Coping With Seizures

by Kim Murphy

    One minute Shaman rested peacefully. The next, he rose from a nap and fell on his side, drooling all over with his legs twitching uncontrollably. The seizure only lasted a minute or two, but time stops when helplessly watching a beloved family member in the throes of a convulsion. In those two minutes, we entered a world of whispers--the topic of Belgians and epilepsy.

    My vet told me not to worry. After all, Shaman had only suffered one seizure. A week barely passed before the next seizure happened, and it set a pattern. Extensive blood testing ruled out most possible causes. The diagnosis was idiopathic epilepsy.

    By modifying Shaman's diet, the seizures vanished for nearly a month. I breathed in relief, but their absence was the calm before the storm. The seizures returned, growing in intensity and lengthening in duration. Phenobarbital was prescribed.

    With the medication and no seizures, Shaman seemed like a new dog. His confidence soared, but something was still amiss. Later in the week during obedience class, he growled and lunged at other dogs and people.

    After consulting with two veterinarians, I discovered his heightened aggression was a side effect of the phenobarbital. Although he required the medication for his seizures, he lost his inhibitions. Therefore, he had no brakes on his aggression. He had become a dangerous dog. The family made the painful decision to put him down.

    More than five years have gone by since writing similar words for Shaman's webpage and the BSCA newsletter. Plagued by doubt, I could not rest without answers to my questions. I have researched canine epilepsy and aggression in veterinary journals, including writing to experts in the field. In his particular case, I seriously believe the seizures and his aggression were related.

    People scoffed when I raised the topic, but from the moment we brought him home at eight weeks old, Shaman was different from most puppies his age. Suffering from paranoid fear, he failed to explore and show genuine curiosity. I shrugged off my concerns, attributing his peculiarity to his small size and not knowing the breed. Then at four months, he erupted like a volcano, snapping and snarling. I could no longer pretend that nothing was wrong.

    With his aggression treated as a behavioral problem rather than medical, Shaman learned to deal with everyday life through strict obedience training and an extensive desensitization program. Improvement came in baby steps. Curiously, he never fully accepted anyone outside the family. When meeting people for the first time, a blank stare often crossed his face followed by a growl or lunge.

    Shaman's coping behavior steadily improved only for it to sink back to earth, leaving me buried in disappointment. He would suffer serious set backs, which were jokingly called 'snits.' During these phases, he stopped eating and any attempt at training resulted in extreme aggression. He refused his morning ritual of playing with our Lab/mastiff mix, Isabella, and hid in his crate. Snits usually lasted for several days, then he would return to the world of the living, but training wise, I was often right back where we had started.

    Months after Shaman's death, I discovered this behavior was most likely the first stage of a seizure--the 'prodome.' In humans the prodome may precede an impending seizure by hours or even days, and it is characterized by mood changes, headaches, and insomnia. Ironically, to our knowledge Shaman wasn't experiencing tonic-clonic seizures (loss of consciousness and the twitching of limbs) at this time. But he possessed other behaviors that are suspect to seizure activity.

    Shaman also suffered from fly snapping (biting at imaginary flies) and hysterical running. Again, it was only after his death that I learned these behaviors were probably complex partial seizures (bizarre or complex behaviors repeated during a seizure). Even now, my mind can hear the click of his nails on the vinyl flooring, running back and forth for uncounted hours during the middle of the night.

    His first tonic-clonic seizure occurred when he was ten months old. All of the standard blood tests revealed that nothing was wrong. At that point, I should have pieced together the mysterious puzzle causing his behavioral problems, but specialists and dog trainers told me that seizure-related aggression was very rare. The experts doubted that Shaman suffered from it.

    For potential clues, I turned to his breeder. She claimed only one puppy had ever had a seizure episode. In that particular instance, it was blamed on eating a poinsettia plant. So I dismissed the possibility that it might run in his lines, and Shaman's tonic-clonic seizures mysteriously disappeared until that fateful day when he was thirty-two months old.

    Unconvinced with the diagnosis, I continued working with Shaman. Physically, he had always failed to gain weight. Though he ate a premium food, his coat remained thin and lacked gloss almost to the point of malnourishment. When stressed (which was a large portion of his waking hours), he circled neurotically. I was told this behavior was a herding thing. True, my other Belgians circle, but not in the psychotic manner Shaman did.

    He experienced shut downs, once to the point of catatonic. Though I had been warned about the dangers of using acepromazine, I was desperate and willing to try anything. Needless to say, the results were catastrophic. His aggression escalated uncontrollably--a behavior that I would witness again when attempting to control his seizures with phenobarbital. So when the tonic-clonic seizures returned, the family realized there was no recourse.

    Before the day arrived for the vet to release Shaman from his overwhelming fear and seizures, I wrote a plea to his breeder. In my letter, I recounted Shaman's life filled with fear as well as pointing out that his bloodline wasn't seizure free. And finally, I reminded her that Shaman did not stand alone with temperament problems in his immediate family.

    A full brother lived in the same fearful world. When I later spoke to his owner, I learned that she had never witnessed tonic-clonic seizures, but he had a peculiar behavior of attacking the phone when it rang. I'm convinced these episodes were complex partial seizures.

    After the house call vet helped me carry Shaman's lifeless body from the house, I mailed the letter to his breeder. About a week later, I received a response telling me about five puppies with aggression problems, two puppies that had experienced single seizure episodes (which included the dog I had found out about previously), and one puppy that had suffered seizures due to thyroid. She admitted to losing track of several other puppies, but all were from the same or a similar breeding to Shaman.

    As for my peace, I was unable to rest. I had uncovered information in the veterinary literature that linked seizures and behavioral problems, but the evidence was scant and understudied. The veterinarian who euthanized Shaman believed I was onto something and encouraged me to write to a researcher with his story.

    In December, a full ten months after Shaman's death, I received an email from Dr. Nicholas Dodman at Tufts University. He thanked me for my interesting letter, but tears filled my eyes when I read his note. He wrote, "I am sure you are right about [Shaman's] aggression being seizure-related." When I forwarded a copy of the email to his breeder, I was met with silence.

    Dr. Dodman's letter brought me the peace I had been seeking, but what about Shaman's?

    I recently spoke with a respected Belgian judge. He believes epilepsy is widespread in Belgians. There are some hot spots in some pedigrees, but considering the fact that pedigrees overlap in general, it's not surprising the disorder keeps popping up. He also went on to say that the genetics are complex. It is his belief that it's not just one disorder, and each type of seizure most likely has its own genetic background.

    Until the subject of seizures and epilepsy can be talked about in the open without individuals pointing fingers and becoming defensive, Shaman won't rest. A united community can deal with the problem and breed selectively if other breeders are aware which dogs suffer from seizures. The unknown is what we should fear.


  1. Dodman, Nicholas, B.V.M.S, M.R.C.V.S: Dog talk. Private email, December 1996.
  2. Wiersma-Aylward, Alicia: Epilepsy. Various publications and websites, 1995.

Coping With Seizures © 2001 by Kim Murphy