Seizures; A Symptom, Not A Disease

I can’t imagine anything more frightening for a pet caretaker than to witness their beloved pet having a seizure for the first time.  Seizures appear so violently.  They come on without warning and cause uncontrollable thrashing of the body as we sit by helplessly, unable to do anything about it.

The first and foremost thing that we need to know about seizures is that seizures are a symptom, not a disease.  Unfortunately, many people, including some vets, loose sight of this.  All symptoms, whether they are seizing, vomiting, diarrhea, drinking excessive amounts of water and so on, are indications of an underlying disease process, or from a holistic perspective, an imbalance in the body.  Seizures are a symptom of brain imbalance, where there are too many brain neurons firing, causing excess expression in the body; such as violent shaking and jerking (tonic/clonic muscle activity).  Seizures can be as violent as severe jerking and loss of function to minor contraction of a muscle group.

This is important because in all cases of illness, we want to get to the bottom of the problem in hopes of restoring normal health and well being.  Seizures have historically been a real problem with detecting an underlying problem and this has led to a pretty ineffective way of managing them.

Years ago, in people, a lot of children started having seizures between the age of 3-10 years of age.  I remember the first child I saw have a seizure.  It was at a Little League baseball game and a young boy seized in the stands.  Most of the people were shocked to witness this event, including myself.  Back then, when a child was showing symptoms of seizures, they would admit the child into the hospital and do an exam and routine blood work.  Most of the time, they would not find an underlying cause.  The doctors would diagnose the child as having epilepsy.  This was so common, that seizures almost became synonymous with epilepsy.

Epilepsy is a disease that we refer to as a “rule-out” diagnosis.  This means that the doctor checks for all other possibilities for seizures and if no other diagnosis is made, epilepsy is left as the most likely cause.  What doctors knew about epilepsy was that it was considered a genetically-transmitted disease that was passed on from generation to generation.  Many of these children who were diagnosed with epilepsy and placed on harsh anti-seizure medications, chose not to have children because they did not want to pass this disease on to their children.

Years later, things changed.  With the technological discovery of brain imaging, there was a more specific diagnostic tool for brain problems.  When a child with initial onset of seizures was presented to the neurologist, they were able to look at the child’s brain.  Guess what they found?  Many of these children had scar tissue on the brain from head trauma, usually due to a fall that happened earlier.  Once the diagnosis was made, the neurologist simply made a small hole in the skull and using an alligator forceps, removed the scar tissue.  The problem was resolved and the seizures went away.  Imagine how many children were previously incorrectly diagnosed with epilepsy that actually had scar tissue on the brain?

I have always been frustrated with “rule-out” diagnosis and over the years I have come to learn that these diseases usually meant that we really didn’t know what was causing the problem.  I remember we used to have a diagnosis in pets that drank too much water.  It was called, Psychogenic Polydipsia/Polyuria.  Basically, this is medical jargon for your pet likes to drink lots of water.

Back to seizures.  Many years ago, I had a young dog as a patient who had frequent seizures.  He too had been diagnosed with epilepsy.  All of his routine tests were normal, he was young (most epileptic dogs are younger than 4 years of age) and he was put on anti-seizure medication.  His seizure frequency improved but they were still common.  One afternoon, I had just finished releasing him with his caretaker and another client mentioned what a nice dog he appeared to be.  I agreed and mentioned to her that he was being treated for epilepsy.  This client was a nurse and mentioned that she had been reading an article that stated the possibility that nutrition might play a significant role in seizures in human children.  She mentioned that currently, they were seeing that it could be a symptom of a food allergy.  I was intrigued, so I contacted the dog’s caretaker and suggested that we change the dog’s food to a hypoallergenic diet.  She went along with it and in just a couple of months after changing his diet, the seizures stopped, medications were discontinued and the seizures never returned.

Unfortunately, veterinary medicine has been very slow to adopt new ideas in regards to handling seizing pets.  As a rule, when a young dog comes in with seizures, a blood test is done, it is normal and the dog is placed on anti-seizure medication.  Most of the time, it does not stop the seizures, but will help reduce their frequency.  There are very few clients that are recommended to do an MRI or discuss other possibilities such as diet, etc.

Treating dogs with seizures from the conventional approach, in my opinion, is a bad option.  Because we do not have an underlying disease, other than epilepsy (the rule out disease), these pets are given only one option; anti-seizure medication.  These drugs have one intent, to control the symptoms.  Anti-seizure drugs raise the seizure threshold in the brain, meaning that the over-active brain function has to get even more over-active for the seizure to occur.  They do nothing to eliminate the source of the brain’s overactivity.  This is why they have minimal benefits and in time, usually have to be changed to other anti-seizure medications or just no longer effective.  It is one of the major flaws in the conventional approach to pet health care.  Instead of working to find out the underlying causes, the focus is to develop new drugs that will help control the symptoms. Again, ignoring the underlying cause.

Phenobarbital has been the gold standard drug for seizures in the dog and cat for many years and is still the most common drug used today.  One of the problems with this drug as well as other anti-seizure medication is that the level of effectiveness and the level of toxicity is very narrow.  This means that if you give a bit too much, trying to stop the seizure, it becomes toxic, damaging the pet’s liver.  This is why the clinicians recommend doing drug levels routinely, in an attempt to avoid reaching the toxic levels.  Another problem with these drugs is that as they reduce the seizure threshold, it is almost impossible to get the pet off the drug if the pet has an adverse reaction to the drug.

I haven’t covered the many other potential causes of seizures in the pet as that would be require another blog, but the list would include toxicities, nutrient imbalances, liver disease, brain cancer, etc.  I wanted to focus on the approach that is most often used for the diagnosis.

As with all diseases, a holistic approach works really well with pets who seizure.  Using this mindset, we look for all possible causes in hopes of finding the underlying source of the symptom and eliminating it so that the pet will return to health and well being.  I routinely use Chinese medicine (acupuncture and herbs) in my approach and I have often had many seizing pets return to normal health that had been on drugs for many years.  In Chinese medicine, almost all seizures are caused by a liver imbalance.  That is ironical since the anti-seizure medication used by most vets, stress the liver.

If you have a pet that starts to seizure, remain objective, keep the emotions under control, remember what I said about the limitations of the conventional approach to these pets and empower yourself to find the underlying cause.  Get in touch with your local holistic vet to give you a hand.  More than likely, these awful symptoms will go away for good.

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