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Living with Canine Epilepsy

By Shelley Haggerwoods

Living with Canine Epilepsy
The day Ollie had his very first seizure was the day our whole lives changed. Epilepsy was not something we had ever had any experiences with human or canine. We knew absolutely nothing about it. Period.

To be abruptly woken at 5.30am by your beloved dog thrashing against a radiator, his legs rigid, head pulling in the wrong direction, soaked in his own urine and screaming a haunting howl was one of those moments you know will stay with you forever, no matter how many days, months or years pass after. This was an event that was to change the way we led our lives forever.

A month after the first seizure, and our consequent vet visits where we were told to “wait and see”, it happened again and along came the realisation this was not going to be a one off.

Another visit to the vets and we found ourselves being told Ollie would need an MRI scan and Spinal Tap to rule out anything untoward going on neurologically. This was done 2 months later showing quite simply there wasn’t any underlying cause. He was diagnosed with ‘Idiopathic Epilepsy’, or for want of an easier explanation, seizures born unto no known cause.

So that was that. We had an epileptic dog that, in the wait up until the day at the Animal Health Trust hospital for his MRI, had had a total of 42 seizures. We were flung quite quickly into the world of an epileptic dog, a world to us of the unknown. We knew very little about the disease up to this point, relying purely on the advice of our vet.

In all sense and purpose living with Ollie was like living with a ticking time-bomb. How could we deal with this? How could Ollie deal with this? Could he deal with it full stop? The pure emotion and longing for answers were unanswered by anything other than someone saying he had epilepsy. Sadly, many vets themselves agree they know little about this disease, but would always agree it was one of the worst things for a dog owner to witness.

Nobody, no matter how heartless or unloving of animals, could not be moved witnessing a dog in ‘grand mal’ seizure. The sheer helplessness you feel not being able to do anything other than whisper their name and assure them that you are there is about as much help as you can offer, regardless of how much you wish you could. That said, many different suggestions remain.

Some people say adding an ice-pack to the lower back can alleviate cluster seizures, others use acupuncture, there are many possible recommendations circulating, most tried by us, none of which sadly made any difference to Ollie’s seizure pattern. With Ollie a seizure worked through the motions until it was through. Mostly in his case there was never just one, and we had to initiate using rectal valium to stop more seizures being triggered.

This in itself had a bad effect on Ollie by causing insomnia and separation anxieties to name but a few.

As you can gather so far, epilepsy as it stands is a complicated disease, sometimes helped or worsened by the medication used to treat it.

Hopefully if you and your dog are lucky, one seizure is all that you would see at anyone time. Unfortunately many dogs, Ollie included, suffered from ‘cluster’ seizures, where one seizure is often and most certainly followed, by another, and another. Control is everything with epilepsy, and if you don’t have that with your dog, things can become very traumatic for everyone concerned.

To give an example of control, we have had times where we have seen 30 seizures in 3 or 4 days, and other times where control has been good and seizures have been only one seizure, months apart. Sometimes one per month would be sadly considered excellent control for an otherwise severe seizure dog.

Medicines and a calm routine home atmosphere all play a huge part in the life of a dog with epilepsy.

The degree of changeability to your own home life depends really upon the degree of seizures and the sensitivity of your dog to his surroundings. Each dog’s case is different, but on the whole we all found from other people’s experiences that unsettling behaviour of any kind lead to seizures.

I truly believe epilepsy is a disease where no two dogs are usually the same. Some dogs can gain excellent control through very minimal medication, and others, like Ollie, are constantly evolving in their needs and, due to their lack of control, new medicines (often human grade epilepsy medicine which come at great cost) are added or changed to compensate.

Through the life of Ollie’s epilepsy, our working and home life changed to fit around him. We could no longer spray air-freshener around the home, light candles, use spray cleaners, change his diet, give him treats without thinking about what ‘nasties’ they contained, nor could we leave him for more than a couple of hours every day at the very maximum. Most of the time we would have to arrange to have someone in the house at all times to ensure he was never left alone.

If we did create an unbalance within the home, maybe at Christmas or having friends visit (something most people consider utterly normal) the unsettled routine and atmosphere usually ended in a seizure for Ollie. In the end we tried as hard as we could not to ‘upset the applecart’, and holidays and visits were few and far between for Ollie’s sake and ours. As ridiculous as it may well sound, we changed our lives to fit in around Ollie’s needs. If we hadn’t we would usually deal with the consequences.

I have always found, having spoken to many people about Ollie’s epilepsy, that people who have do not have dogs that have suffered from epilepsy really do not realise that the seizure is just one part of the disease. They believe that once the dogs seizure is over, that’s it.

Not so… for many dogs, it is just the first part of a serious of events, of which the after seizure, or ‘post-ictal’, phase is the worst, and probably more distressing on the owner and the dog.

During this phase of post seizure activity, the dog becomes extremely disorientated, can become aggressive (thankfully not so in Ollie’s case), temporarily blind, unable to walk and can pace in circles or ‘relays’ for hours. I, for one, have to say this is the phase which upset me most. Ollie was so seemingly helpless and no matter how I reached out to help him, he had to deal with this phase in his own way, each and every time.

There is not much that can help a dog if he suffers badly with the post-ictal phase, just as Ollie unfortunately did. We tried all of the remedies, ice-cream, head massages, you name it, and where some dogs are helped greatly Ollie was not helped by anything.

Ollie would have a seizure at 3am, and we would then have to deal with the post-ictal. For the most part he would want to wander helplessly, aimlessly, stumbling and knocking into everything he came upon on his path. As he tried to keep his body going, and usually he would have only partial vision for up to an hour or more, our job would be to try to stop him from walking into corners of furniture, doors, anything that was in his way that he could hurt himself on.

It was heartbreaking not being able to offer any consolation during this time of readjustment to their own body. To see them getting stuck in corners and crying with frustration as they couldn’t work out how to get out of them would be usual behaviour; but, as many times as we witnessed it, it never became any easier to watch. That was the hardest part.

After a period of time that is usual for the individual dog, and in Ollie’s case this could be anything from 1hr through to 3 hrs, the sheer exhaustion of pacing constantly would take it’s toll, and finally if you were lucky enough the dog would sleep of their own accord. Sadly for us, often with Ollie we would have to physically lay him down to enable him to sleep and recover.

It’s been said that each and every seizure would be the equivalent to us running the London Marathon. I had this in my mind every time Ollie would have multiple seizures, and wondered how he still had the energy to pace for 3 hours afterwards. His body was amazingly resilient, as are most dogs suffering with epilepsy, he found something more from deep within to allow him to recover.

Where I would be half asleep trying to administer rectal valium, tired, and weary with emotion, Ollie would be pacing the garden for the second hour post seizure.

A friend of mine, who I met through both our dogs having epilepsy, summed up so very well how you sometimes felt in the depths of coping with a late night of seizures with your dog. She said how sometimes she would find herself leaning against the back door, her face against the glass, eyes still shut waiting desperately for her dog to pace round her garden long enough to be tired out to sleep. She said the next morning she would always find her face imprinted in the window of the glass door, a kind of blueprint of what went on the night before. A reminder that last night was tiring, emotional and upsetting, but tomorrow is always another day.

I know what she means all too well, and that living with a dog that has seizures, and remembering here that seizures have no pattern about what time they take place consequently you may well find yourself wandering (as we have done many, many times) in snow, sleet and rain at 3 or 5am in the morning, trying to herd your dog by cradling it’s belly as it’s totally unable to see or stand too well on it’s own. It’s a difficult time for all concerned, but you carry on because you hope that things will be better tomorrow.

That said, it’s just how you get through the bad days. You trust that tomorrow things will be better for all concerned. Life goes on, and so long as your dog has good quality of life in between the seizures, his life goes on with and around you.

In conclusion, I suppose from the above I have painted a pretty poor quality of life for us, and for Ollie.

The reality is actually far from the truth. My husband and I coped and lived quite happily alongside Ollie’s disease, and overcame and dealt with the blows it sent our way, dealing with the difficulties which arose from it as and when they came.

The learning curve for us as his owners was gigantic. We learned so much over the space of those 3 years. Some good advice, coupled with some bad, allowed us to make calculated decisions for Ollie and to make his life more comfortable as a result. Knowledge is power they say, and never a truer word spoken.

I guess what I am trying to express to people here, to those who want to know about how life is living with epilepsy in a dog, is that life with the dog you love is very different to a normal dog/owner relationship. The bond between you is concrete. It’s so very special. It has to be to be able to cope. You find you need to be around them for your own comfort, and knowing as much as they need to be around you for the very same.

With Ollie we got back so much love and attention during his illness. Somehow his loving nature was telling us that he was grateful for what we had sacrificed for him, albeit in his own canine way. A little lick after he came round from a seizure made everything we gave up for him utterly worthwhile.

On the days where he was happily not suffering, he was an absolute joy to have around. He was like any other normal, happy, healthy dog. The epilepsy was on the inside. On the outside he was just our “Ollie”. He enjoyed walks, cuddles, home-made treats and loved and gave back attention and kisses to everyone.

He was a very special dog who managed to envelop himself into many people’s lives. He touched the hearts of many non ‘doggie’ people too.

Yes he suffered in-securities, but on those good days, of which usually well out-weighed the bad, thankfully he was just ‘Ollie’ to us. We loved him dearly, and in return he loved us.

We did everything possible to make his life (and in return ours) a happy, full one, and I can happily say that although he died young at just 5 years old (from status epilepticus – where seizures go on at length without gaining any real consciousness) he lived a happy and contented life with and not for his epilepsy.

He and I both knew where we stood with each other, we were perfectly in tune with one another at all times, and as a result gained some good control of the whole epilepsy situation and its limitations and expectations.

His need of me made him a wonderful dog to be around, we understood one another and had a bond that I will find very difficult to find in another dog.

Ollie taught me that living with a dog with epilepsy was not the end of the world; it just changed how you lived it.
© Copyright: Living with Canine Epilepsy was published by The Dog Scene on 07 Aug, 2007. © All rights reserved. You may download and print this article for personal or non-profit use only. Please feel free to link to this article.
Submitted: 07 Aug, 2007 (Edited 06 Dec, 2007)
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