I like research. I’m a geek, I like to hunt for information, gather lots of facts and learn from other people’s experiences as well as my own. This way, I feel like I can build a better understanding of what is going on, but also be in a position to ask the vet better questions to ultimately help Harrison and manage this condition to the best of my abilities.
But you do need to be really careful what you read online and approach with skepticism. I remember the behaviourist at the Dogs Trust offering the same advice regarding training when we first brought Harrison home back in October 2015. She just explained to be wary of bad advice. Over the years research, theory and treatment can advance a lot, so what may have been standard a few years ago may not be the case any longer.
I think the veterinary professionals can be wary too when you ask questions about things you have read online which could be triggers, causes etc. Essentially every dog is different anyway, so in a way you need to just think of it as a blank slate and create your own records and experience log.
At the beginning, some of the things I read online were terrifying and made the whole situation even more daunting. I really feel for some of those I still read about who’s furry companions are suffering very regular seizures, even whilst heavily medicated.
I joined a couple of Facebook groups too, to seek advice and talk to others experiencing the same with their dog(s). There you get to see other group members painfully sharing final posts and leaving the group, as they’ve had to have their dog put to sleep. They always thank the group and state how helpful its been to be able to talk and discuss their situation with others going through the same. I would say its more for catharsis, like a kind of a group therapy than to really share tips or experience. Of course that happens as well, but I think ultimately you need to let the veterinary experts guide you correctly when it comes to your dog anyway.
I wanted to share some things I have learned that I wish I had known right at the start;
- I know this is so much easier said than done, but try to remain calm, although horrific to witness the seizures are generally not harmful. Try to protect their head to avoid them banging it on anything during convulsions and be prepared for them to eliminate during the seizure. They may urinate, defecate or release their anal gland, or all 3…! Believe it or not, the seizures do get easier to deal with, whether this is from being desensitised or you just better at coping and less shocked with it all I don’t know, but you wont feel like a cry baby about it forever – promise!
- Be wary of the mouth area, its rare for a dog to choke on its tongue so don’t worry about that as they may be inclined to bite even if this would be be very out of character, as they’re so afraid and disoriented. Seizures can take different forms from a tight, clenched mouth to a more jaw-snapping motion, so be careful.
- Seizure proof your home. Make the space as safe as possible. If your dog seizures he might be uncoordinated or blind afterwards during the “post-ictal” phase. Harrison fell down the stairs and banged his head on the wall one of the nights, so we head downstairs when we think its going to happen and shut the stair gate to avoid that happening again. You can use a soft play pen type setup for smaller dogs, which is great. We have learned that by confining the space he has to pace around he seems to come out of the wobbly/drunk phase much more quickly too.
- Overheating is a risk during seizures, especially if entering into a cluster of several seizures, or prolonged seizure duration. A cold, wet towel can be good to wrap around their paws, its generally not recommended to pour water on the dog or on their back. Best to focus on their feet to try and cool them down.
- Keep the lights off, or as dimmed as possible. Now we just tend to leave them off completely and maybe leave a lamp on in the bedroom upstairs, which creates just enough of a back light for us to see whats happening and keep an eye on him. Essentially you want to remove as much stimuli as possible, so turn off the TV or radio and leave your phone or tablet alone.
- Time the seizure duration and keep a log or diary of everything that happens to show your vet. I’m currently using a pet epilepsy tracker app recommended by our neurological veterinary consultant, which was created by RVC. It allows you to export the seizure log, which you can then easily email across to your vet.
- Use a calm, gentle and reassuring tone. We just stroke him gently and tell him he’s a good boy repeatedly. We hope our voices comfort him even when it seems he can’t really see us.
- Food & water – all dogs are different, but following a seizure Harrison is food obsessed, almost back to primal instinct survival mode – he simply cannot get enough food. Our vet advised this is not really a physical thing, he doesn’t necessarily need more food than his normal amount due to his epilepsy or medication, its more than likely behavioural. I have read that the equivalent of how they feel afterwards compares to how we would feel running a marathon. It certainly makes sense, as he is exhausted afterwards and sleeps in a very heavy, deep sleep for 8 hours or so. Once he has had a decent meal and plenty to drink he normally settles down and sleeps (this is following about an hour of post-ictal pacing and restlessness and not immediately after the seizure).
- Engaging the brain – we find that different motor skills start to kick in almost one by one, the first is his sense of smell. We throw bits food on the floor and he sniffs it out and eats it. Sometimes he might not be able to chew it and when he picks up the next piece the previous one falls out, but before long he starts to chew like normal and we know he is “coming back” to us. We find that sometimes engaging with him in this way and trying a basic sit command are good indicators of his rate of recovery. If he sits on command we know he is fully with it, even if his legs are still a bit wobbly. We don’t know if this brings him round any quicker or not, but maybe it helps.
- Exercise – we haven’t ever felt the need to take him for a walk following a seizure for the reasons mentioned above. He seems exhausted and his body has been through a lot, so he just sleeps it off. As generally his seizures are during the early morning hours, he skips his morning walk sleeps all day then usually enjoys his normal evening walk with all his doggy pals. The general advice seems to be that any dog with epilepsy should get plenty of physical and mental stimulation as this can help with managing their condition.
- Diagnosis by exclusion – there is no test to determine epilepsy so the vet will diagnose by excluding all other possible causes of a seizure such as parasitic infections, brain tumors, head trauma etc.
- Certain breeds are pre-disposed to epilepsy and the more recent veterinary literature and research leans towards classifying this as genetic epilepsy as opposed to idiopathic (i.e. unexplained). Our vet advised in certain breeds medication would start immediately after the first seizure (collies suffer particularly badly, with their recovery taking a lot longer too).
- Generally though for the majority of breeds, medication wouldn’t even be necessary unless seizures are occurring once a month at least.
- Don’t be frightened by the stories of the medication being harmful to their organs etc, most dogs can be safely medicated, have their seizures well controlled and their liver function regularly tested and live happy, full lives.
- Our neurological consultant advised the main objective with medication is to reduce seizure frequency by up to 50% and to ensure the seizures are as non-harmful as possible, i.e. avoiding clusters of several seizures if your dog is prone to clusters.