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Dogs Respond to Non-Epileptic Seizures

Dogs may respond to seizures -- but only those caused by psychological reasons rather than epilepsy, according to new research.
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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Jan. 22, 2007 -- Dogs may sense and respond to seizures -- but those caused by psychological reasons rather than epilepsy, according to new research.

Although widely reported, researchers say cases of dogs predicting their owner’s epileptic seizures have not been scientifically confirmed.

Now, two small studies suggest service dogs trained to help their owners deal with epileptic seizures may play a role in predicting -- or perhaps even triggering -- psychological seizures.

In the studies, researchers monitored the brain activity of seven people with seizure response dogs and found that, in four cases, the dogs were responding to seizures caused by psychological reasons rather than epilepsy.

In another case, a dog’s warning behavior may have played a role in triggering psychological seizures in its owners, a husband and wife.

"This is important because the treatment is very different for a person with epilepsy and one with psychological seizures, which stem from emotional difficulties," says researcher Gregory L. Krauss, MD, of Johns Hopkins University, in a news release.

"Epilepsy drugs are not effective for psychological seizures, and they often have side effects," he says.

"And with proper treatment and counseling, psychological seizures can often be eliminated," Krauss says.

People with psychological seizures need psychological evaluation and appropriate treatment, he says.

Seizure-Sensing Service Dogs?

In the first report, published in Neurology, researchers found four of the six people with seizure response dogs had no evidence of a neurological basis for their seizures. These patients were diagnosed with psychogenic nonepileptic seizures (PNES).  

Krauss says it’s possible people with psychological seizures seek out service animals for support.

"Seizure response dogs can help people during seizures, and stay by them when they are unconscious, and provide companionship that aids them in dealing with a chronic disorder," says Krauss.

Seizure Trigger?

In another report, published in the same journal, researchers described a case in which a dog's seizure-warning behavior for a husband and wife was related to their psychological seizures.

"If dogs can predict psychological seizures, could the seizures be a conditioned response to stereotypical dog behaviors?” asks researcher Michael Doherty, MD, of the Swedish Epilepsy Center in Seattle, Washington, in the release.

“Does having a seizure-alert dog lead people to have psychological seizures more or less often?" he asks.

And, "Given the cost of training seizure-alert dogs, should people requesting one be screened for psychological seizures?" Doherty continues.

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