June 21, 2004 -- The family dog can often sense when a child has an impending epileptic seizure, a new study shows.
One dog may sit on a toddler before an attack. Another dog might push a young girl away from stairs just minutes before her seizure. Yet another dog wakes up in the night 20 minutes before a child's seizure.
It's a remarkable ability that may develop spontaneously in some dogs and has recently been documented in dogs living with epileptic adults -- but not in children, writes researcher Adam Kirton, MD, a pediatric neurologist with Alberta Children's Hospital at the University of Calgary in Alberta. His study appears in this week's issue of Neurology.
These seizure-alerting dogs may reduce frequency of epileptic seizures, improving the families' quality of life, he explains.
Kirton got his information from telephone interviews with 45 families, all having children with epilepsy, all ranging in age from 7 years old to 18 years old; 39% had dogs in the family for at least one year. The parents reported seizure-related behaviors regarding their family dog and their children.
- 42% of families reported seizure-specific reactions from their dogs.
- About 40% of these dogs showed these behaviors in anticipation of the seizure.
- Breeds with this ability included Golden Retriever, Standard Poodle, German Shepherd, Akita, Rough Collie, Rottweiler, Cairn Terrier, Great Pyrenees, and one mixed breed dog.
- Dogs acquired this ability after about one month with the family -- generally with the first seizure the dog witnessed.
- The typical response was licking the child's face, protecting the child, and whimpering; the dogs were never aggressive or harmed the child.
Also, the dogs were rarely wrong, Kirton reports. Sometimes the seizure alert behavior was just 10 seconds before the epileptic seizure; in other cases, the alert came up to five hours before.
One parent reported that her Sheltie-Spitz dog would "forcibly sit on her toddler and not allow her to stand prior to a drop attack," writes Kirton.
An Akita pushed a young girl away from the stairs just 15 minutes before a convulsion. One Golden Retriever could anticipate nighttime seizures up to 20 minutes before they occurred. One Rottweiler would lick a toddler's feet or forcibly position himself on either side of the child before a drop attack.
One Great Pyrenees would attach itself to a 3-year-old -- not eating, drinking, or being with anyone else -- during the hours before a generalized convulsion. The same dog would forcefully lie on the child's 8-year-old sister 10 minutes before she had a partial seizure.
Families with these sensitive animals had better quality of life than the other families did, he says.
Dogs may pick up on subtle early symptoms of epileptic seizures, writes Kirton. For dogs, developing such a skill offers a significant survival advantage, which is perpetuated through natural selection, he says. The skill gets reinforced when seizures occur repeatedly, he explains.
Kirton says new research is exploring the abilities of animals to sense human brain activity. Future efforts to validate these behaviors and establish training programs will help uncover the mechanism by which detection of seizures occur, this will also benefit those with epilepsy.