Can certain dog foods or treats cause seizures in your dog?
The tricky thing about this subject is that there isn’t a whole lot of reliable data. That doesn’t mean that it cannot happen. Let’s review under what circumstances it would likely require. To get you the best information possible, I brought in Dorothy Wills-Raftery of FiveSibes™ to collaborate on this article.
“As a matter of fact, certain ingredients in foods and treats can most definitely be possible triggers to seizures,” notes Dorothy Wills-Raftery, author of EPIc Dog Tales: Heartfelt Stories About Amazing Dogs Living & Loving Life With Canine Epilepsy and What’s Wrong With Gibson?
Learning About K-9 Epilepsy has been an official Purple Day® for Epilepsy ambassador, focusing on Canine Epilepsy. She is the creator of the FiveSibes™ blog, founded the #LiveGibStrong K-9 Epilepsy Awareness & Educational campaign, and partnered with The Anita Kaufmann Foundation for her #Paws4Purple educational program. She began advocating for Epi-dogs (dogs with epilepsy) once her own Siberian Husky, Gibson, was diagnosed shortly after his third birthday with idiopathic Canine Epilepsy.
“I hear from many fellow Epi-dog parents who have a difficult time finding foods and treats for their dogs that do not contain ingredients, such as rosemary, wheat gluten, preservatives, dyes, etc., that could be possible triggers. With Gibson, I eliminated all of those things from his diet as a preventive measure once he was diagnosed.“
Defining the issue
Before we dive into the details, let’s break the issue down into some categories. In regard to the dogs, I believe we need to consider the following distinctions:
- seizures in healthy dogs with no prior history of seizures
- increase in the likelihood of seizures in predisposed breeds or dogs already diagnosed with a seizure disorder
- increased risk of seizures in dogs with existing medical conditions which can result in seizures
As it concerns the food, I would break it down into the following categories:
- toxic nutrient levels
- food contamination or spoilage
- food additives
- nutritional deficiencies
Common causes of seizures
Causes of seizures in dogs include:
- head injuries
- brain inflammation
- liver failure
- low or high blood sugar
- thyroid issues
- kidney failure
- severe electrolyte imbalance
- congenital abnormalities/idiopathic causes
Source: Seizures or Convulsions in Dogs
“There are so many possible seizure triggers in Epi-dogs,” notes Wills-Raftery, “Even stress, over-heating, allergic reactions, certain essential oils, environmental toxins (think pesticides, candles, room fresheners, even perfumes), flashing lights, the TV, fireworks, even weather and atmospheric changes such as storms, lunar activity and eclipses, and solar flares.
Stress and overheating were two major triggers for my Gibson. When it comes to triggers, it can be very frustrating as it is like the Wild, Wild West—almost anything can be a trigger. I recommend eliminating all standard possible triggers, starting with the food first.” Adds Wills-Raftery,
“Additionally, genetics can play a major role in dogs having seizure activity, so if one can get their dog’s history, it helps. In many adoption cases, however, the history is not known. With my Gibson, I was able to track down some of his older and younger siblings and discovered that there was a history of seizures in the bloodline. I contacted the original breeder, and she hesitantly admitted that the female Husky used for breeding did indeed have seizures, but she said they did not realize it was important; they thought it was due to their dog coming in contact with poison ivy. While Gibson was diagnosed with idiopathic epilepsy (cause unknown), after this discovery, it is quite possible it was due to genetics. I’d like to add an important personal note that breeders should never continue to breed a dog that has had seizures. What these dogs go through is absolutely heartbreaking and very tough emotionally on the human family.”
Where can food come into the equation?
Toxic nutrient levels
You might think that a nutrient is either beneficial or dangerous. But health is not only about the type of nutrients but about their amounts as well. Both deficiency or excess can be harmful.
The dog’s body can control absorption and systemic levels of nutrients to a degree. Some fat-soluble vitamins, for example, can rise to toxic levels easily.
There has been an extensive recall of various Hill’s Pet Nutrition canned dog foods due to excessive levels of vitamin D.
(You can keep up with recall updates at petMD, Alerts & Recalls.)
The typical signs of vitamin D (cholecalciferol) poisoning stem from its effect on calcium absorption and the consequent impact on kidneys, liver, GI tract, heart and blood vessels and include:
- loss of appetite
- diarrhea or constipation
- excessive drooling
- increased drinking and urination
- blood in vomit
- tarry stools
With severe intoxication, vitamin D toxicity can lead to muscle tremors and seizures. Don’t forget that excessive levels of vitamin D are so dangerous it is used in some rodenticides.
Nobody would purposely put toxic levels of vitamin D in food but, as the cited recall indicates, mistakes can happen. Hill’s wasn’t the only brand with a recall due to the same issue.
Contaminated dog food is unfortunately not unheard of. Contamination with objects and certain spoilage might be easy to spot. But some things are not visible
Yes, it did happen that pentobarbital made its way into dog food.
Pentobarbital is a class of sedative that slows the activity of the brain and nervous system. In veterinary medicine, pentobarbital is used during euthanasia. What is that doing in dog food?
Sufficient concentration of pentobarbital can cause:
- neurologic issues
Yes, neurologic issues here include tremors and seizures.
Source: Dr. Patrick Mahaney
Again, there have been dog food recall for unacceptable levels of aflatoxin.
Aflatoxins are a class of poisons produced by certain molds/fungi. The fungi that produce aflatoxins grow on crops such as peanuts, wheat, corn, beans, and rice.
Aflatoxins affect primarily the liver. That results with GI upsets, anemia, and jaundice. Some types had been linked to cancer. As discussed earlier, liver failure can lead to seizures.
Symptoms of aflatoxin poisoning include:
- severe vomiting
- bloody diarrhea
- loss of appetite
Regardless of how they end up introduced into the dog food, molds, in general, can cause seizures as well. Don’t forget that improper storage can introduce mold contamination as well, though.
Other signs of mold poisoning include:
Source: Pet Poison Helpline
Heavy metals can be introduced into dog food with the ingredients. They can include:
Today, these things are probably in everything. While one might argue the detrimental effect of long-term exposure, the real trouble ensues when the levels become acutely too high.
The main culprit seems to be fish-based ingredients but it doesn’t mean that other foods are free of contamination. Wheat and barley also accumulate increased levels of heavy metals.
Mercury is the one most likely to cause seizures.
Some level of contamination is, unfortunately unavoidable. Close screening of the food products is crucial as well it is one of the reasons why it is best to offer a variety of foods to dogs.
Unlike the above categories, additives are classified as safe and consciously introduced into dog foods. The main reason for food additives is preventing food from spoilage. The commonly used food preservatives include BHA, BHT, and Ethoxyquin.
Are these preservatives safe? It appears they are safe for healthy dogs. There is some anecdotal evidence that avoiding these preservatives, as well as other artificial additives can reduce seizures in dogs who already suffer from seizure disorders.
It is important to note, though, that rosemary, which is often used to substitute chemical preservatives also seems to increase the risk of seizures in epileptic dogs.
Many vitamins and minerals are important to the normal function of the nervous system. Dogs are most likely to be deficient in water-soluble vitamins for two reasons:
- they get easily destroyed during processing
- they are not stored in the body
Thiamine (vitamin B1)
Thiamine is involved with energy production which makes it essential for brain function. The list of symptoms of thiamine deficiency in dogs is long but it does include neurological issues and seizures. However, insufficient levels of thiamine in the diet are not the only way a dog can become deficient. Other contributing factors can include:
- intestinal disease
- liver disease
- diets high in carbohydrates
- diets containing sulfur dioxide or sulfite preservatives
Zinc deficiency is commonly linked to skin issues. Some breeds, such as Huskies and Malamutes are especially susceptible to zinc deficiency but other breeds can be affected as well.
Zinc is the busiest mineral in the body, involved in countless processes. When it concerns the brain, zinc is important for the function of neurotransmitters. Without zinc, neurotransmitters fire erratically which is how a deficiency can lead to seizures.
Zinc deficiency too occurs in a number of ways:
- insufficient zinc in the diet
- presence of nutrients that interfere with absorption
- poor absorption
“Zinc deficiency is something that is not uncommon and can certainly trigger seizures especially in northern breed dogs, such as Siberian Huskies,” states Wills-Raftery. “If you are not sure if your dog has a zinc deficiency, contact your vet to run some tests.”
Taurine and carnitine
Taurine and carnitine are amino acids. You might have heard about taurine in connection to the diet-associated dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM). However, taurine also important for the function of the central nervous system. Carnitine plays a critical role in energy production and it is also essential for the brain.
There is some indication that some amino acids can be seizure-protective. A deficiency then could do the opposite.
Deficiencies in other vitamins and minerals that are involved with neurological function can possibly contribute to seizures as well.
Some of the nutrients that are likely to be deficient and are essential for nerve function include:
- vitamin E
Other potential dog food ingredient culprits for dogs already prone to seizures
According to Dr. Jean Dodds, the following additional ingredients can increase the risk of seizure activity
- pro-inflammatory foods
- foods that cause blood sugar fluctuations
- glutamate and aspartate
Chronic or systemic inflammation has an adverse effect on the entire body. This could include the brain as well. Pro-inflammatory ingredients include foods that might trigger allergies or intolerances. Which ingredients those are can be individual to each dog.
Gluten, in particular, is listed to be avoided by numerous sources. At the very least, gluten seems to contribute to what is called canine epileptoid cramping syndrome.
Source: Vet Times
Since dogs don’t need gluten in their diet, avoiding it won’t interfere with their nutrition needs.
Foods that promote blood sugar fluctuations
Dangerously high or blood sugar levels can cause seizures in any dog. With dogs already susceptible might have a lower tolerance to sugar fluctuations. Dr. Dodds recommends avoiding carbohydrates with a high glycemic index for such dogs.
“To avoid blood sugar fluctuations with Gibson, I fed him smaller meals throughout the day. Also good to note is that as dogs grow older, their bodies change. When my Siberian Husky, Harley, suddenly had her first grand mal seizure at age 12, which at that age, is typically not Canine Epilepsy,” explains Wills-Raftery. “
After testing ruled out a brain tumor, her first seizure was diagnosed as a result of hypothyroidism and she was placed put on medication. Her second grand mal was due to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) so from then on, I feed her smaller meals and protein-based treats several times a day, same as I did with Gibson, to help stabilize her blood sugar levels.”
Glutamate and aspartate
Did you know that some amino acids are actually neurotransmitters? Glutamate is one of them and it belongs to the class of excitatory neurotransmitters. That means they encourage the neurons to fire. While that is important, excessive electrical activity in the brain leads to seizures.
Aspartate is a salt form of its counterpart, aspartic acid. At this form, it also functions as a neurotransmitter and can have an effect similar to glutamate.
1. Healthy dogs
With the exception of serious contamination or toxic levels of certain nutrients, dog food is not the most likely cause of seizures in healthy dogs. Keep an eye on dog food recalls and rotate diets to avoid cumulative nutritional excesses or deficiencies. Variety is the best way to avoid issues that build up over time.
If your dog gets seizures, the first thing to do is to see a vet. Don’t forget the long list of potential causes of seizures that have nothing to do with food (see Common causes of seizures).
“Another thing to keep an eye out for is toxicity from medications,” adds Wills-Raftery. “Gibson had a frightening experience when the compounding lab reformulated the capsule his Potassium Bromide was in without notifying the vet or the public. A simple reformulation of a capsule caused him to have sudden severe ataxia that almost was his demise. Thankfully, my fast-acting vet recognized it as Bromide Toxicity and he immediately detoxed my Gibson and literally saved his life.”
If you do suspect your dog’s food might be to blame, talk to your veterinarian. Together you should determine whether that is a likely cause and should be reported and submitted to testing.
“Having a close and trusting relationship with a vet who is experienced with Canine Epilepsy is a must,” notes Wills-Raftery, adding, “If possible, when a dog has a seizure, note details about the seizure—how long it was, medications, what your dog was doing or eating prior, and if you can, videotape the seizure to show and discuss with your vet immediate following the seizure (to rule out any underlying health issue or emergency). Journaling is a great tool to help monitor your dog’s seizure activity and share with your vet.”
2. Predisposed breeds and dogs previously diagnosed with a seizure disorder
Pay close attention to dog food recalls, and ingredients for the formula you’re feeding. It is important to be cautious when using foods with ingredients that might contribute to seizure activity. Work with your veterinarian on best strategies to prevent your dog’s seizures.
“It is also important that once your dog is placed on anti-seizure medication(s), to have your vet run scheduled bloodwork (at least twice a year) to check the levels to see if the dosage needs to be adjusted or not,” advises Wills-Raftery.
I have a number of friends who were able to achieve seizure-free life working with an integrative veterinarian.
Wills-Raftery agrees. “I am so fortunate that my vet team is open to both traditional and holistic therapies for seizures and Canine Epilepsy. I truly believe that it was through a combination of medication, nutrition, and natural remedies, that my Gibson was able to live the last seven years of his life seizure free!”
3. Dogs with existing medical conditions
Dogs who already have diabetes, thyroid issues, liver or kidney disease and other health issues that can lead to seizures need careful monitoring. Managing their health problem should help prevent resulting seizures as well. They are also likely to be on diets to help do that already. It never hurts to pay attention to the ingredient lists for potentially offending ingredients, though.
Further reading and listening:
Review of Seizures/Epilepsy in Animals
#LiveGibStrong K-9 Epilepsy Online Library
Cooling Down an Epi-Dog: Where Do I Put The Cool Packs?
#LiveGibStrong and The Anita Kaufmann Foundation #Paws4Purple Educational Program
12 Important Tips if Your Dog Has a Seizure
Important Canine Epilepsy Resources
If a Senior Dog Has a Seizure, Is It Canine Epilepsy?
EPIc Dog Tales: Heartfelt Stories About Amazing Dogs Living & Loving Life With Canine Epilepsy, an award-winning Canine Epilepsy reference and Epi-dog lifestyle book by Dorothy Wills-Raftery. http://www.arctichousepublishing.com/book-store.html
What’s Wrong With Gibson? Learning About K-9 Epilepsy, an award-winning illustrated children’s book written by Dorothy Wills-Raftery. http://www.arctichousepublishing.com/book-store.html