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'Seizure-Alert' Dogs Protect Children With Epilepsy

6/21/2004      

MONDAY, June 21 (HealthDayNews) -- Proving again that they're man's best friend, many dogs apparently have the ability to alert families minutes or even hours in advance of a child's oncoming epileptic seizure.

What's more, a new study finds, many parents report "protective" action on the part of their pet, such as gently sitting on toddlers to prevent them from falling during an attack.

Families related "remarkable stories" of some canines' uncanny ability to predict an attack and protect children from harm, said study lead author Dr. Adam Kirton, a pediatric neurologist at Alberta Children's Hospital, in Calgary, Canada.

Presenting their findings in the June issue of Neurology, Kirton and his colleagues told of incidents gleaned from interviews with 122 dog-owning families of children with epilepsy. Among their stories:

  • A Sheltie-Spitz cross was consistently able to predict an oncoming seizure in a toddler and would sit on the child to prevent her from standing just before an attack.
  • Fifteen minutes prior to an epileptic attack in a young girl, an Akita would forcibly push the child away from stairs to prevent her from falling.
  • Sensing an attack later in the day, a Great Pyrenees would follow a 3-year-old throughout the house in the hours before a convulsion, without pausing for food or drink. The same dog would also forcibly sit on the girl's 8-year-old sister -- also an epileptic -- minutes before she had a type of seizure that involved confused wandering.

All in all, 40 percent of the dogs in the families interviewed displayed specific reactions to a seizure, and about 15 percent of them appeared able to anticipate an oncoming seizure, the researchers report.

The average time between a dog showing signs of pre-seizure behaviors -- activities such as face-licking, protective maneuvers or whimpering -- and the seizure itself was 2.5 minutes, although some dogs displayed such behavior hours before an attack.

Female dogs were much more likely than males to be seizure-sensitive, making up 80 percent of the pets capable of sensing an attack in advance.

Almost four out of five of the seizure-alerting canines were from larger breeds -- dogs like German Shepherds, Retrievers, Rottweilers and Standard Poodles.

Dr. Douglas Nordli, who directs the Epilepsy Center at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said he has "heard this from family members" over the years, but has never had the opportunity to investigate the phenomenon in any scientific way.

"It could be that the dogs are cueing on some type of change in the behavior of the child," Nordli said.

While a dog's keen sense of smell could pick up on subtle scent changes in the child, "it's more likely that it's something that they are seeing," he added.

Nordli pointed out that many parents, especially mothers, have told him that they, too, can sense when their child is about to have an epileptic seizure.

"In some cases, it's through changes in the facial expression, or coloring," he said, "or sometimes the child's personality just seems 'off.' "

In some cases, parents said they could prevent an oncoming seizure by diverting the child's attention.

Among the dogs studied, the most common behavior exhibited by the seizure-sensitive ones was a sustained licking of the child's face or body -- one Golden Retriever would lick a toddler's feet during "absence" seizures, which are characterized by a mental detachment, the study found.

Although there's no proof to the theory, it's possible that this could be a "conditioned response by the dog to shorten or abort a seizure," the Alberta researchers wrote in their report.

Still, Kirton stressed that the findings are "preliminary," and his group was in no way advocating that parents of children with epilepsy get a dog to protect their child from harm.

"Our recommendation at this point is that people with epilepsy get a dog for the same reasons that anyone else would," he said. "Further studies are needed to see if dogs can be trained to detect seizures."

That research may soon be under way. According to Nordli, the best evidence that dogs can sense seizures would come from studies in which scientists examined dogs' reactions to epileptic individuals hooked up to an electroencephalograph (EEG).

"We're thinking about doing that," Kirton said.

More information

Learn more about epilepsy at the Epilepsy Foundation.

SOURCES: Adam Kirton, M.D., chief resident, pediatric neurology, Alberta Children's Hospital, Calgary, Canada; Douglas Nordli, M.D., Lorna S. and James P. Langdon chair in pediatric epilepsy, and director, Epilepsy Center, Children's Memorial Hospital, Chicago; June 2004 Neurology

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