Love This Breed? Watch Out for This Potentially Debilitating Anomaly

rhodesian ridgebacks dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers have identified a defective gene in Rhodesian Ridgebacks that develop juvenile myoclonic epilepsy (JME)
  • JME seizures typically begin in dogs between 6 weeks and 18 months of age, occur daily or almost daily, and there can be up to 150 twitches per day
  • JME seems to be more prevalent in Ridgebacks bred in Europe and the U.K. versus the U.S.
  • Conventional treatment for JME involves a variety of anticonvulsive drugs, all of which have side effects
  • There are many natural therapies that can help control seizures in dogs, including switching to a ketogenic diet; dogs with frequent seizures should be managed with an integrative protocol of natural therapies and drug therapy

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Sadly, many dogs suffer seizures, especially breeds with a genetic predisposition to the disorder. Recently, an international team of researchers discovered a gene defect in one breed that is definitively linked to epilepsy. The defective gene is called DIRAS1.1

Newly Discovered Gene Defect Is Specific Only to Rhodesian Ridgebacks

The research team evaluated over 600 epileptic Rhodesian Ridgebacks, as well as 1,000 dogs of other breeds that suffered seizures. The DIRAS1 defect was discovered to be specific to only the Rhodesian Ridgeback so far. The form of epilepsy associated with DIRAS1 is called canine myoclonic epilepsy, which resembles juvenile myoclonic syndrome in humans.

“Myoclonic epilepsies are one of the most common forms of epilepsy in humans,” says researcher Hannes Lohi, Ph.D., of the University of Helsinki, “and the canine findings will not only help in diagnostics but also provide a novel entry point to understand the pathophysiology of the disease.”2

Myoclonic seizures begin at about the same age in both dogs and humans (around 6 months). The symptoms are similar, as is the response to anti-seizure medication.

Study Dogs Wore Special Backpacks to Track Seizure Activity

For the study, researchers attached backpacks to dogs that were reported to experience jerking motions during sleep, when they were resting, and when they were standing quietly. The special backpacks eliminated the need for the dogs to be confined or given sleep medications.

The backpacks allowed the researchers to attach electrodes to the dogs’ heads while they were awake, and the dogs were able to carry on as normal, which provided better information about what was happening in their brains. The wires from the electrodes were attached to a small portable device on the dog's back that transmitted data directly to the researchers’ computers. With the backpacks on, the team would watch as the dogs settled down. As James described it:

Suddenly, the activity on the screen went from normal and relatively flat to just sort of jerking up and down. We said, 'Hang on a second.' We look at the dog and it's twitching and the owner said, 'That's what she does.’”

According to study co-author Riika Sarviaho, the identified DIRAS1 gene provides scientists with a novel target for the development of epilepsy treatments, because it has never been linked to any neurological disease. The gene isn’t yet well defined, but it may play a role in cholinergic neurotransmis­sion, which could be a pathway for myoclonic epilepsies.

Seizures Occur Daily or Almost Daily in Affected Dogs

The juvenile myoclonic epilepsy that affects young Ridgebacks is characterized by seizures that cause rapid uncontrolled muscle jerks and twitches affecting the legs, trunk, head and face. The seizures begin when the dogs are between 6 weeks and 18 months old, and occur daily or almost daily, with a frequency of up to 150 twitches per day.3

Although the seizures can happen randomly, they most often occur when the dogs are relaxed, drowsy or shortly after they fall asleep. Some dogs with the disorder experience visually induced seizures, especially from flashes of light (photosensitivity). Approximately 15 percent of Rhodesian Ridgebacks are carriers of the defective gene, and about 2 to 3 percent are affected. There’s a 25 percent risk of epilepsy in puppies with both a mother and father who are carriers.

Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy Doesn’t Appear To Be a Widespread Problem in U.S. Ridgebacks

In the U.S., the average age of onset of epilepsy in Ridgebacks is around 5 or 6 years. Anecdotal evidence suggests JME is more prevalent in Europe and the U.K., since no U.S. dogs were evaluated for the study. According to Nina Lindqvist, founder of a myoclonic epilepsy in Rhodesian Ridgebacks Facebook group, “JME seems to run in many different lines. Therefore it is assumed that the mutation has already been in the breed for a very, very long time.”4

There is a genetic test available for juvenile myoclonic epilepsy. To insure a mutation-free litter, either the mother or father must be clear of the gene defect. Carriers do not have the disease, and can only pass it on if bred to another carrier.

Virtually all the dogs tested so far that carry two copies of the gene (meaning both parents are carriers) are symptomatic. Since JME is a progressive and potentially devastating condition, not to mention heart wrenching, I encourage you to do careful research if you’re planning to breed a Rhodesian Ridgeback, or acquire a puppy from a breeder, even if you’re in the U.S.

Natural Therapies for Dogs With Epilepsy

Conventional treatment of JME in Rhodesian Ridgebacks involves a variety of anticonvulsive drugs, all of which have side effects. Levetiracetam, brand name Keppra in the U.S., was developed to treat myoclonic seizures in children, and it seems to be more effective than other drugs, but it doesn’t seem to work long-term for dogs in some cases.

There are a number of natural substances than may help increase your dog's seizure threshold and decrease the potential for these events, including:

It’s also important to know that nutritionally related health issues can cause or exacerbate a seizure disorder. One problem is food allergies, which can cause a systemic inflammatory response that can decrease your dog's seizure threshold. Another issue is that most commercially available processed dog food contains synthetic chemicals, preservatives, emulsifiers and other ingredients that can also cause systemic inflammation and decrease seizure thresholds.

Humans with epilepsy are often told by their doctors to switch to a ketogenic diet, which means very low net carbs, reduced protein and high amounts of healthy fats. It's very important to measure blood glucose, with the goal of keeping glucose less than 80 mg/dL and ketone levels above 0.3 mM to assure your dog is actually in ketosis.

For years veterinarians thought this nutritional intervention was not successful at managing epilepsy in pets, but a review of past studies showed that carbs (which convert to sugar) were not restricted adequately nor was protein intake reduced, so the results were not impressive. If done correctly, nutritional ketosis has not only proven to be very successful in managing epilepsy in pets, it's the standard of care for pediatric epilepsy.5

This way of feeding is not only a part of your dog's evolutionary biology, but other symptoms may also improve on this diet, including a reduction in inflammatory disease. By keeping net carbs low, the body's level of insulin is reset to a much healthier (and lower) level, which reduces metabolic stress on every cell in your pet's body. Visit KetoPet Sanctuary to learn more about nutrition ketosis in dogs.

For dogs with frequent seizures, I typically create an integrative protocol of natural therapies and drug therapy. And I always ask pet parents to keep a log of the dates, times and intensity of seizures. Often there are links between seizures and a particular time of month or year. If we identify a cycle, we can develop a plan to control the episodes using the safest effective treatment options available.

Animals with seizures should be titered, not vaccinated. Veterinary vaccines still contain thimerosal, organomercury compounds or aluminum as adjuvants to boost the body's response to the immunization.

Heavy metals are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and since the central nervous system doesn't have the ability to detoxify itself, there's no way to remove those heavy metals. Vaccines can also spark an autoimmune reaction that causes secondary swelling in the brain, which in turn can bring on a seizure disorder in your pet.