Epilepsy

Seizure alert dogs: can they really sense seizures of their owners?

Virginia Thornley, M.D., Neurologist, Epileptologist

March 28, 2018

Introduction

Seizures are a result of recurrent electrical impulses in the brain causing repetitive symptoms pertaining to that area. At times, patients will not know when they occur.

Scientific studies

Seizure alert dogs are used to detect seizures that are undetectable to humans which may be either through olfactory senses or a change in the behavior. In one study, patients utilizing the seizure alert dog were studied. Seizure frequency was monitored for 48 weeks including a baseline of 12 weeks after entry into the study. With this mode, there has been a seizure reduction of about 43% compared to baseline. 9/10 patients had a 34% reduction in seizure frequency (1).

One study suggested that dogs have the innate sense of sensing their owners’ seizures. In 63 patients, 29 had pet dogs, 9 stated their dogs could sense their seizures (3).

In some studies of skeptical value, there is no proven benefit, although the presence of pseudoseizure may be a factor, meaning neurological symptoms that appear as seizures but are psychogenic in etiology may throw the seizure alert dogs off. Although some studies may indicate lack of benefit, mode of training may play an influence in the detection. The seizure alert dog likely takes cues from the heart rate or olfactory cues to detect seizures (2).

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Downsides to seizure alert dog services

Recipients of service dog must meet certain criteria. This service is usually not covered by medical insurance and patients may avail of this service through assistance programs for a minimal fee.

The service dogs themselves may suffer from stress related to the work required for service. In addition, most dogs train between 6 months and 2 years after which service may be of value for about 7 years. The patient must also forge a bond with their service animal. Becuase it is often not covered by insurance and it may be cost prohibitive, some patients have started training their own dogs for seizure detection. The different levels of training may not be standardized or adequate.

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References

  1. Strong, et al, “Effect of trained seizure alert dogs on the frequency of tonic-clonic seizures,” Seizure, 2002, Sep., 11(6):402-405.
  2. Brown, et al, “Can seizure-alert dogs predict seizures?” Epilepsy Res., 2011, Dec., 97(3):236-242.
  3. Dalziel, et al, “Seizure-alert dogs: a review and preliminary study,” Seizure, 2003, Mar., 12 (2):115-120.
  4. Strong, et al, “Seizure alert dog-fact or fiction?”Seizures, 1999, Feb., 8 (1):62-65.
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