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I Thought It Was a Dream

Written by Elizabeth (Tibbie) Dell

Tibbie and her beloved Reno

During the early morning hours of April 18, 1997, I awoke to a disturbance coming from the dog bed on the floor next to me where my beautiful, loyal Dalmatian spends every night in peaceful slumber. At first, I thought he must have been having a dream. It didn't take long before the dream, became a violent struggle. I jumped out of bed thinking he must be stuck under my bed! I turned on the light, and to my horror, my wonderful, loving dog was having a seizure! I stayed with him, talking soothingly and stroking his body while tears streamed down my cheeks. Never before had I felt so helpless. It seemed to go on forever. I just wanted it to end. How could this happen to my dog.

My dog is from a reputable breeder that does all the necessary health checks. His pedigree is full of champions that include specialty and Group winners, Best in Show dogs, as well as top producers. My boy is a champion in two countries and won all of his classes at the National Specialty. His hearing, hips, eyes, and thyroid were all normal. He had never been sick in all of his three years, so how could my dog be having a seizure? It lasted about three minutes, with frantic paddling, excessive frothing at the mouth, and loss of bladder control. When the seizure was over, he was unconsciousness, blind and unresponsive to my voice. Then, as if someone had flicked on a light switch, he returned to normal, jumped up, licked my face and acted like nothing had happened! I, however, was still very shaken.

My vet said not to panic, feeling it may have been a reaction to a household cleaning product. We opted for a wait and see approach. A month went by without any problems and I figured it was indeed a fluke. During the early hours of May 22, another seizure struck. He had two seizures within five hours. What I thought was a dream in the beginning was turning into the most terrifying nightmare that I could ever imagine. This time my dog did not return to normal. He was experiencing the postictal (time period following a seizure) stage that can last from a few minutes, hours, or even days. My dog didn't know me, or his name. All he did was trot aimlessly around our fenced yard in circles. My Dal didn't eat, drink, sleep, or have any bladder control. He twitched, drooled, shook, and acted scared to death; as if he were seeing and hearing things that weren't there. He didn't want to be touched. I wondered if he would ever be back to normal. What if he had brain damage? Would he ever be my sweet, affectionate, best friend again?

Two trips were made to the vet that day for injections of Phenobarbital (PB) and Valium. Blood was drawn to rule out any imbalances in blood glucose, uric acid, or thyroid. My dog had never been exposed to any toxins, had an allergic reaction, high fever, or suffered any head traumas. Brain tumors at this age are unlikely. The blood tests all came back normal and the diagnosis was "idiopathic epilepsy", or epilepsy with no known cause. The postictal stage lasted for three days. He didn't eat, drink, had no recognition of anyone, no bladder control and no sleep for 36 hours for either one of us. It was truly a living nightmare. I thought about putting him down, but I was told to wait a little longer. He needed time for his brain to unscramble. When he recovered, we waited and hoped that it would never happen again. He was now taking Phenobarbital every 12 hours to control his seizures.

Like most people, I thought that having an epileptic dog would be no big deal. As an owner of a boarding kennel for almost 20 years, I have had epi dogs in my kennel from time to time. I would give them a pill once a day and, if they had a seizure that caused them to tremble and shake a little, it was over within a couple of minutes. I was about to learn the hard way that for a lot of dogs, it is not that simple. I became more educated in the world of canine epilepsy that I ever thought I'd need to be. For the next few months, I read and asked questions. I was determined that I was going to put an end to this disorder and 'fix' my dog. Some people have had great success in controlling their dogs' seizures with vitamins, supplements, and an all-natural diet. My motto became, "If it can work for their dog, it can work for my dog". I tried everything I could to help my boy. The amount of PB was gradually increased over several months with no effect. The seizures became more frequent. Blood was drawn every few weeks to see if the PB was within the therapeutic level in his system. The sad thing is, no case of epilepsy is the same for any dog. The seizure patterns aren't the same, no medication works the same for every dog and no causes or triggers are the same.

In between seizures, my Dal is the healthiest dog you can imagine and lives a normal life. He can go for weeks without seizures, always happy-go-lucky and full of energy. It's hard to believe that this dog, the picture of health, can flip himself over backwards in violent contortions of screaming, frothing, head banging convulsions when you least expect it. I can no longer leave him unattended with my other dogs. In spite of being friends, the others will attack my spotted dog during a seizure. It's the pack mentality. I'm afraid to leave him alone when he's in 'seizure mode' because he may hurt himself or be unable to stop seizing. He could enter 'status epilepticus' (multiple seizures with little or no recovery time in between). Due to the high increase in body temperature during a seizure, it can cause brain damage and even death. I have to plan every day around his medication, as it has to be given on a strict schedule. I have trouble sleeping for I fear another seizure is invading his body every time he rearranges, stretches, or scratches. It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop, you know it will, you just don't know when, how bad it will be, or how long it will last. There is comfort in knowing that human epileptics say that they don't experience any pain (unless they injure themselves during a seizure) or even remember what has happened when a seizure hits. Many people can't understand how or why I go through this. "Just put him to sleep," they say. That's pretty hard to do when he's running around playing, chewing on his bone, following me from room to room and keeping my feet warm most of the time. It's just those few minutes when his brain short circuits that rips your heart out. It's something you never get used to.

By October, after several more months of seizures with increasing regularity, we increased the PB dose, tried more vitamins, and ran more blood tests. My boy was finally within the 'therapeutic range'. This means his seizures should have been well 'controlled' with this dosage. Most vets define well controlled as having one seizure per month or less. Blood serum levels always have to be monitored to check PB as it can become toxic to a dog at high doses and can cause excessive thirst, urination, increase in appetite, weight gain, ataxia, and sometimes liver damage. Even while being in the therapeutic range, my dog wasn't controlled, suffering seven seizures in two days. It was obvious that even with everything I was doing for him, it still wasn't enough.

We heard of a vet in Indiana that has had excellent results in treating epilepsy with a permanent form of acupuncture using gold bead implants. I was skeptical; this was all so foreign to me. Nothing else was working and I didn't have anything to lose, so we made the nine hour trip to "go for the gold" in early November 1997. Dr. Durkes cautioned that this procedure does not work for all dogs. Some have become seizure free, and some dogs have been able to greatly reduce, or in some cases, withdraw completely from medications. Some dogs aren't helped at all. I, of course, was hoping for a cure. After all, "If it can work for other dogs, it can work for mine." We left Indiana, full of hope that this treatment would work for my dog, who was now shaved from head to tail and was literally "worth his weight in gold". By the end of the month, I knew that this treatment was also a failure for my spotted buddy.

Our next option was to try a compound drug called Potassium Bromide (KBr). I was hesitant to try this drug for fear of the many unpleasant side effects that often accompany it. For many dogs, it has been a lifesaver and seizures are better controlled with the use of it in conjunction with PB. Some dogs have nasty side effects and some don't, while some dogs do not gain better seizure control at all. With nothing else working to that point, I felt it was worth a shot. Once started, it takes at least four months for the KBr to become effective. It's a very long time to wait.

It took 8 months, several blood serum levels and two increases in the KBr before I started seeing some improvement. There were times when my dog would have as many as 4 or 5 Gran Mal seizures a day. Now he was having about eight seizures a month. This still isn't great seizure control, but it was certainly a step in the right direction! On the downside, with all this medication, my spotted friend was not the dog he used to be. He was very clumsy and would often stumble. My boy could fall over while scratching himself. He was like zombie and seemed to have a blank stare when I looked into his eyes. House training habits went haywire. I would walk him endlessly and he would just stumble around. Then, my dog (that never had an accident since he was a pup) would urinate in the house or his crate! He would wake up several times during the night and have to go out. This went on for a couple of weeks and I knew that it was more than just a matter of adjusting to the higher dose of medication. Our Dal was headed for Bromide Toxicity. I had to reduce some of his medications and risk an increase in seizure activity. I chose to reduce his PB, because that was the drug that helped him the least when it was used alone. Over then next few weeks I lowered his morning PB dose 15 mgs. at a time until I had reduced it by a total of 30 mgs. Since my dog is more likely to seizure at night, I kept his nighttime dosage the same. The PB reduction helped a great deal and it wasn't long before I could look into my friend's eyes and could see that they were bright and full of adoration again.

A few more months went by and my boy was holding his own. However, I began to notice that his coat was very thin and he started showing fear of people he didn't know. This was very strange for a former show dog that had never met a person he didn't like. I decided to have his thyroid function rechecked because seizures, coat problems and personality changes are all symptoms of low thyroid. My instincts were confirmed when he was diagnosed as Hypothyroid. Long-term use of AEDs (Anti Epileptic Drugs) can affect thyroid function and he had been on them now for a year and a half. The addition of Soloxine to regulate his thyroid was a turning point in my dog's life. Once his thyroid was back on track, his coat was beautiful again, his friendly personality was back and his seizures were dramatically reduced!!

I have now resigned myself to the fact that there is no cure for epilepsy. There are only varying degrees of control. Some dogs will gain better control than others. I didn't give up on my spotted friend because I always had hope that he could get better. I still have that hope. He will always have seizures and still has 1-4 seizures a month, if he's having a "good" month. While this is not considered good seizure control by most standards, it seems to be the best my dog can muster three years after the onset of this horrible affliction. His quality of life between seizures is excellent and he enjoys life to the fullest every day. Some days are just better than others.

Living with epilepsy is emotionally, financially, and physically draining. Constant tests for drug serum levels, liver and thyroid function, medications, etc. are very costly. I love my dog and will do all I can to keep him happy and give him the quality of life that he deserves. We will keep fighting this battle and hope he can have a long and healthy life. Epilepsy is an ever-growing problem in all dogs, purebred as well as mixed breeds. Primary Epilepsy is believed to be caused by a recessive gene from both parents and is reported to skip generations. The epileptic dog should NEVER be used for breeding. This can't always be avoided when the onset of epilepsy often occurs beyond the age of two when many dogs have already been bred. Parents of an epileptic dog should not be bred together again. Littermates of affected dogs should be spayed/neutered. As responsible breeders, please don't turn the dreams of your puppy customers into nightmares. It can happen to ANY dog of ANY breed, no matter how well bred or how well you take care of them. It's not a crime to have produced an epileptic dog, but it is a tragedy not to eliminate seizure-producing dogs from your breeding program.

There is exciting new DNA research now being done to try and identify the marker gene(s) for inherited canine epilepsy in Dalmatians. If you own or have bred a Dalmatian with seizures, your help is needed. Dr. Gary Johnson at the University of Missouri and Dr. George Brewer of VetGen are collecting DNA samples of affected dogs and any of their close family members. Please help them find and eliminate carriers of this heartbreaking disorder. Please contact VetGen at 1-800-4VETGEN or for your free DNA cheek swab kit. At least two affected family members are needed for this study. The U of MO study requires a blood sample of affected dogs and their family members. Contact Liz Hansen at 1-573-884-3712 or email for more information.

Elizabeth "Tibbie" Dell © 2000

Member of: The Dalmatian Club of America Study Group on Epilepsy and Seizure Disorders , member of the DCA Road Trial Committee and Epil-K9.



Page last update: 05/30/2011

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