Finzi has an assistance dog to help warn of epileptic fits
My two dogs, Finzi and Kiko, share a 'bedroom'. They both sleep in a utility room off our kitchen. After their late night walk, they happily go in there together, getting a final treat and a 'goodnight' from the humans in the home. They each have their own dog bed, and they sleep well, in close proximity to one another.
There is one problem that rears its head from time to time: Finzi has epilepsy, and she occasionally has fits in the early hours of the morning.
The first sign that we have to warn us that she might be having a problem is the frantic yapping of the smaller dog, Kiko. She has some intuitive way of knowing that Finzi is about to go into a fit, and she gets very upset.
There's nothing else that makes Kiko gets so upset, so when we hear her yapping (e.g. at 5am), we rush downstairs to help.
In fact, there's not much we can do: when an epileptic dog has a fit, you just need to clear a space around them to make sure that they don't bash into anything that might harm them, and you have to allow time for the fit to pass. Finzi's seizures never last more than three minutes. They are very distressing at the time (especially to Kiko) but Finzi is unconscious while they are happening, so they don't bother her at all. She is a bit wobbly afterwards, but within half an hour, she's completely back to her full self.
One of the key aspects of owning an epileptic dog is to keep a seizure diary, writing down whenever the dog has a fit, as well as noting the severity and duration of the seizure, the time of day, and any events happening in the household at the same time. This is important initially to decide when seizures are happening often enough to justify medication, and it's also helpful when treatment has commenced, so that the success of the medication in reducing seizure frequency can be accurately assessed.
Finzi only has a seizure every three or four months, so she doesn't have them often enough to need to be on medication, but the diary is important to help us to monitor what's happening. Often as epileptic dogs get older, seizures become more common, and one day she may well need to start on daily medication to prevent them. The rule of thumb is that if a dog has a seizure more often than once every two months, medication should be considered. Alternatively, if a dog has long seizures, lasting more than a few minutes, or clusters of repeated seizures in a short space of time, medication may be indicated.
The seizure diary can also help to identify trigger factors: events which prompted the fit to happen in the first place. Although many owners feel that there must be some tangible cause of their pet's seizures, this is only rarely the case. Very occasionally, a dog may have an obvious repeatable trigger such as exercise or visiting the vet. More commonly, when a seizure is about to happen, different types of stress may be the final straw that pre-empts the seizure e.g. a sudden noise or an animal waking up the animal from sleep. However, these events will not cause a seizure in the dog at other times. In Finzi's case, we've never found any trigger factors: her fits just seem to happen.
Anecdotally, diet is also often said to be implicated in causing seizures, but in practice, there's no evidence that special diets make a difference. A small number of dogs may develop epilepsy as part of a number of signs (such as vomiting, diarrrhoea, itchy skin) connected to a food allergy. If an epileptic dog has these types of signs too, it may be worth doing a food trial, using a hypoallergenic or a hydrolysed diet for a couple of months to see if the situation improves.
Vaccinations are also sometimes blamed for epilepsy, but despite extensive studies, no connection has ever been proven. A small number of dogs do seem to start seizures following visits to the vet for vaccination, but it's thought that this is more likely to be due to the stress effect of going to the vet rather than an immunological effect of the vaccine itself.
Some dogs with epilepsy have behavioural problems as well, especially if their seizures are poorly controlled. Behavioural issues include excitement, anxiety, apparent hallucinations (eg. barking without apparent cause), and others. In some cases, such bizarre behaviours may indicate that there's some other type of brain disease happening, and it may be worth referring to a neurologist for a more detailed investigation.
A new area that is just being investigated in humansis the possibility of using behavioural therapy as an adjunctive treatment for epilepsy. A study showed that ten weeks of daily 60-minute yoga practice significantly decreased seizure frequency. Other relaxation methods have also shown signs that they may help, and psychological interventions such as cognitive behavioural therapy have also been trialled.
It is difficult to translate these types of interventions into the dog world (how could you get dogs to carry out yoga-style poses, never mind breathing?). However it is possible that in the future, there may be alternative methods of training dogs to do specific calming exercises which may in some way reduce the impact of seizures on their life. Look out, Finzi!