Share |


What's the Big Deal?

Written By: Laurin Howard

This article originally appeared in a Springer Spaniel publication

What's the big deal about epilepsy? Why is such a fuss made over it? If a dog has a seizure, you give them pills once or twice a day and they live normal lives, right? Why should breeders remove dogs from their program who have produced seizures or have epileptic siblings? Is this "throwing the baby out with the bath water"?

A typical seizure unfolds like this: At 3:30 am you hear a loud bump as your dog falls off the bed. His whole body is rigid, with his neck pulled backward so strongly that his head nearly touches his back. His eyes are rolled back in his head, and his mouth is wide open - champing frantically at nothing, saliva spewing forth. His legs gallop nowhere. He empties his bladder, his anal glands, and often his bowels. This continues for up to several minutes, during which time he does not breath. Lack of oxygen to the brain means death for brain cells. As the seizure declines, he is unconscious. Suddenly he snaps into a semblance of awareness, but is totally uncoordinated and often blind. He pulls himself up and staggers into a wall or a piece of furniture. Not having an understanding of why he isn't moving forward, he continues to shove blindly against the barrier until it moves or someone pulls him away from it. Over the next 20 minutes to several hours he gradually comes back to his senses.

Then the pacing begins. He doesn't know why, but he must pace - back and forth, back and forth - without end. This can go on for hours. Finally he goes into an exhausted sleep. With some luck, he doesn't "cluster" (having anywhere from 2 to over 50 seizures over the next 2-3 days) or go into status epilepticus (continual seizing that often means death). You try to go back to sleep for a few hours, praying that the seizures are over for now, and thanking God that he lived through this one.

The following quotes are taken (with the authors' permission) from posts to the Epil-K9 list - an email list for owners of seizing dogs.

Rush is one of the "lucky" ones - he's still alive. He is a 4 * year old Border Collie. His owner writes: "every month he builds up to a 7 month seizure crisis. Friday he had 3 seizures, Saturday he had 13 seizures from 8AM - 11PM, Sunday he had 37 seizures from 1:30AM - 1:15PM, and Monday he had 36 seizures from 12:15AM - 6:15PM." During this period, Rush was being given Phenobarbitol, Potassium bromide, rectal valium, and oral valium. He addresses an issue that everyone with an epileptic faces: "I know what most of you are probably wondering - is Rush ever going to be normal again? He seizes once a month and can have as little as one seizure or have this many seizures; however, he has always bounced back. It might take him 2 weeks to bounce back from a seizure crisis like this, but he has a wonderful, meaningful life. He puts every ounce of energy into his Frisbee playing and that is why he is able to be the #2 Frisbee dog in the US in 1994 and 1996 and top 10 in 1995. So, as long as he can run, jump, and play Frisbee I know that Rush will be happy!! If Rush is happy then we can deal with his not-so-healthy times." In this episode, Rush suffered 89 seizures in 72 hours.

Barb and Emily have been fighting epilepsy for several years. At this point in time, Emily has suffered a very bad gran mal seizure, and has been hospitalized because she is blind and unresponsive. Barb writes "Gee...I really wish that I had good news....but I don't. I went to visit with Emily tonight. She snuggled in my arms but I am not really all that sure that she knew it was me. Maybe she did she kept sniffing me when I first picked her up. When I would say her name I got some very, very slight movement with the ear fringe. Maybe it registered that someone was calling her name. I don't know. I don't know how I can help her. If the cortisone doesn't work...and if pulling her off the Kbr [Potassium bromide] doesn't work...then what? Is there anything else to do for her? If she's going to rally it had better be within the next week and a half. I can't permit her to go on like she is. I feel so helpless. I've started facing the fact that it's not fair to her for her to live like she has been. Right now she doesn't know what is going on and if I were to put her on the floor she would walk aimlessly. No interaction with the other dogs or with John or myself. Is that living?'' When Barb took Emily to the veterinary hospital, she took along a record of Emily's seizures. The doctors were able to use the notes to see when Emily's behavioral changes began. Barb found herself glad to have the log: "Actually if this is to be the end of Emily's life, at least I have a record of all the great times we had together these past two years, Christmas ,the doggie birthday parties, how she could be so silly at times,how much she loved me, how hard she struggled to overcome this, how hard it is to let her go..."

Jelly was hospitalized at Tufts University. Noreen posted: "Every time they bring Jelly out of sedation she seizes so they are going to put her in an anesthetized state and see what happens over the next 24 hours." She also wrote about another issue owners of epileptic dogs face: "I just keep hiding the bills from my husband who loves her but doesn't have the same kind of emotional investment in the dogs that I do I know [he] is ready to "make the hard call". But I'm not. I love this dog so dearly and want to do whatever I can but the estimate is for $600, which means closer to $800 emotionally I'm really having a hard time plus I had to leave work which meant someone else had to take my classes. Sometimes the heartbreak and suffering are so awful I think I can't bear anymore." Jelly's story had a sad ending: "Jelly died quietly at noon today. We held her in our arms and told her how very much we loved her and how very much we would miss her and how lucky we were to have had her in our lives for 3 years."

"Wolf" is a 100-pound malamute. His owner writes: "Wolf is now six and a half. He only has a few more days to live. I wish I could show him to you because he is truly one of God's most beautiful creatures. Wolf is in his last days now. His liver is failing as a result of having taken so much Phenobarb, at one time as much as 360 mg/day. He can barely walk now. I have to carry him up and down the stairs and support him as he stands against a tree to do his business. He stopped eating a few days ago and no matter what we try and tempt him with, he shows no interest because his abdominal cavity is filled with fluid from his failing liver." Jeffrey continues, "We know that within the next day or two, Wolf will either pass on his own or will become so incapacitated that we will have no other choice but to put him down. In truth it is easier for me to write about this than it is for me to talk about it because every time I do I break down and cry. We have all spent the last two days crying. You know, it's funny. I'm a middle-aged man, I've had parents and close friends die and yet none of these losses have moved me in the same way as losing this pup. Even though Wolf was once strong enough to pull a car through the snow, I still always call him my "baby boy" since he is the youngest of all my "children".

So that's the "big deal". Each dog who seizes is breaking someone's heart. Not all seizures can be controlled with drugs. Not all breeders care.

What can we do to help? The modes of inheritance for epilepsy are not known, though several theories point to the idea that there are many different ways to inherit it. The ESSFTA Foundation has promised funds to epilepsy research. The Foundation welcomes donations in any amount, and the donor can designate his/her preference for their gift's use.

Regardless of how epilepsy is inherited, breeders can make serious efforts to avoid it. Obviously, no dog that seizes should be bred. Data from the on-going Seizure Disorder Survey (currently with 128 dogs reported) has put the average age of onset at 2.9 years in the English Springer Spaniel. Many breeders begin using their dogs at less than 2 years of age, and breed their bitches at 2 years. This is simply not safe as far as inherited seizure disorders are concerned. A minimum of 3 years of age should be observed for all breeding animals. The ESSFTA has made such a recommendation in its "Guidelines for Responsible Breeders".

Until we know how epilepsy is passed on, serious thought should be given as to whether or not to continue breeding parents of epileptic dogs or to breed siblings. In every breeding, research both dogs' pedigrees in great detail. Talk to breeders for three generations; talk to owners of siblings and to people who have used siblings or parents in a breeding program. And, most importantly - don't hide seizures. The breed you love will suffer.

It appears, sadly, that many breeders of epileptic dogs don't quite understand what their puppy buyers go through when faced with this problem. Responses range from "oh, gee, we've never had a problem like that" to "This is not something we talk about. Put him to sleep." We live in a "throw-away" society: if a youngster doesn't turn out, we "place" him. Breeders become hardened to the emotional connection between dog and human. Hard as it is to believe, some seem to forget that we have these dogs because we love them, not just as a breed, but as individuals. "Putting him down" apparently is easier for someone with 6 to 12 dogs living in crates or kennels than for the family with one beloved pet who sleeps on their beds.

As responsible breeders, perhaps the most difficult problem for us to face is when an owner calls to say his dog has seized. Guilt and remorse often take the shape of defensiveness - we feel that the owner's agony is a sort of reproach, and a condemnation of our breeding program. We jump to defend ourselves and our dogs, not realizing that the owner probably doesn't care at all about their dog's pedigree history. They care about the dog they love. They expect us to care about the dog we produced. They don't want excuses and explanations, or even apologies. They want support and advice. They want to know that we care. Instead of distancing ourselves from the seizing dog, we must remember how special that pup was to us when he was crawling around the whelping box. The first thing we must do in dealing with an owner's despair is to let them know that we care, too.

The next issue we face as breeders of an epileptic is helping the owner find the very best care available for his dog, and as much information as possible about epilepsy. Unfortunately, my experience has been that not very many veterinarians know very much about the care of an epileptic dog. They don't see enough of them (though many think there has been an increase in the last several years), are not kept abreast of the latest treatments, and are unaware of the many holistic approaches available. In many cases, the only way to keep an epileptic dog functioning in a relatively normal life is to treat the whole dog. This means, in addition to Phenobarbitol (the drug of choice for treating canine epilepsy) and Potassium bromide (another drug that has proven very effective in conjunction with Phenobarbitol), the dog might be supplemented with zinc, melatonin, milk thistle, amino acids, etc. He might need acupuncture or gold bead implants. He will almost certainly need a specialized diet. As responsible breeders, we must be ready to help an owner find the treatment their dog needs, just as we would if faced with a behavior problem in a dog we sold. Obviously, if a dog we bred succumbs to epilepsy, we should offer to replace the dog or refund the purchase price. It is truly the very least we can do.

When faced with producing an epileptic dog, we should contact the owners of all of that dog's siblings and half-sibs. Advise them on what they should do if their dog seizes, insist that the dogs be neutered or spayed if still intact (this means replacing or refunding for show prospects), and ask them to contact you immediately with all details if their dog does fall prey to seizures. Contact the owner of the sire and owners of the dam's siblings. The only way we can begin to fight this horrible problem is to get it out in the open and begin putting the facts together.

Be sure the owner fills out an ESSFTA Seizure Disorder Survey, and make the dog's pedigree available to the Health and Genetics Committee. If we are going to eliminate this problem, it is going to mean that we must consciously breed to avoid it. Yes, it will still occur, but hopefully diligent breeding practices based on full disclosure by all breeders will gradually reduce the incidence.

So what is the best, most current source of information? The answer is the World-wide Web. The Epil-K9 website at is a gateway to many sites and to the Epil-K9 "list", an email subscriber list for owners or breeders of epileptic dogs. The wealth of information on this list and through the linked websites is phenomenal. The list currently has nearly 850subscribers; that number is quite variable because "list dogs" die every week, and new people sign up every day. The list provides a forum for comparison of veterinary care, environmental solutions, and - most of all - support. It's value to the family of an epileptic dog is immeasurable.

The owner has a responsibility to the breed, as well. They must contact the breeder, and if they get poor response, they might contact the owner of the sire and siblings as well. They must keep detailed records of their dog's seizures - this can help the veterinarian in treating the problem, and might help save the dog's life. They should participate in the Seizure Disorder Survey, make their dog's pedigree available to the Health & Genetics Committee, and share information whenever possible.

The pain and helplessness of seeing your dog writhe uncontrollably in seizures is excruciating. Going to bed every night with one ear open for the dreaded bump and thrashing, knowing that each day might be your dog's last is dreadfully stressing. The agony of watching your beautiful, loving, and often young dog die of epilepsy is beyond compare.

As ethical, responsible, and caring people, we must consider each breeding in this light: WE are the ones who make the choices. We are obligated to make every effort to produce healthy puppies. We can't take chances. Every seizing dog is breaking someone's heart.

For copies of the Seizure Disorder Survey or to contribute a pedigree of a dog you own or bred, contact,

Laurin Howard
560 Fielding Dr.
Versailles, KY 40383

Permission to reproduce this article is granted by Laurin Howard and the Springer Spaniel Club of America


Page last update: 12/13/2011

Fund-Raising Projects for
Anti Epileptic Drug Research
and DNA Epilepsy Research

What's Wrong With Gibson?
Children's illustrated story
book about canine epilepsy.
Percentage of proceeds will be
donated to support canine
epilepsy research. Click
graphic above to order!