As with nutraceuticals, always discuss appropriate herbs and dosages with your veterinarian(s) before giving them to your dog.
Homeopathy: Homeopathic remedies work on the premise of “like cures like.” They contain tiny amounts of substances that, if given to a healthy animal, would cause symptoms similar to those you are treating. Choosing the perfect remedy for your pet’s illness is a complicated process and requires an experienced homeopath; however, once a proper remedy is given, it can stop a seizure in its tracks. Commonly prescribed remedies include Belladonna, Aconitum and, in cases of vaccine-related seizures, Thuja. It is always best to consult a homeopath before giving a remedy.
Flower Essences: The Bach flower essence Rescue Remedy can be used when you suspect your dog is about to have a seizure, or as an overall stress reducer to prevent future seizures.
An Ounce of Prevention
Avoid vaccinations once your pet has been diagnosed with epilepsy. Over-vaccination can aggravate the condition.
Avoid exposing your dog to toxins. A chemical-free environment helps protect your pet against contaminants—such as car exhaust, cigarette smoke, polluted drinking or swimming water, flea-control products, and food additives and preservatives—that can irritate brain tissue.
Create a happy, stress-free environment for your pet. Many cases of epilepsy follow a stressful event, such as a prolonged stay at a boarding kennel, moving to a new home, long periods of time alone and boredom. Keeping your dog happy, relaxed and well-exercised will help prevent stress.
Epilepsy can be a frightening and frustrating illness to diagnose and treat. Once a diagnosis has been made, however, there are many safe and easy holistic options that can be used to both treat and prevent seizures. In some cases of refractory cluster seizures (a more serious condition that can require hospitalization), low doses of medication may still be necessary to control episodes. Overall, however, the holistic approach can help you assist your dog to gently heal.
If you are interested in pursuing a more holistic, integrative approach, including any of the treatment options listed here, please consult your veterinarian, or seek out a holistic veterinarian who can help you make the best treatment choices for your special pet. Contact the AHVMA and IVAS to find veterinarian near you who offers acupuncture and holistic alternatives.