DOGS CAN detect when someone with epilepsy is about to have a seizure, a new study suggests. It is thought that they may be alerted by signs that human beings would be unlikely to notice, such as pheromones from sweat.
Although the phenomena has been investigated previously and plenty of anecdotal evidence exists to show that dogs can detect the onset of an epileptic seizure, the study shows clearly that dogs are a valuable ‘tool’ in predicting the onset of such attacks.
The study, at Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary, Canada, reported in the medical journal Neurology, surveyed 238 families with an epileptic child. Of the 62 families that had a dog, 15 per cent said that their pet could tell when a seizure was imminent. Dr Adam Kirton, who ran the study, says that animals react before about 80 per cent of seizures, but injected a note of caution: "It is early days and people with epilepsy should not run out and buy a dog and expect it to help them with their seizures," he says.
About one person in 133 in the UK has epilepsy, a condition that leaves the patient prone to recurrent seizures that are often compared to "electrical storms" in the brain. These seizures are caused by an upset in brain chemistry that causes the electrical messages in the brain to become scrambled. Seizures usually last seconds, during which time sufferers can black out or experience unusual sensations or movements.
Professor Stephen Brown, a neuropsychiatrist at the Peninsula Medical School at the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, welcomes the research. "It confirms what we have already found in our own research," he says. "Dogs can be sensitive to human seizures and are useful therapeutically. For anyone with epilepsy it is vital to have a dog that is properly trained — not just their own pet. We have serious concerns about untrained dogs because our research shows that pet dogs can be adversely affected by witnessing seizures."
So how exactly do dogs recognise when a seizure is imminent? "All we know is that dogs are particularly sensitive to human behaviour," Brown says. "Some people believe it may have something to do with pheromones that may be emitted in sweat before a seizure. People with epilepsy show unique signs, such as twitching eyelids or dilated pupils. Specially trained ‘seizure-alert dogs’ watch constantly for these signs and warn their owners by barking, pawing or staring before an attack comes on, allowing them enough time to find a place of safety."
Val Strong, an animal behaviourist, runs Support Dogs UK, the only organisation in the world that trains seizure-alert dogs. "The dogs will give an accurate advance warning of an impending seizure of around 15 minutes," she explains. Each support dog goes through a minimum of 170 hours’ training, developing a close relationship with the epilepsy sufferer and learning to pick up on minute behavioural changes before a seizure. "These changes would go unnoticed by people," she adds. Each support dog costs £6,000 to train.
Prof. Brown believes that seizure-alert dogs make life better for people who have epilepsy. "In around two thirds of people with epilepsy there are no useful warning signs of an imminent seizure, so these dogs can really improve their quality of life," he says. "If you are scared of having a seizure in a public place, having a support dog can make you more confident and allow you to do more things."
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