There are few things more frightening than witnessing your cat or dog having a full-blown seizure—falling down, paddling with its paws, even barking or yowling.
Seizures are the result of an abnormal burst of electrical signals from the brain. Possible causes include toxic substances, electrolyte imbalances or abnormalities, head trauma, or metabolic conditions such as diabetes or thyroid disease. The uncoordinated firing of neurons in the brain creates seizures (convulsions). These range from a few moments of mental “absence” where the animal seems not to be aware of its surroundings, to severe “grand mal” with unconsciousness, stiffened limbs or flailing movements, and uncontrolled urination and/or defecation.
The typical seizure has four stages; not all of these may be noticeable in any particular animal:
1. The prodromal phase may precede the seizure by hours or days. It is characterized by changes in mood or behavior.
2. The aura is the start of a seizure. Signals include whining, trembling, salivation, clingy behavior, restlessness, hiding.
3. The ictus or seizure itself. Mild seizures may involve “fly-biting” (where the dog will snap its teeth in the air) or lack of awareness. At its worst, the animal will lose consciousness and fall, going into a periods of intense physical activity lasting a few minutes. Multiple separate seizures in a row are called “cluster” seizures. More than 3 seizures in a 24-hour period, or any seizure lasting more than 10 minutes (called “status epilepticus”), are life-threatening conditions; seek emergency veterinary care.
4. The post-ictal period follows the seizure. The animal will regain consciousness, and return to normal over a few minutes or hours; meantime they may appear disoriented, blind, and/and deaf, and eat or drink excessively.
In younger animals, seizures are sometimes caused by abnormal blood supply to the liver (shunt). Infectious causes are also seen more commonly in young animals. Blood tests including titers for tick-borne diseases (for pets who go outside in tick-endemic areas) as well as other infectious causes are advised. Several infectious organisms can be carried in raw meat, so seizures in a young animal on a raw diet should be fully investigated for such diseases.
In cats, infectious causes include Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), Cryptococcus (a common environmental fungus that is especially associated with pigeons), Toxoplasma (a protozoal parasite), feline leukemia, feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV or feline AIDS), meningitis or encephalitis).
In dogs, infectious causes include fungus (Cryptococcus, Asperigillus), parasitic (Toxoplasma, Neospora, Cuterebra), viral (canine distemper, rabies), and bacteria (Rickettsia, Ehrlichia, and other tick-borne diseases).
Vaccinations may be involved in the development of seizures. They can cause fever and inflammation; in severe cases, this can lead to seizures. There appears to be a genetic susceptibility in certain individuals; however, there is no way to predict this reaction. Reducing the number and frequency of vaccines, along with a protocol to prevent adverse reactions, seems prudent.
Unfortunately, no cause is found in most cases, leaving a diagnosis of “idiopathic epilepsy,” meaning “epilepsy due to unknown cause.”
In older animals (dogs more than 5 years old; over age 10 for cats), tumors become a more common cause of new seizures, but strokes also occur. A CT scan or MRI may be able to locate the mass; there may be a surgical solution, or radiation may be helpful.
In both dogs and cats, the most common treatment for seizures is phenobarbital tablets (given by mouth). It takes about 2 weeks to reach a blood level that will control seizures. At that point, the blood level of the drug should be checked. Phenobarbital can be harmful to the liver. Liver function and drug levels should be rechecked at least every 6 months. Cats are more resistant than dogs to the drug’s side effects, which include sedation and increased hunger and thirst. There are other medications, such as potassium bromide, that can be used in dogs; but few of them work well in cats. Diazepam (valium) may be given intravenously to stop a severe seizure, but it does not work in oral form.
Natural therapies for seizures in both dogs and cats include:
1. High-protein, very low-carb diet. Homemade meat-based foods, low-carb/grainless canned foods, and frozen raw diets are all good options for seizure patients. This called a “ketogenic” diet, and it is quite successful in many cases, particularly in children with epilepsy. Dogs and cats are built to eat exactly this type of diet! Carbohydrates, including treats, should be avoided. Note that some parasites found in raw meat can cause neurologic problems; it may be prudent to cook all meat products before feeding. Note: Ketogenic diets are also being used with good success in treating many types of cancer.
2. Taurine. This amino acid is crucial for nerve and brain function. It is very safe, even at higher doses. Give approximately 100-250 mg per day per 50 pounds of body weight.
3. B-vitamins. Vitamins B3 (niacin) and B6 (pyridoxine) seem to be the most important ones, but a general B-complex could be used. A balanced 50 mg B-complex (often called “B-50”) made for humans will contain enough of both for pets. Because B-vitamins are water soluble, they are generally very safe. Give with food.
4. Omega-3 fatty acids. Anti-inflammatory Omega-3s are also vital to brain and nervous system function; see Choosing an Omega-3 Oil for Your Pet.
5. Glucosamine. New research (2017) suggests that a high dose of glucosamine can inhibit the abnormal brain activity associated with seizures. Whether normal levels of supplementation are helpful is as yet unanswered; and there have been a few anecdotal reports of glucosamine causing seizures in a few sensitive individuals. However, glucosamine is generally safe, and may help prevent arthritis in the long term. A safe dose is 250 mg per 25 pounds of body weight.
6. Boswellia. This herb, usually used for joint pain, has provided good results in studies on some human brain tumors. Give 100-150 mg per day per 10 pounds.