Seizures can be one of the more traumatizing things to witness in pets or people, and while anti-seizure medications (ASD) are used frequently and often provide a good quality of life for the patient, they come with risks and side effects that can make using them less desirable. Alternative veterinary care allows us the freedom to use a balance of other more holistic methods to control seizures in dogs and cats.
The causes of seizures are numerous and include nutritional disorders, developmental anomalies, degenerative disorders, inflammatory brain disorders, traumatic head injuries, cancer, organ failure, electrolyte imbalances, medications and medication withdrawals, and toxic exposures. No matter the inciting cause, seizure disorders at the end of the day are the result of altered brain activity.
In Western Medicine, commonly prescribed medications include levetiracetam (Keppra), zonisamide, gabapentin, pregabalin, phenobarbital, potassium bromide, felbamate, topiramate, and clorazepate. While the effectiveness of these medications vary, the side effects often don't and can include increased thirst, increased urination, increased appetite, unsteadiness, cognitive and mentation issues, drowsiness, and elevated liver or kidney enzymes.
From a Chinese Medicine perspective, seizures are called "Internal Wind" and are a result of excessive energy rising to the head and disturbing the Shen, or mind. Root causes are numerous and can include one or more of the following:
New Challenges: moving, traveling, boarding, seasonal changes, arrival of new pet (Liver Qi Stagnation)
Emotional Stressors: loss of companion, abandonment, noise/light (Liver Yin/Blood Deficiency)
Inappropriate Diet (Phlegm secondary to Spleen Qi Def)
Previously healed brain injury, cancer, underlying structural abnormalities, inflammation, toxicity (Blood Stagnation and Liver Fire)
Alternative Medicine aims to balance any pattern deficiencies or excesses as well as alleviate any side effects of seizures or conventional medications. Numerous studies have shown alternative therapies such as acupuncture, Chinese herbs, Western herbs, and essential oils to be highly effective in the reduction and control of epileptic seizures in dogs and people. Two studies in people showed a 75% reduction in seizure activity after dry needle acupuncture ALONE (2). Another study in dogs found a 50% reduction in seizure severity after implantation of gold beads at acupoints (3). Numerous studies have and are currently being done on Chinese herbal formulas and seizures with very effective results (4,5,6,7).
When starting alternative treatment for an epileptic pet, acupuncture treatments are recommended once monthly for 3 to 6 treatments, and then if patient is controlled, every 6 to 12 months as a maintenance preventative. Chinese herbs based on the pet's symptoms and constitution are started at this time as well. If the animal is 8 years old or younger and is seizure-free for 3 months or more, the dosage of Western drugs can be reduced gradually over a 3-month period, after which time the Western drugs may be discontinued if the animal continues to remain seizure-free. If your pet is receiving 2 drugs, it is very important to wean off 1 drug at a time, typically over 3 to 6 months. It is unacceptably risky to discontinue drugs too rapidly in dogs or cats that are known to have episodes of status epilepticus or cluster seizures, as seizures may worsen and cause adverse consequences for the pet and caretaker.
Other considerations for treatment of epileptic animals includes diet, single herb use, and essential oils. Caretakers should avoid feeding their epileptic dog or cat Yang meats (warm or hot) such as beef and lamb. Seafood should also be avoided as it could potentially produce Phlegm. In addition, inflammatory foods such as highly processed kibble, grains, and dairy should be abandoned in lieu of fresh food balanced diets that contain plenty of phytonutrient-rich ingredients.
Certain flea/tick products in the isoxazoline class may lower the seizure threshold and should also be avoided (9). These include the brand-name products Bravecto, Nexgard and Simparica.
Single Western herbs can prove useful in the adjunctive treatment of epileptic conditions and include:
it is important to note that not all herbs are good for epileptics. St. John's Wort, Gingko, and Ginseng may lower the seizure threshold and should be used with caution in epileptic animals (11). In addition, Kava, Valerian, Chamomile, and Passionflower may increase the sedative and cognitive effects of conventional anti-seizure medications (12).
Cannabinoids are also being investigated as a primary therapy for epilepsy. A recent study in 2019 administered 2.5 mg/kg orally twice daily to a group of epileptic dogs and saw a decrease in seizure activity in the treated group as compared to the placebo group (10).
While many essential oils have been shown to have a calming effect on the nervous system, some actually act as pro-convulsants and should be avoided in epileptic animals (see Table).
A common protocol incorporates lavender, frankincense, and copaiba utilizing both inhalation and topical application. The lavender and frankincense are used both topically and inhaled either by direct inhalation from the bottle or diffused into the air using a water-based diffuser. When diffusing, 1 to 2 drops of each oil is used within a diffuser with an automatic shutoff. Topically, a 50% dilution (1 drop of oil and 1 drop of carrier oil) of each oil is applied to the pet in a stroking motion along the head and spine. The hair does not have to be parted as the follicles act like wicks thus increasing absorption.
Although these oils can be applied together, it is preferable to layer the oils, allowing a few minutes between applications, starting with frankincense, followed by lavender, and concluding with copaiba. Almond oil or fractionated coconut oil are good choices for carrier oils.
A pet caretaker can feel helpless in the face of such a dramatic disease as epilepsy, however holistic vet care can offer customizable and effective alternatives beyond conventional medications.
AHVMA Volume 59, Summer 2020
Yang R, Cheng J. Effect of acupuncture on epilepsy. In: Xia Y, Cao X, Wu G, Cheng J, eds. Acupuncture therapy for neurological diseases. Berlin, Germany: Springer; 2010:334–335.
Cheuk DK, Wong V. Acupuncture for epilepsy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2008;8(4): CD005062.
Xue X. Study on the Mechanism of Zusanli (ST 36) in Treating Epilepsy. Master’s Thesis. Ning Xia University; 2018.
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Animal drug safety communication: FDA alerts pet owners and veterinarians about potential for neurologic adverse events associated with certain flea and tick products. CVM update. FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine. Updated August 8, 2019. Accessed January 5, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/tick-flea.
McGrath S, Bartner LR, Rao S, Packer RA, Gustafson DL. Randomized blinded controlled clinical trial to assess the effect of oral cannabidiol administration in addition to conventional antiepileptic treatment on seizure frequency in dogs with intractable idiopathic epilepsy. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2019;254(11):1301–1308.
Bahr TA, Rodriguez D, Beaumont C, Allred K. The effects of various essential oils on epilepsy and acute seizure: a systematic review. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2019;2019:6216745.
Spinella M. Herbal medicines and epilepsy: the potential for benefit and adverse effects. Epilepsy Behav. 2001;2(6):524–532.