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The Role of a Natural Healthy Diet in the Management of Canine Epilepsy

by Chris Alderson, Kathy Herman and Marion Mitchell

(Revised  12/16/2003 by Chris Alderson)



An emerging trend in human healthcare is the focus on the link between diet and disease. There is an ever-increasing recognition that what we eat provides the foundation of our health. Good nutrition equals good health. Poor nutrition equals poor health and leads to disease. This is a simple premise that we all should recognize - and one we need to extend to the way we feed our canine companions. The health and happiness of our dogs is dependent upon the environment we provide them, and perhaps more importantly, the diet we feed them.

More often than not, it takes a major illness or chronic allergy in a dog before we recognize the need to examine the diet of our dog. Allergies are the most common and one of the most visible symptoms of nutritional deficiencies. Dr. Alfred Plechner, DVM in his book Allergies: Remedies for an Epidemic, states: "Because many commercial foods are woefully deficient in key nutrients, the long-term effect of feeding such foods makes the dog hypersensitive to its environment. It's the dinosaur effect. Animals are being programmed for extinction."

All dog owners interested in improving their dog's health should do their own research on canine nutrition. If your dog is suffering from a particular disease or condition, it is vital that you learn what a canine requires in its diet and environment to sustain good health and how improving the diet can help solve health problems. As in human health care, diet is the foundation of good health for canines too.Recognizing nutritional deficiencies - that is, learning to recognize the symptoms that the deficiencies cause - is the beginning of solving many canine health problems.

For dogs with seizure disorders, pedigree, environment and other health conditions are generally the first things taken into consideration when searching for a diagnosis, but rarely is diet examined for a possible link to the seizures. However, as in humans, nutritional deficiencies can cause symptoms that include seizures or that can aggravate the seizures of a dog diagnosed with epilepsy.

It is becoming increasingly clear to many owners of seizing dogs and some vets that diet plays a vital role in the management and control of canine epilepsy. Correcting nutritional deficiencies can help reduce or control seizures in epileptic dogs, and in some cases, may eliminate seizures in dogs completely.
Improving the dog's diet in an effort to correct nutritional deficiencies can be achieved through a number of avenues.

(1) Changing from a supermarket commercial diet, to a superior grade commercial diet with premium ingredients, including superior sources of protein and free from artificial preservatives and additives ( including chemical preservatives BHA, BHT and ethoxyquin and propylene glycol which is sometimes added to keep "chewy " foods moist) artificial colors and flavors and sweeteners ( added to make poor quality dog food more appealing to dogs).

(2) Feeding a home cooked diet including added vitamins/minerals/nutritional supplements.

(3) Feeding a raw diet commonly known as "BARF" an acronym for "Biologically Appropriate Raw Food" or "Bones And Raw Food" including added vitamins/minerals/nutritional supplements.All of the above-mentioned diet improvements can benefit your dog's overall health. In this article, we cannot begin to address all of the advantages and issues related to changing diets and the differences between diets. Any improvement is sure to benefit your dog and his health. This article will focus specifically on how raw food diets can benefit dogs with seizure disorders.

In the information that follows, we will address some general topics. There is much more to learn on the subject. Consider joining an online list that addresses canine nutrition, such as K9Nutrition or other diet lists. Some links are included at the end of this article that will start you on your way to understanding canine nutrition,and PLEASE do not consider changing your dog's diet without first understanding what a canine's diet should and should not include. For dogs on anti-epilepsy drugs (AEDs) diet changes MUST be discussed with your vet. Diet, drugs, canine metabolism and the potential interactions must all be understood before changing anything in your epi-dog's regimen.


Nutritional Deficiencies and Seizures:

There are a number of specific nutritional deficiencies in both humans and canines that are known to cause or aggravate seizures, including vitamin deficiencies, mineral deficiencies and amino acid deficiencies. While commercial dog foods are promoted as being nutritional and well-balanced, the fact is, that the process of producing these foods actually destroys the vitamins,minerals and amino acids in the food that are essential to good health.

Protein and Amino Acids:
The foundation of raw diets for canines is that dogs are carnivores that require quality sources of protein in order to live a long and healthy life. Perhaps the greatest advantage of a raw food diet, is the supply of quality, unaltered protein sources that the diet provides.When your dog does not get enough animal protein/amino acids as part of his diet, or there is an imbalance of nutrients, a variety of health consequences can occur,epilepsy and seizure disorders are among these.

Why is protein important? In very simple terms, the body requires protein to survive. Proteins consumed in the diet are broken down into separate amino acids in the digestive tract by the action of enzymes. These amino acids are then reconstructed in the liver into the proteins that the body needs. Amino acids are the building blocks of life, but the right amino acids must be consumed in order for the required proteins to be reconstructed.

There are 9-12 essential amino acids that are essential to life and can only be obtained through what the dog eats. Non-essential amino acids are also vital for life, but are called 'non-essential' because the canine's body can manufacture them, IF, adequate sources of the essential amino acids are included in the diet.
The following websites provide additional information on amino acids and what they do:

Dietary sources of high quality animal proteins in the least processed forms provide the optimum amino acid profile for the canine. Commercial diets are generally measured by the quantity (percentage) of protein in the food. While protein content is important, the source of the protein is of greater importance. In a commercial dog food, protein is provided by combining animal sources (such as meat, by-products, chicken, cheese, milk, fish, turkey or lamb) and grain sources (such as corn, wheat, rice and soy). The sum of these proteins appears on dog food packages as crude protein. Many amino acids are available only from animal protein sources, and if plant/vegetable/cereal/grain are the main protein sources, a dog may develop an animal protein deficiency. (When the package lists these protein sources first in the ingredient list or these sources dominate the first five items in the ingredient list, the food is most definitely deficient in animal protein.) When heated, proteins are partially destroyed - all dry and canned commercial dog food is heated in the manufacturing process - so commercial food contains protein that is somewhat deficient or destroyed through heating. This protein deficiency in turn, results in deficiencies of amino acids - the building blocks the body requires to reconstruct proteins essential for health, including a healthy nervous system. In dogs with seizure disorders, deficiencies of proteins and amino acids are a notable concern.

"Diets deficient in amino acids -- chemicals that make up proteins -- can significantly increase susceptibility to epileptic seizures in rats", according to a study by researchers at the University of California, Davis. Taurine is one of the amino acids that plays a critical role in the function of the nervous system. Deficiencies of this amino acid are widely recognized as a cause of seizures in humans, felines and canines. Taurine is one of the non-essential amino acids - one that a canine can only produce if supplied adequate sources of animal protein containing the essential amino acids. In addition to specific benefits for the brain (protective effects, calming effect on nervous system) taurine also affects blood sugar levels (also implicated in seizures), assists in the body's proper use of sodium, calcium and magnesium (deficiencies of which are all implicated in seizures), and the relation of taurine deficiency to zinc deficiency (also a known cause of seizures) among other things. Clearly, this amino acid is particularly important for dogs with seizure disorders.

In Wendy Volhard's book "Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog" the section on taurine includes this note regarding the amino acid: It is an "anti-convulsant, successfully used in treating epilepsy", and it "controls brain and nervous system neurons".The Strombeck book on homemade diets states that the "body uses amino acids to make chemicals that serve as regulators of neurologic function."Prescription for Nutritional Healing", (Balch and Balch), says: "Taurine has a protective effect on the brain, particularly when the brain is dehydrated. It is used to treat anxiety, epilepsy, hyperactivity, poor brain function, and seizures. It may be that a deficiency of taurine in the developing brain is involved in epileptic attacks." The amino acid taurine seems to inhibit and modulate various neurotransmitters and depress the central nervous system. This action is thought to benefit epileptics, and is recommended by naturopathic healers. Its apparent role is normalizing the balance of other amino acids, which in epilepsy are thoroughly disordered. In epilepsy, serum levels of over half the amino acids are lowered, while the serum level of taurine is high and the cerebro-spinal fluid level of taurine is low. Taurine is produced from methionine and cysteine if the body is metabolizing these normally." ( Carnitine is another non-essential amino acid whose deficiency is associated with epilepsy. Many other amino acids are associated with seizure disorders. Amino acids operate in conjunction with each other, and with vitamins and minerals to ensure the body is supplied with the nutrients required for health.

Enzymes are catalysts that accelerate the biochemical reactions in the body. They are involved in almost all body functions including the building and the functioning of the brain and nervous system. There are two main groups of enzymes: metabolic and digestive.

Metabolic enzymes
are the catalysts of the biochemical reactions within the cells themselves and are responsible for the proper functioning of all of the body's organs and tissues. Metabolic enzymes also assist in building the body using proteins, carbohydrates and fats. They are important in the construction of new tissues and cells including those of the nervous system.

Digestive enzymes assist in the breakdown of food, enabling nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Enzymes are found both in raw and unprocessed foods and in the body itself. Heat kills enzymes and force the body to provide all of the enzymes required to digest the food. There are three categories of digestive enzymes: amylase, protease and lipase. Amylase breaks down carbohydrates, protease helps to digest protein and lipase aids in the digestion of fats.

When cooked/processed foods are consumed, the stomach recognizes that there are no enzymes in the cooked food and not enough enzymes in the stomach to break the food down. In order to attempt to digest the food, the stomach sends out messages to the brain that stimulates it to 'send' enzymes from other parts of the body to assist in digestion. Enzymes are gathered (or 'robbed') from the heart, the liver, the kidneys and other parts of the body and transported to the stomach. During this process, the food sits in the stomach undigested and the various organs are 'robbed' of their enzymes in order to accomplish digestion.This process is called 'enzyme robbing' because it steals the enzymes from other body organs, enzymes that those organs require to function correctly. Over time, depletion of enzymes can cause dysfunction and disease in the organs from which the enzymes were robbed.The 'enzyme robbing' process does not happen when you feed raw foods. The raw foods contain their own enzymes and eliminates the need for the stomach to 'borrow' or 'rob' enzymes from other body organs to accomplish digestion. A canine diet rich in raw animal and plant material provides a rich source of supplemental enzymes necessary for the continuing good health of our pets.

Vitamins act as catalysts to release the nutrients in the food the dog consumes. Vitamins found in raw foods are almost entirely destroyed by the heat used in the manufacturing of commercial foods - a fact that the manufacturers acknowledge, but cannot overcome. They must use heat to produce the food, and heat kills vitamins. Vitamins exist in two basic forms water soluble and fat soluble. Vitamin B and Vitamin C are water-soluble and any excess is filtered out of the body within four to eight hours. Because of this, Vitamin B and Vitamin C should be consumed at each meal. In simple terms, Vitamin B and Vitamin C cannot be 'overdosed'. Vitamin A, D, E and K are fat-soluble and stored in the body if excesses are consumed. As with humans, canines have vitamin requirements in order to sustain life and good health. The lack of the required vitamins leads to disease and dysfunction. There are various vitamin deficiencies that are specifically linked to seizures in humans and canines.

Vitamin B:
Vitamin B (made up of a number of individual parts and commonly called B Complex), is fragile, water-soluble vitamins that are required for a number of critical body functions including assimilating fat and protein, promoting various biochemical reactions, building antibodies, red blood cell formation and more. Bs are crucial for neural function. Specifically, deficiency of Vitamin B6, B12 and Folic Acid are implicated in seizures. The individual parts of Vitamin B are synergistic with each other and with other vitamins and should be supplied in B Complex form in order to avoid any imbalance. Holistic veterinarians Drs. Wendell Belfield and Martin Zucker stated that "It has long been known that a deficiency of vitamin B6 or any interference with its function can cause seizures in any mammalian species, including man and dog". Deficiency of Vitamin B is widely identified as a cause for for seizures in humans and canines alike. Because these vitamins are fragile and easily destroyed by cooking, commercial diets are lacking in Vitamin B. Raw diets provide Vitamin B in unaltered form, but many raw feeders, and care givers for dogs with seizure disorders add additional Vitamin Bs in supplement form to their dogs' diets. Vitamin B is an extremely important element in an epileptic dog's diet. Vitamin B Complex supplement is crucial if you are feeding a commercial diet and is also supplemented with homemade cooked or raw diets. Remember, adequate levels of B vitamins are critical to your epi-dogs health, and because Bs are water-soluble, you cannot overdose your dog with this vitamin.

Vitamin C:
Vitamin C is a synergistic vitamin that works in conjunction with all other vitamins and minerals that your dog's body needs for good health. Vitamin C protects against allergies and viral diseases and is an antioxidant that protects the body against damaging elements. Vitamin C also helps counteract side effects from various drugs. It is a water-soluble vitamin and though there is no direct link between C deficiency and seizures, C works so closely with every other vitamin and mineral that without adequate Vitamin C, other vitamin or mineral deficiencies could occur.

Vitamin E:
Vitamin E functions primarily as an antioxidant in protecting against damage to the cell membranes. Without Vitamin E, the cells of the body would be quite susceptible to damage, nerve cells in particular. Vitamin E interacts extensively with other antioxidant nutrients, especially Vitamin C and the mineral Selenium. Free radicals (unstable molecules) can be produced by exposure to some chemicals and by head trauma, and these can of course, cause seizures. And, seizures themselves generate more free radicals. These factors combined can possibly set up a cycle that leads to frequent seizures. As an antioxidant, Vitamin E is a scavenger of free radicals that help save cell membranes from harm. Additionally, in human patients, treatment with anticonvulsive drugs is associated with reduced Vitamin E levels. It is believed the Vitamin E deficiency can worsen seizure activity. Vitamin E may be effective in reducing seizure frequency because it helps to compensate for a drug-induced vitamin deficiency. Findings from some current studies in human epileptics indicate that adding Vitamin E to the diet of epileptics on AEDs may further reduce seizure frequency.

Vitamins A and D:
Careful regulation of calcium levels is vital for normal nerve impulse transmission. Vitamin D plays a role in the functioning of healthy nerves by regulating the level of calcium in the blood. Adequate Vitamin A is also required for proper nerve function.

Though canines can make a limited amount of some vitamins in their bodies, minerals cannot be made in the body and must be obtained through dietary sources. Since 50% to 80% of minerals are lost in the manufacturing process of commercial foods, dietary mineral deficiencies can result and related health consequences may arise. As with vitamins, there are a number of mineral deficiencies that are recognized to cause or aggravate seizures in humans and dogs. Minerals are synergistic with each other and with some vitamins and enzymes - that is, these all work together and depend upon each other to ensure good health.The minerals perform a wide range of function, including the promotion of a healthy nervous system.

Trace mineral deficiencies can result from: a lack of minerals in the foods used in the diet; destruction of minerals in the foods being fed due to food processing/heating/refining; lack of synergistic vitamins/minerals/enzymes in the body, or; malabsorption syndromes.Mineral deficiencies known to cause seizures include: Magnesium, Manganese, Selenium, Calcium and Zinc. Using mineral supplements is a 'tricky business' and must be done with the guidance of a veterinarian or a canine nutritionist in order to correct deficiencies without creating dangerous imbalances. Unlike commercial or cooked diets, a well-balanced raw food diet allows the vitamins, minerals and enzymes in the foods to remain intact and available to 'do their job' in the dog's body.

Magnesium: Magnesium tops the list of mineral deficiencies that are linked to seizures. It works with Vitamin C, D, B6, Calcium, Phosphorus and Protein and assists with the absorption of Vitamin C and Calcium. It is important for nerve function and required for sodium and potassium transport. Magnesium is a mineral found in specific fruits, vegetables and essential fatty acids and cannot be adequately obtained through processed foods. Holistic veterinarian Roger DeHaan, DVM states that some forms of epilepsy respond to supplementation of Vitamin B6, Magnesium, and Manganese.

Manganese: Manganese is a co-factor in many enzymes systems and involved with many body functions, including maintenance of the nervous system. Manganese deficiency is suspected to play a role in epilepsy in humans. Processed and refined foods are deficient in manganese.

: Selenium plays a special role in the brain. At least one human study in epileptic children suggests that "Selenium depletion in the brain amongst patients with epilepsy constitutes an important triggering factor for the origin of intractable seizures and subsequent neuronal damage." Selenium deficiency is also linked to hypothyroidism.
Calcium: Hypocalcemia (low Calcium) can cause seizures because it can effect the nervous and neuromuscular systems. Calcium is essential for nerve impulse conduction. It plays a role in the release of neurotransmitters and activates some enzymes which generate neurotransmitters.
Zinc: Zinc is necessary for the production of brain neurotransmitters. Dr. Pitcairn recommends zinc supplements (in addition to others) for epileptic dogs. "Results of the Second National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, published in 1995, suggest that Zinc intakes are declining. This is likely to be due to lower meat and higher cereal consumption, food processing methods which reduce Zinc content of food and lower soil concentrations of Zinc."

Different Dogs Different Needs:

Raw food diets offer the most bioavailable forms of protein and amino acids, enzymes vitamins and minerals that you can feed your dog. All of these dietary elements are synergistic with each other and important to the good health of our dogs.For dogs with seizure disorders, a quality diet supplying the finest quality and most bioavailable sources of the nutrients required for proper functioning of the nervous system will go a long way towards controlling or eliminating seizures. Just as all commercial diets are not created equal, all homemade diets (raw or cooked) are not created equal. An ill-planned and ill-prepared homemade diet can create as many health problems as a poor commercial diet can. The advantages offered by a raw diet can only be gained if the diet is well-balanced to the needs of the individual dog. Older dogs, working dogs, pregnant dogs, particular breeds and dogs with certain health conditions or diseases require diet tailoring. Understanding your dog's individual needs is crucial in creating a diet that will yield positive health results. This is especially important for dogs with seizure disorders.

The Possible Connection between Grains and Seizures:

1. The vitamins and minerals in grains have low bioavailability to the digestive tract. (Simply, grains offer little to no nutritional value to a canine diet).
2. Grains contain components considered "anti-nutrients" that can cause negative biological consequences (including autoimmune problems, allergies, digestive, gallbladder and liver problems all of which can cause seizures). Certain auto-immune diseases (e.g. insulin dependent diabetes mellitus IDDM) increases in animal models when they are fed high cereal grain diets.
3. Grains have high phytate content which impairs mineral absorption (particularly relevent since magnesium, zinc, calcium and other mineral deficiencies are linked to seizures).
4. For canines, it is well documented that three of the most common food allergens are wheat, corn and soy, primary ingredients in many commercial dog foods. (Allergies are a cause of some seizures.)
5. In human epileptics, it is believed that the grains high in gluten content (like wheat, rye, oats) stimulate opiod receptors in the brain, making them more susceptible to seizures.  Although grains further "removed" from wheat (like corn and rice) are allowed in gluten free diets, the other issues listed here concerning grains in the diet would still exist.
6. Complex carbohydrates found in grains quickly turn to sugar in the body. (Since a dog's metabolism is considerably faster than ours,  this might in turn mean that a quicker crash from a sugar "high" would occur. Hypoglycemia is another cause of some seizures.)
7. Unsupplemented canine diets of commercial foods high in cereal (grains) and vegetable proteins are likely to be deficient in amino acids. Taurine is the building block of all of the amino acids. (Deficiencies in taurine are linked to seizures and epilepsy.) Cereal grains are also low in Essential Fatty Acids, important for neurological function.

If you are really interested in learning about potential problems of feeding grains, please do some reading and research. The first link below is a GREAT overview of the potential problems grains can present in human diets - think 'canine' too when you read it. Remember that if this information applies to humans, who are more adapted to grains in their diet, how much more could it apply to our canines, who are not adapted to processed grains in their diets? And please keep in mind, that not all grains are created equal. We need to understand the difference in whole and sprouted grains vs. processed grains, the various gluten levels in grains, etc. and how all of these factor in to digestion and potential health problems (for humans and canines).
"Beyond this, many neurological complications may be associated with immune reactivity to antigens found in cereal grains. It is suspected that autoimmune processes are involved."

Here are a few good links specific to the grains and canine diets:

Recommended Reading:

Before you change your dog's diet, it is important to do some research and reading - to understand the basic nutritional needs of a dog and learn the particular requirements of a dog with seizure disorders. This is particularly important if your dog is on AEDs. Any diet change can impact the dog's metabolism and how he metabolizes his AEDs. Consult with your vet before you change anything in your epi-dog's regimen.

We recommend you join one of the online canine nutrition lists, raw diet lists or breed specific diet lists to learn more. A number of books are also good sources to learn about natural diets for dogs, including:
Natural Nutrition for Dogs and Cats: The Ultimate Diet by Kymythy Schultze
Holistic Guide for a Healthy Dog by Wendy Volhard and Kerry Brown, D.V.M.
The BARF Diet by Ian Billinghurst, D.V.M.
Give Your Dog A Bone by Ian Billinghurst, D.V.M.
Grow Your Pup With Bones by Ian Billinghurst, D.V.M.
Dr. Pitcairn's Complete Guide To Natural Health for Dogs & Cats by Dr. Richard Pitcairn, D.V.M.
Earl Mindell's Nutrition and Health for Dogs by Dr. Earl Mindell

Links to Diet Email Lists:

K9Nutrition list
Subscribe from:
Search for other BARF diet lists by going to: and SEARCH for: BARF There are currently 178 lists for BARF newbies, breed specific, health condition specific and regional lists to choose from. or click on this link for a list of lists:
Raw Recruits
Barf Basics

Other Links:

Amino Acids and Protein


BARF articles and sites:
Sites of Dr. Ian Billinghurst (order books here)
Site of Dr. Tom Lonsdale (order books here)
A collection of raw feeding information and the home of the raw feeding web ring
Aunt Jeni's BARF pictorial and how to BARF
(site to order 'Switching to Raw' book)
BARF!! - Information and sources on raw food diets
Tons of great links
PHD Products - List of articles - see article by Dr. William Pollack, DVM
entitled 'Epilepsy/Seizures-Causes, Predisposing Factors and Treatment'
Pat McKay's site - 'Cook is a 4 Letter Word'
Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation - Raw Foods -vs- Cooked Foods
Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation - Pottengers Cats: A study in nutrition
Raw Meaty Bones - Dr. Tom Lonsdale's site - Article entitled
'Diet is the Cornerstone of Good Health'
Raw Meaty Bones - Dr. Tom Lonsdale's site - Article entitled 'Chicken Wings'
'Is Raw Food Safe for Dogs?'
'A Fresh Food Diet' - artcle by Marina Zacharias on her Natural Rearing site
'Canine Nutrition - Putting it all together' - article on Brenda Hagel's site
Great site with information on a variety of diets including raw

Dogs who BARF:
Raw Setters list home page - no, you don't have to join
Riveriene Farms German Shepherd Dogs
Sterling Akita's - great articles
Tasha's Dog Sports Site - German Shepherd Dogs
Emma the epileptic Dalmatian's BARF diet
Tannu the Siberian Huskie's diet



Page last update: 01/04/2012

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