UF Researchers Investigate Phenomenon Of Seizure-Alert Dogs

December 10, 1997

GAINESVILLE -- Determined to separate fact from fiction, University of Florida researchers are attempting to document the existence of seizure-alert dogs -- animals that purportedly can detect seizures about to strike their owners and warn them of the coming trouble.

Even a few minutes' advance notice could allow the stricken person to find a safe environment prior to the seizure's onset, take seizure-blocking medication or contact a care-giver or emergency medical help.

"A number of reports in the popular press, electronic media and dog-related publications assert that some dogs have this ability," said Roger Reep, associate professor of physiological sciences at UF's College of Veterinary Medicine. "If these phenomena are real and occur reliably, this offers great hope to people who experience seizures.

"Furthermore, similar to guide dogs who serve as constant companions to visually-impaired people, early-alert dogs could allow people who are presently homebound the potential to expand their ability to care for themselves, and in some cases, to obtain employment," Reep said.

Working with a $31,000 grant from the Able Trust, a private, Tallahassee-based foundation that helps people with disabilities find employment, Reep and his colleagues, Paul Davenport, also an associate professor of physiological sciences, canine information specialist/trainer Deb Dalziel and neurologist Basim Uthman will study not just anecdotal evidence from people who say they have such dogs, but also the groups that claim to be able to train them.

A person with recurring seizures is said to have epilepsy -- a generic term used to define a variety of seizure disorders, according to information provided by The Epilepsy Foundation of America. About 25 million, or one in 10, Americans have had, or will have, a seizure at some point in their lives.

In the project's first phase, researchers will give 300 questionnaires to patients and former patients of the Epilepsy Clinic at Shands hospital at UF and at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

"We are trying to determine if these people have companion animals, and specifically if they have dogs that seem to be alerting them to an oncoming seizure," Reep said. "Our preliminary findings suggest that dogs respond in a variety of ways -- barking, nudging, vocalizing, licking, etc. -- before, during and after a seizure."

Previous VA research has shown that certain events occur in the brain prior to a seizure, Uthman said.

"These events are demonstrated by complex mathematical analyses but are not readily apparent to the patient, a neurologist or the patient's family," he said. "It's possible, however, that these changes in the brain might be sensed by a dog."

It has also been suggested that epileptic patients may emit certain odors just before a seizure, Uthman added.

"A dog has a sense of smell much more powerful than humans," Uthman said. "You and I might not smell a change, but a dog could."

In the study's second phase, the focus shifts to organizations that work with seizure-alert/seizure-response dogs.

"Some of these places make more aggressive claims than others," Reep said. "Different organizations have varying degrees of success." Researchers want to know what dog trainers have to say about the reliability of training dogs to "detect and alert." Among the questions team members hope to answer are whether the ability to detect seizures, if some dogs do have it, is a spontaneous reaction or a trainable behavior.

Eventually, the team hopes to bring dogs into the clinical setting where patients can be physiologically monitored, to determine the cues to which dogs may be alerting.

"This study represents UF's first scientific approach to determining if these dogs do exist, and if so, whether it would be possible to selectively breed for these traits," said Charles Courtney, associate dean for research and graduate studies at the UF veterinary college.

"After we reviewed (Reep's) proposal, we felt this was a great opportunity to study in more detail how these dogs act with patients who have epileptic seizures," said Kristen Encizo, Able Trust spokeswoman, who added that the trust's primary goal is finding jobs for disabled peoples.

"If you are able to alert people to when seizures are going to occur, you have more control in the workplace," Encizo said. "Lots of times, there's that stigma, 'I can't hire this person, because what if they have a seizure?' But if they have a dog that can alert them, that would put that fear to rest."


University of Florida

Related Epilepsy Articles from Brightsurf:

Focal epilepsy often overlooked
Having subtler symptoms, a form of epilepsy that affects only one part of the brain often goes undiagnosed long enough to cause unexpected seizures that contribute to car crashes, a new study finds.

Antibodies in the brain trigger epilepsy
Certain forms of epilepsy are accompanied by inflammation of important brain regions.

Breaching the brain's defense causes epilepsy
Epileptic seizures can happen to anyone. But how do they occur and what initiates such a rapid response?

Using connectomics to understand epilepsy
Abnormalities in structural brain networks and how brain regions communicate may underlie a variety of disorders, including epilepsy, which is one focus of a two-part Special Issue on the Brain Connectome in Brain Connectivity, a peer-reviewed journal from Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers.

Epilepsy: Triangular relationship in the brain
When an epileptic seizure occurs in the brain, the nerve cells lose their usual pattern and fire in a very fast rhythm.

How concussions may lead to epilepsy
Researchers have identified a cellular response to repeated concussions that may contribute to seizures in mice like those observed following traumatic brain injury in humans.

Understanding epilepsy in pediatric tumors
A KAIST research team led by Professor Jeong Ho Lee of the Graduate School of Medical Science and Engineering has recently identified a neuronal BRAF somatic mutation that causes intrinsic epileptogenicity in pediatric brain tumors.

Can medical marijuana help treat intractable epilepsy?
A new British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology review examines the potential of medicinal cannabis -- or medical marijuana -- for helping patients with intractable epilepsy, in which seizures fail to come under control with standard anticonvulsant treatment.

Fertility rates no different for women with epilepsy
'Myth-busting' study among women with no history of infertility finds that those with epilepsy are just as likely to become pregnant as those without.

Do women with epilepsy have similar likelihood of pregnancy?
Women with epilepsy without a history of infertility or related disorders who wanted to become pregnant were about as likely as their peers without epilepsy to become pregnant.

Read More: Epilepsy News and Epilepsy Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.