Epilepsy in pets can be unpredictable, expensive

Medication usually helps, acupuncture can be tried

2/25/2013
BY TANYA IRWIN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jennifer Lambert and Ryan Bondy’s dog Simon, a 3-year-old Welsh corgi/fox terrier mix, has been diagnosed with epilepsy.
Jennifer Lambert and Ryan Bondy’s dog Simon, a 3-year-old Welsh corgi/fox terrier mix, has been diagnosed with epilepsy.

Being adopted by Ryan Bondy and his fiancee, Jennifer Lambert, is the best thing that ever could have happened to Simon, a Welsh corgi and fox terrier mix.

About six months ago, a week after they adopted him from a local rescue, the frisky dog tore a knee ligament.

While he was recovering from the surgery, he had his first seizure.

As it turns out, the 3-year-old dog has epilepsy.

“We didn’t notice any symptoms. He just had a seizure one evening,” said Mr. Bondy of Lambertville. “We thought it could have been due to the stress of the surgery, but he continued to have seizures every two weeks or so.”

Mr. Bondy also wondered if the medications given Simon after his surgery might have triggered the seizure.

“Certainly, there are meds in excessive doses or toxic substances around the home that can cause a seizure, but those would be a one-time, immediate ‘cause and effect,’” said Simon’s veterinarian, Dr. Earl Cornprobst at Heritage Animal Hospital in Dundee.

“When I saw Simon for his second post-op recheck about a month later, the owners reported another seizure. At that time, I made the diagnosis of epilepsy.”

Some veterinarians run blood profiles and some do not, depending on their own protocol, he said. A referral to a veterinary boarded neurologist may be discussed.

With Simon, there were no other symptoms of illness such as abnormal thirst or appetite, lack of exercise tolerance, or other neurological signs of behavior or physical motion. It was a typical seizure pattern.

“I say ‘typical,’ but the one thing I tell all epileptic-pet owners is that epilepsy is very unpredictable,” Dr. Cornprobst said.

“A pet may go several months without a seizure and then have two within 24 hours. Epilepsy is mostly influenced by a genetic predisposition to develop seizures. That means animals carrying a certain genetic inheritance may or may not develop epilepsy.”

Vets rarely see epilepsy in cats, which is fortunate because handling them can be difficult, Dr. Cornprobst said.

“When a cat has a seizure, they may not simply lay in one spot,” he said.

“They can leap into the air, clawing themselves and everything around them as well as crashing into walls and furniture. Dogs can sometimes have what is called ‘running seizures,’ where they will blindly run in all directions.”

To prevent Simon’s seizures, phenobarbital must be administered like clockwork every 12 hours, Mr. Bondy said.

Even with the medication, seizures can occur and it’s difficult to watch a pet go through an episode, he said. If Simon is in a repeat cycle of seizures, perhaps five or more within 24 hours, he gets a Diazepam (Valium) shot at the vet’s.

“We also have to be careful of activities and his surroundings, as at any time he could drop down and have a seizure,” Mr. Bondy said.

“The seizure typically lasts only a minute or so, but afterwards he is confused and scared. It can sometimes result in temporary blindness. If he doesn’t have any more seizures, it generally takes several hours for him to settle down and get back to normal.”

An epileptic seizure results from a massive, irregular pattern of brain impulses. Imaging studies in people will show waves of energy washing over the brain in random directions and of different intensities, Dr. Cornprobst said.


This occurs when a threshold of brain activity is crossed. In some dogs, that threshold can be crossed when they are asleep, perhaps initiated by a dream. Other dogs are somewhat predictable in their seizure activity, experiencing them when they get excited.

Seizures can vary in intensity as well as frequency, Dr. Cornprobst said.

There is the petit mal form in which they simply may be “in outer space” for a bit and perhaps stagger. The grand mal form includes muscle convulsions, salivating, urinating, defecating, and sometimes howling.

“Some clients say their dog can sense a seizure coming on because the dog will suddenly follow them closely around and whine a bit before the seizure happens,” he said.

About a month after Simon was placed on phenobarbital, he began having cluster seizures, with a second occurring within an hour of the first. His medication was increased.

Cluster seizures occur when the brain doesn’t really return to below the seizure threshold. The dog will apparently recover and start to walk around fairly normally but suddenly crash into another seizure.

Cluster seizures are one of the two reasons to seek emergency veterinary help, Dr. Cornprobst said.

“The other is a dog in a seizure lasting perhaps 20 minutes or more,” he said.

“Owners of epileptic dogs should have a family plan of what to do when their pet seizures. That plan would depend on the severity of the situation. One short seizure may not mean a trip to the veterinary emergency clinic.”

Along with phenobarbital, potassium bromide and zonisamide are used to treat epilepsy in dogs.

“The expense of meds used per month can vary from a few dollars to well over $100, depending on single or multiple meds, doses, and body size of the dog,” he said.

“Liver and kidney tests might be done by the veterinarian to monitor organ health during treatment. Therapeutic blood levels of the meds may also be measured. If Simon has further issues, then I will probably do some blood levels and adjust his phenobarbital or add another med.”

Mr. Bondy said Simon’s medication costs about $10 a month. Usually epileptics can live a normal life and they live as long as most other pets, Dr. Cornprobst said.

“However, every vet has had to euthanize at least one dog due to uncontrollable epilepsy,” he said. “It can be really complicated when a dog has separation anxiety or storm phobias on top of being epileptic.”

For dogs who don’t respond well to the medication or for whom the medication has stopped working, acupuncture sometimes helps.

Dr. James Leonard of Blissfield Veterinary Service has offered the therapy in addition to traditional veterinary medicine for 11 years. He recently got a laser to do needle-free acupuncture.

“The majority of seizure dogs go on some kind of medication, and most do pretty good on that,” he said. “But the acupuncture is another tool I can use when treating a case.”

One epileptic dog Dr. Leonard treated “was like a zombie, he was on so much medication,” he said.

The acupuncture stopped the seizures and allowed him to take less medication, at least initially. He was seizure-free for five months but then started having them again. So Dr. Leonard came up with a blend of drugs, including supplements and Chinese herbs, that relieved the seizures without compromising his quality of life.

Jean Keating of Sylvania has been treating her 2-year-old dog Donovan for seizures since he was about 12 weeks old. In July, 2012, the “pit bull” mix nearly died.

“He was on the table at West Suburban [Veterinary Hospital] for a good 45 minutes,” Ms. Keating said. “I have never seen so much Valium go into such a small body and yet still he seized. Fortunately, he pulled through.”

Ms. Keating then took Donovan to the neurologists at Dogwood Vet Hospital in Ann Arbor, where he had an MRI and spinal tap along with developmental testing.

“The final diagnosis was that Donovan was one of the happiest dogs they had ever met, but he was definitely a special case,” she said.

“There was nothing physically wrong with his brain, other than he didn’t have as much brain development as he should. The doctor concluded that either his mother had an illness during pregnancy or there was a problem during the birth. He was the canine version of developmentally delayed.”

Mr. Bondy and Ms. Keating have some advice for pet owners facing epilepsy.

“My biggest advice would be, learn to be understanding,” Mr. Bondy said.

“The animal can’t control the seizures and they don’t understand what is going on. It is emotional to watch a seizure take place but you have to remain calm, as being irrational can make the situation worse.”

Ms. Keating recommends that pet owners with epileptic animals take them to a neurologist.

She said talking with the neurologists helped her realize that we can’t predict the future or fully understand the workings of the brain.

“What we can do is simply do our best with the knowledge that we have and enjoy every minute we have with him,” she said.

“He is such a happy-go-lucky dog that absolutely loves people, dogs, and life itself. He has shared that life lesson with me.”

Contact Tanya Irwin at: tirwin@theblade.com or 419-724-6066.