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Canine epilepsy is the most common cause of recurrent seizures in dogs. Unfortunately, the medications used to treat epilepsy, such as phenobarbital, potassium bromide, diazepam, and other anticonvulsant drugs, can cause serious side effects in some dogs. Even with medication, up to 30 percent of dogs with epilepsy continue to experience seizures.

Cannabidiol (CBD) is an extract of the cannabis plant (marijuana). Unlike the major active ingredient of the plant, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), CBD does not cause “high” sensations. Instead, it is associated with pain relief and is the main ingredient in many cannabis pet products. Anecdotal evidence suggests that CBD may also offer a treatment alternative for several illnesses, including canine epilepsy, but no in-depth studies have verified these claims.

The AKC Canine Health Foundation (AKCCHF) recently announced a major clinical trial to study CBD as a treatment for drug-resistant epilepsy in dogs. We talked with Dr. Diane Brown, the chief executive officer of the AKC Canine Health Foundation, and Dr. Stephanie McGrath, veterinary neurologist at Colorado State University and the principal investigator for the AKCCHF research project, to find out more.

AKCCHF’s Breakthrough Clinical Trial

The AKCCHF’s CBD study could be the first published, large-scale study to examine the effects of CBD on seizure activity in dogs. “This clinical trial is important for several reasons,” Dr. McGrath shared. “Generally speaking, the science supporting CBD use in veterinary medicine is lacking. There is abundant anecdotal evidence, but very few, if any, well-executed research studies. Regarding the epilepsy study specifically, it is important work because we are constantly searching for an effective anticonvulsant drug to treat epilepsy in dogs. The drugs we currently have available frequently cause intolerable side effects or do not work well enough to control the seizures. Therefore, if CBD does prove to be an effective anticonvulsant, this would affect thousands of dogs worldwide.”

She explained, “The study is testing CBD on dogs with epilepsy in a controlled research setting. The dogs enrolled in the study are randomly assigned to receive either a placebo or the CBD oil for 12 weeks and then, after a 4-week washout period, receive the opposite drug for an additional 12 weeks. The researchers and the owners are blinded as to which drug is given in each half of the study.”

The study will also explore any possible side effects associated with CBD. According to Dr. McGrath, the researchers examine the dogs in the study every four weeks, perform regular blood work, and provide the owners with weekly questionnaires.

Why Studies Matter

Without studies and regulations, many of the CBD products on the market are untested and unregulated. When asked if pet owners should be wary of these products, Dr. McGrath said, “Yes, the lack of regulation is of great concern. Not knowing the exact constituents and quantities of those constituents in a particular product is scary, especially with the knowledge that at certain doses, THC can be toxic to dogs. Hopefully, this market will change in the future.”

AKCCHF Epilepsy Initiative

The CBD trial is not the only research the AKCCHF has sponsored to study canine epilepsy. The foundation has funded multiple studies to help advance our understanding of the disease.

“AKC Canine Health Foundation launched our most recent epilepsy research initiative in 2017 to address the unmet health needs for dogs with epilepsy,” Dr. Brown explained. “Grants awarded by CHF have already resulted in the identification of genes associated with risk factors for epilepsy in dogs, as well as a new treatment for use in the emergency room for canine epileptic patients. When a genetic test becomes available for specific forms of epilepsy, then breeders will use that test to breed away from that mutation.”

She continued, “There is still so much to learn about inheritance of epilepsy, the influence of genes and epigenetics, the role of nutrition, the role of changes in the bacterial population of the intestinal tract, and other potential risk factors — we are investing in research in these areas. So, in some ways, while it is too soon to tell outcomes, you see the real need for more research. CHF is committed to finding and funding the best research available to address this important disease in dogs and looking for answers beyond genetics alone.”

Researchers don’t yet understand why some dogs continue to experience seizures despite medication. Preliminary in vitro studies of CBD show anticonvulsant effects, and researchers like Dr. McGrath hope that CBD will offer better control of epilepsy with fewer side effects.

How Can Dog Owners Help?

It can sometimes feel like there is nothing we can do to help our dogs, especially with diseases like epilepsy. That is part of what makes the AKCCHF studies so exciting. Dr. Brown suggested two ways owners and enthusiasts can help:

  1. Support the AKC Canine Health Foundation for epilepsy research with a tax-deductible donation to the AKCCHF Epilepsy Initiative. This can be done online or by contacting AKCCHF about supporting this research.
  2. Participate in active AKCCHF research studies. All AKCCHF research projects that need study participants, including the CBD study, can be found on its website or by contacting AKCCHF at 888-682-9696. “Working together, we can accomplish so much more for our dogs,” said Dr. Brown.

“This study will be the first to provide real research data to further understanding of the use of CBD to treat drug-resistant epilepsy in dogs,” Dr. Brown concluded. “Equally as important, we will learn more about a safe dosage of CBD for dogs and potential side effects on dogs taking CBD. We expect to learn whether CBD can be used to treat dogs that are resistant to other anti-epileptic medications, and hope to add a new and much-needed treatment option for dogs with epilepsy.”

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