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How a Little of the Good Stuff Can Help Your Dog With Seizures (And Being Mellow)

Does science back the use of CBD for seizures in dogs?

by Elizabeth Racine, DVM
August 16, 2020
cbd oil helps dog with seizure
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These days everyone is being offered CBD oil as a magical cure-all for their ailments. And that's because it can work! We were gifted a magical herb that grows right from the earth, and science has brought us far beyond just smoking it to access those healing powers. Thank you, scientists, and thank you for considering our dogs in this picture, too. CBD oil can be a powerful tool for helping our dog friends with some serious problems, including seizures and epilepsy.

There's considerable research on cannabidiol, a natural compound, and its anticonvulsant properties. Veterinary medicine has been catching up on its use quickly. Below are some of the facts and figures when it comes to dosing your pup — with a medical expert's guidance, of course.

About seizures in dogs

Here's the serious stuff. According to the AKC Health Foundation, seizures in dogs can have a variety of causes, including exposure to toxins, illness, injury, a specific stimulus, or problems with metabolism. There are three basic categories of seizures in dogs:

Idiopathic Epilepsy:

This is the most common type of seizure activity in dogs, particularly dogs between six months and six years of age. “Idiopathic” means that after using diagnostic testing to rule out possible conditions, there is no identifiable cause for the seizures. Some of these idiopathic seizures are believed to be inherited conditions, because some breeds, like Boxers and other Bully types, seem to have them more frequently.

Although a single epileptic seizure may not cause any lasting harm, multiple seizures over a short period of time, or seizures lasting more than a few minutes, can damage a dog’s brain and predispose the dog to more frequent and severe seizure activity in the future.

Structural Epilepsy:

This would include damage to the brain, from either illness or injury. For example, brain damage after a head injury, stroke, or inflammatory disease. In many, but not all, cases, other behavioral or motor-coordination changes may be present. Dogs who are less than one year or more than five years old at the time seizures begin are more likely to have structural epilepsy or reactive seizures than to have idiopathic epilepsy. Vets can figure out what's going on through diagnostic tests like blood work and an MRI of the brain.

Reactive Seizures:

These are seizures in response to a known trigger, such as a certain type of food or a poison. These seizures are not considered a marker for epilepsy, but they can be a sign of a serious underlying medical condition such as hypoglycemia, electrolyte imbalances, or hepatic encephalopathy. Reactive seizures can sometimes be cured if the underlying problem can be identified and corrected.

While some seizures may be relatively benign, like idiopathic head tremors common to Bully breeds, in other cases, they may be a sign of a serious medical condition such as acute poisoning, injury, or an illness that needs immediate medical care. If your dog experiences a seizure, consult your veterinarian, who will perform the diagnostic tests necessary to rule out a serious problem and to suggest a course of treatment.

Traditional Medications for Seizures in Dogs

There are already treatments from a more traditional veterinary practice, so you don't have to solely depend on CBD oil. Once your vet knows the root cause of your dog's seizure, they can offer all sorts of solutions: dietary changes; treating the underlying cause like a metabolic disorder; and/or the use of anticonvulsants like phenobarbital, potassium bromide, zonisamide, and levetiracetam. Don't worry, they can explain what those are.

But one of the things to keep in mind about anticonvulsant pharmaceuticals is that once a dog goes on them, most veterinarians are likely to recommend that they stay on them for life. In cases of idiopathic epilepsy, where the seizures are short and infrequent and more serious causes have been ruled out, you and your vet may decide not to put your dog on an anticonvulsant medication and instead, deal with occasional seizures when they occur.

Research on CBD and Epilepsy

Then there are alternatives. The FDA approved the first pharmaceutical drug based on CBD oil in 2018 under the brand name Epidiolex. This drug is now being used to treat rare forms of drug-resistant childhood epilepsy. Unlike other drugs that use synthetic versions of the compounds found in the cannabis family of plants, this medication for seizures is the first to be based on an extract from the hemp plant itself: cannabidiol (CBD).

The move came as no surprise. In fact, robust scientific research has repeatedly shown that anticonvulsant properties of this natural compound, which were known as long ago as 1973. CBD and several other cannabinoids naturally found in the cannabis family share this effect. Unlike its cousin THC, cannabidiol has no psychoactive effect. It doesn’t cause a high or have a euphoric effect and it has been the subject of dozens of medical studies concerning its antiseizure properties over the years.

Unfortunately, prudes who misunderstand cannabis-based medicine have hindered research via legal issues surrounding cannabis. However, when the 2018 Farm Bill reinstated the agricultural production of hemp in the United States, the door was opened for scientists to finally investigate the medicinal properties of this special strain of cannabis, which is very high in CBD and very low in THC.

Research on CBD Oil for Dog Seizures

Veterinary medicine can often fall several years behind human medicine. In the case of cannabis, the same issues that limited research in human medicine — funding and the legal status of cannabis use — have also affected the veterinary community.

But because the anticonvulsant properties of CBD have been known by the scientific community for quite some time, the change in the legal status of hemp and the FDA approval of Epidiolex encouraged veterinary researchers to investigate the safety of CBD oil for dog seizures, as well as its potential in veterinary medicine.

Leaders in this area include researchers at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University. In June 2019, they released the first clinical trial on the effects of hemp oil for seizures in dogs with idiopathic epilepsy who were also undergoing traditional anticonvulsant therapies.

Although the sample size was relatively small (n=26), the results were encouraging. The CBD group was administered 2.5 mg/kg twice daily for 12 weeks in addition to their antiseizure medication, while the control group stayed on antiseizure medication alone. Although both groups showed response to treatment, defined as a 50 percent or more reduction in seizures, those who received the CBD oil in addition to the traditional anticonvulsant showed a 33 percent median reduction in the frequency of seizures over the dogs who received only traditional anticonvulsant drugs.

To put it simply, this study showed that CBD enhanced the antiseizure effects of traditional medications. They worked together. The researchers also noted a positive correlation between the plasma concentration of CBD and a proportionate reduction in seizures, suggesting that more research needs to be done on how CBD is metabolized in canines to establish the best dosing guidelines.

Thanks to a grant from the AKC Health Foundation, the same group of researchers aims to start a new clinical trial with a larger sample of epileptic dogs, and is currently seeking participants. This 12-week trial should result in new insights into the effectiveness of CBD oil for dog epilepsy.

What to Look for in a High-Quality CBD Oil for Dogs

If you’re considering CBD oil for your dog, work with your veterinarian to make sure you have a proper diagnosis and an approved treatment plan first. If you and your vet decide to try CBD as part of a treatment plan for your dog’s seizures, do your research to find a high quality CBD-oil made especially for pets.

The CBD market is a rapidly growing and largely unregulated industry, so you really have to be careful when choosing a product. That being said, there are some brands out there. To ensure that you’re getting the highest-quality pet CBD products, look for companies that source their CBD from sustainable hemp farmers who make sure their soil is free of harmful toxins, which can make a dog very sick.

Check that they carefully and safely extract CBD using high-quality CO2 extraction. This extraction method uses low temperatures and pressures that preserve the therapeutic nutrients of the hemp plant. It’s also an eco-friendly method that’s better for the planet.

Look on the label to make sure they list all the active and inactive ingredients found in each of their CBD pet products. This includes flavors, carrier oils and the exact milligrams (mg) of CBD. The company should also have their products thoroughly tested by an accredited third party to ensure that the final product is accurately labeled, effectively potent and safe for your dog to consume.

A good company should be able to provide all lab test results and additional testing information about their CBD pet products on their website and have an option for good customer service with a well-trained and well-informed support team.

Finally, make sure they have a commitment to animal welfare. One way to do this is to look for a charitable company that partners with animal rescue organizations by donating both a portion of their sales as well as products to rescue groups working to help abandoned, neglected and abused companion animals find their forever homes. And ask around. Your vet might know the best product to use as a jumping off point.

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Elizabeth Racine, DVM

Elizabeth Racine, DVM, is small-animal general practice veterinarian based in New England with special interests in behavior, nutrition and internal medicine; she is also founder of The Veterinary Writer.