By Tinna Brown
Without a doubt, the number-one health concern for dog owners over the past several years has been epilepsy. Epilepsy is a chronic neurological disorder characterized by recurrent unprovoked seizures (source: Wikipedia.com). Several large research foundations have been joined by rescue organizations and breed clubs, both nationally and internationally, in hopes of eradicating epilepsy. With millions of dollars dedicated toward research, there is hope that a DNA test to detect the genetic mutations responsible for epilepsy can be developed. These tests can then be used by responsible dog breeders in their programs. Subsequently, an informed breeder can make educated choices to avoid producing puppies destined to develop epilepsy. In the meantime, those of us who are coping with epilepsy require mounds of dedication, patience, and stamina. Enduring this disease in everyday life is one challenge. Competing in a performance sport like agility with a dog with epilepsy adds many additional challenges.
For those of you who have not witnessed a seizure, I hope that you will never watch your best friend suffer from one. It is a heart-wrenching sight. The only thing you can do during this horrible event is remain calm and immediately consult a veterinarian or neurologist.
While working closely with your veterinarian and/or neurologist, the main goal is to help your dog maintain a high quality of life while controlling the seizures with antiepileptic medication. This is not an easy process since every case of epilepsy is different and some antiepileptic medications work for some dogs and not others. This disease is also financially debilitating, requiring MRIs, constant blood-serum level checks, thyroid and liver monitoring, and many emergency veterinary clinic trips. To date, I personally have spent over $25,000 on Frazzle to control his seizures.
One challenge we face is managing multiple antiepileptic drug side effects. One major side effect that affects dogs competing with epilepsy is ataxia. Ataxia is the loss of ability to coordinate muscular movement (source: www.canine-epilepsy.com). This usually occurs after an antiepileptic medication is introduced or modified. Dogs often appear slightly sedated and have difficulty walking. For a high-drive performance dog, this stage is extremely difficult to manage since they don’t understand why they cannot train, run, or play, especially at top speed. Furthermore, the lack of stability increases the likelihood of iliopsoas tears, groin pulls, and other injuries. It may take several days to months for the dog to adjust to the antiepileptic medication as well as reach therapeutic levels to maintain seizure control. After the ataxia phase is over, owners must exercise a tremendous amount of patience while introducing activity safely and slowly.
Marianne Uppal and Cody, a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever (seen in the photo at top of the page), battled ataxia for three weeks. Marianne helped Cody strengthen his rear leg muscles with sit-up exercises, and steep hill and ladder work. My BC, Frazzle (pictured in the intro photo), has been continually working on the FitPAWS Balance Discs and ankle weights to increase his rear leg muscle strength. Other possible side effects are increased appetite, urination, and thirst.
To be prepared, many owners of epileptic dogs have created a seizure first-aid kit with items like Rescue Remedy, ice packs, towels, syringes, valium (for cluster seizures), and so on. We also have a detailed seizure history diary with medication and veterinarian information with us at all times.
An additional hurdle we encounter is remaining calm, focused, and relaxed. We never know exactly when a seizure will rear its ugly head. For me, this is the most difficult challenge. Since Frazzle was eight weeks old, he was training to compete in agility and herding, as well as learning to swim, run, and play just like all other performance dogs. Now, competing with him is nerve-racking, but I cannot see diminishing his quality of life because of a disease I cannot control. Janine Tash, a DVM in Gainesville, Florida, competes with her BC Zip because he loves it. Although there are some days when Zip drops bars and has trouble weaving, Janine still wants him to have fun!
We have all adapted to whatever future epilepsy allows us—whether it is safely competing or just playing in the yard. An epilepsy diagnosis is not a death sentence; it just adds more challenges for us to overcome. For more information on canine epilepsy, visit www.canine-epilepsy.com.
Tinna Brown lives in New Jersey with her four dogs: MACH4 ADCH Bronze Calabria; ADCH Frazzle MX MXJ TM-S; Stomp OA AXJ MAD; Tirade AX AXJ XF. Currently, Tinna and “Friends of Frazzle” are busy raising funds for canine epilepsy research and collecting blood samples to “Seize the Gene.”