Written by Danny Batten
3.5 million Americans suffer from epilepsy. One-third of those people live with seizures because treatments don’t provide the control they need. My case is mild as far as epilepsy is concerned: the cause is known, and after months of trial and error, I found a treatment that works. I am dutiful about following my treatment plan, but I know that my body’s response to it could change at any time. The life of a person with intractable epilepsy, a case that can not be controlled with available treatment, is much more difficult: they may find themselves dependent on others to get through daily life, or even to get through a night’s sleep.
I have long heard about dogs that can alert patients to a coming seizure or to respond to one after the fact, so I thought that in honor of November’s Epilepsy Awareness Month I should investigate a bit to see what they are all about. The experience of a seizure is different for all of us: some people have known triggers that we can avoid. Others can feel a seizure coming on before it actually begins and relocate to a safe space. Many, however, are surprised by seizures. After one, a person may be unconscious or severely disoriented. So I wonder, could a service dog help a person with severe epilepsy to live a safer and more active life?
In the case of seizure detection dogs, the Epilepsy Foundation cautions that much of the evidence has been anecdotal, inconsistent and lacked the rigor of large, controlled studies. Thankfully, there is continued research interest in this area. Journals such as Seizure, Neurology, and Epilepsy and Behavior have published small studies on this behavior in dogs. They are amazing creatures with tremendous talents, and these scientists have recognized the successes that some dogs have had in alerting patients prior to seizures. However, they have also pointed out that there is not yet enough evidence to widely recommend dogs as seizure detection tools.
The area of dogs being trained to respond and assist after a seizure is very interesting as this skillset aligns well with tasks other assistance dogs already perform. In case of a seizure, the priority is always protecting the patient to the during and after the event and then, for lengthy seizures or loss of consciousness, calling for help. Severe cases of epilepsy might require overnight monitoring, through regular bed checks by a loved one or complex electronic monitoring devices, but a can certainly be trained to respond to the physical manifestations of grand mal, or tonic-clonic, seizure to summon help, move a patient to a safe place, or help a patient stand after a fall. Additionally, the value of a dog’s companionship is always hailed as a benefit by those who live with seizure response dogs.
I have been fortunate to have always been at home or with loved ones when I have had seizures, but many are not so lucky. Many live dependent on others or forced to make significant lifestyle changes, so the question remains: could dogs help others to live a better life? The answers are still emerging, but service dogs may well have a role to play in helping those with severe epilepsy to live a bit more safely and independently. In the meantime, check out the Epilepsy Foundation’s flyer on basic seizure first aid and ask questions of doctors and dog trainers you know. With more interest and more cases to study, the scientists can continue to advance their research.