One of the most terrifying, heart-wrenching moments in a dog owner's life is witnessing their beloved dog have a seizure. Seconds feel like hours as you watch your pup convulse uncontrollably. No pet parent ever wants their dog to have seizures and will do just about anything to help stop them.
If your dog has recently had their first seizure, there’s a lot to learn before beginning medication. Most anticonvulsant drugs have potential adverse effects and necessary precautions that all dog owners should know about.
In this article, we will cover one of the newer anticonvulsant drugs called levetiracetam and the important details that you need to know before beginning treatment. Let's get started!
What are Seizures in Dogs
Before we jump into talking about levetiracetam, we want to briefly discuss seizures and why dogs have them.
Up to 5% of all dogs suffer from seizures, but what exactly are they? Seizures are uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain. This abnormal electrical activity often produces a physical convulsion, thought disturbances, secondary physical signs, or, at times, a combination of symptoms. Epilepsy describes repeated episodes of seizures.
What Causes Seizures in Dogs
Most seizure disorders in dogs are classified as idiopathic epilepsy, which is an inherited condition with an unknown cause.
In other cases, seizures may be caused by the following conditions:
- Brain tumor
- Brain trauma
- Liver disease
- Kidney failure
- Toxic poisoning
Seizures in Dogs: What Provokes Them?
Seizure episodes occur during changes in brain activity. For example, excitement or stress can trigger a seizure. If your dog suffers from seizures and anxiety, you’ll need to learn how to appropriately manage both. (More on that in a moment!)
Breeds At Risk of Seizures
Many dog breeds are prone to seizures and epilepsy.
These breeds include:
- Belgian Tervuren
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Shetland Sheepdog
That being said, any dog can have seizures.
What is Levetiracetam for Dogs
Now, back to the topic at hand.
Levetiracetam is the generic name for Keppra. Your vet may use the names interchangeably. It is a newer prescription medication that treats seizures and epilepsy in dogs.
Levetiracetam tablets can be used alone or in combination with other anticonvulsant medications. Combination therapy with levetiracetam lowers the required dosage of the other anticonvulsant medication, helping to reduce the negative side effects. Because the side effects of traditional anticonvulsant medications can be severe, many pet owners are actively seeking drugs like levetiracetam to lessen and prevent such adverse effects.
Traditional Anticonvulsant Medications
Traditional anticonvulsant medications for dogs are phenobarbital and potassium bromide (KBr). Unfortunately, many dogs cannot tolerate these mediciations; pet owners want to avoid the potential adverse effects associated with both.
On their own, phenobarbital and KBr cannot always reduce a dog’s seizure frequency or severity. Therefore, a dog may experience the harsh side effects of these drugs with no improvement in their seizures. In these cases, a vet may add another drug like levetiracetam to the treatment regimen to help reduce seizure frequency and severity.
Dangers of Phenobarbital
- Short-term: lethargy, fatigue, nervousness, ataxia (a lack of coordination)
- Long-term: anemia and liver damage (including scarring of the liver tissue, which can lead to serious liver dysfunction)
Dangers of KBr
- Short-term: irritability, vomiting, ataxia, hind limb instability
- Long-term: bromide toxicity, which damages vital organs
Benefits of Levetiracetam for Dogs
Levetiracetam’s main benefit for dogs is its ability to treat seizures and lessen the need for drugs that can cause serious organ damage.
If you are actively seeking an alternative to phenobarbital and KBr, consider asking your veterinarian about whether levetiracetam might be an appropriate solution. Even in cases that require phenobarbital or KBr, adding levetiracetam can significantly decrease the dosage of these potentially harmful medications.
Disadvantages of Levetiracetam for Dogs
Levetiracetam’s main disadvantage is its dosing regimen: in most cases, it must be given three times a day, which is quite inconvenient for many pet owners.
Until recently, another disadvantage of levetiracetam was its high cost. Fortunately, the availability of the generic version of the drug resolved this issue.
Levetiracetam is available in 500-mg and 750-mg extended-release tablets and 250 mg, 500 mg, 750 mg, and 1000 mg regular tablets. It is also available as an oral liquid.
In many cases, the drug must be administered three times a day. In some cases, the extended-release tablets can be administered twice daily. Frequent dosing is necessary because the body rapidly metabolizes levetiracetam, which helps minimize liver and kidney damage.
Levetiracetam Side Effects
Although side effects are less frequent with levetiracetam than traditional anticonvulsant medications for dogs, it is not entirely safe. Pet owners should know about levetiracetam’s common side effects, listed below:
- Behavioral changes
- Lethargy and drowsiness
- Gastrointestinal upset (e.g., vomiting or diarrhea)
Precautions for Levetiracetam for Dogs
Levetiracetam has several precautions, described below.
Pregnancy and Nursing
Levetiracetam should not be given to dogs who are pregnant because it can cause embryonal and fetal loss. However, if your dog is pregnant and having seizures, your vet may still prescribe the drug if they believe it’s necessary to control the seizures.
Levetiracetam should be used with caution in dogs with poor kidney function. Although it is certainly safer than other anticonvulsants, levetiracetam can negatively affect kidney function, particularly if kidney function is already impaired.
Finally, levetiracetam should never be stopped suddenly. Doing so can cause erratic seizure activity. Always follow your vet’s instructions for gradually stopping a medication, especially anticonvulsant medications.
Dangers of Conventional Anticonvulsant Medications
With improved diagnostic tools, veterinarians are diagnosing seizures more frequently, leaving pet owners in a tough spot: what to do next. Of course, we do not advocate against the use of conventional medications; many pets benefit greatly from them. However, we want pet parents to know about these medications and their potential dangers.
For instance, conventional anticonvulsant medications can negatively affect liver and kidney function. Thus, a veterinarian must routinely monitor kidney and liver function when a dog is taking one of these medications. Because anticonvulsant medications are given lifelong, the expense of this routine monitoring can really add up, not even counting the cost of the medication. Pet parents may wonder if reducing seizure frequency and severity is worth the risk of serious organ damage (and the cost of monitoring).
Additionally, even when the conventional anti-seizure medications are administered correctly, there are several forms of drug-resistant epilepsy which cause the drugs not to work. Sadly, you read that correctly. Pet parents are inadvertently flooding their dog's body with chemicals and toxins for no reason. This often results in the development of a slew of other conditions without any change in the severity of frequency of seizure activity.
Other Anticonvulsant medications
Finally, we want to briefly mention other anticonvulsant medications—primidone and zonisamide—that are available for dogs. Being aware of all medications will help you make an educated decision to manage your dog’s seizures.
Primidone can help dogs for whom phenobarbital was not effective at seizure control.
- Short-term effects: weight loss, lethargy, ataxia
- Long-term effects: hepatic necrosis, hepatic fibrosis, cirrhosis
Zonisamide helps prevent the spread of seizures in the brain.
- Short-term effects: ataxia, loss of appetite, diarrhea, vomiting
- Long-term effects: hyperthermia, skin reactions, blood disorders
As you can see, the short-term and long-term effects of nearly every conventional anticonvulsant are worrisome.
Every day, more parents are turning to holistic alternatives to treat and prevent their dogs' ailments. It's no surprise why. The laundry list of the potential adverse effects - not to mention, a possible allergic reaction - of conventional medications can be mind-boggling. Luckily, there are safe and effective natural to help our pets.
CBD Oil for Dogs
While more clinical trials need to be performed, there is a good bit of evidence that CBD oil can help control seizures. According to this study:
"CBD was found to be superior to placebo in reducing the frequency of convulsive (tonic-clonic seizures, tonic seizures, clonic seizures, and atonic seizures) seizures in patients with Dravet syndrome, and the frequency of drop seizures in patients with Lennox-Gastaut syndrome."
In addition to this study, there is a good bit of anecdotal evidence of the efficacy of a daily dose of CBD for seizure control.
Pet owners may not fully understand food’s incredible power on managing seizures. A specifically formulated diet can truly be a game-changer when it comes to treating seizures. Ketogenic diets, which are low in carbohydrates and high in fats, can significantly reduce the frequency and severity of seizure activity.
Furthermore, diet affects your dog’s overall health and well-being. For example, dogs suffering from kidney damage associated with many anticonvulsants can benefit from a diet that doesn’t overwork the kidneys.
Holistic wellness experts often recommend a species-specific raw food diet. However, raw food diets, when not properly prepared, can expose pets to harmful bacteria and have nutritional deficiencies. As always, we encourage our readers to consult with a holistic vet in terms of dietary changes that can best suit your dog's individual needs.
Acupuncture can help manage and reduce seizures in dogs and people. Of course, we understand that all of our readers won’t be on board with acupuncture. Yet, it’s still nice to know that there are alternative options available.
Know What To Do For An Epileptic Dog
Pet parents should know what to do when their dog has a seizure. Of course, the first seizure is always the scariest, but realize that seizures aren’t painful. However, seizures leave dogs very confused about what just happened to them.
During the seizure, the most important thing that you can do is keep the external environment as quiet and calm as possible; bright lights and loud noises can worsen the seizure. Also, keep other animals out of the room. Witnessing your dog’s seizure is just as scary for your pets as it is for you; their cries and barks can also worsen the seizure.
Stressors like anxiety and excitement can trigger seizures. If you know that a certain situation will trigger a seizure, minimize your dog’s exposure to that trigger to prevent a seizure from starting in the first place.
Finally, we encourage our readers to stay up to date on information about seizures and epilepsy in dogs. For instance, in late 2018, the FDA reported that certain flea and tick medications may cause seizures in dogs. Knowing these new findings and making appropriate changes can truly make a world of difference for your dog.
Levetiracetam for Dogs: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we know that you want the very best for your pets. Unfortunately, no one said that being a pet parent was always going to be a walk in the park; having a dog with seizures underscores that point.
We firmly believe that being well informed about a pet’s disease is a key aspect of responsible pet ownership. By understanding the disorder and what causes it, you can find a way to effectively treat or manage it. Regarding seizures, understanding the pros and cons of conventional anticonvulsant medications will equip you with questions to ask your veterinarian and help you make an educated decision about your dog’s care. Also, knowing that you have holistic options will help you make a decision that you feel comfortable about.
Seizures and epilepsy in dogs can be scary for pet owners. However, they are by no means a death sentence. Dogs with epilepsy can live long, happy lives once their symptoms are recognized and their condition is treated. Medications like levetiracetam can help. We encourage our readers to do all they can to support their veterinarian’s treatment plan for controlling seizures.
Above all, ask questions when you have them. You are not alone in the world of pet parenting. We sincerely hope your beloved companion feels better soon.
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After earning her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, she pursued a non-traditional career path as a veterinarian.
JoAnna completed a 2-year postdoctoral research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center, then became a medical writer. As founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company, JoAnna is passionate about educating pet parents about pet care and responsible pet ownership.
Although she does not currently have any pets to call her own, she loves living vicariously through other pet parents and watching Nat Geo!