Family dogs may be able to predict epilepsy seizures in their owners up to an hour before they happen, according to the early indications of a new study.
The research, by Queen’s University-based Neil Powell, found that dogs react to all seizure types, but particularly 'absence' or 'petit mal' seizures, which cause the patient to blank out or stare into space for a few seconds.
Mr Powell, originally from Cobh, Co. Cork, said early indications of his PhD research are that the dogs are reacting to scent.
Dogs were exposed to different odors in a laboratory setting and the scent they reacted to was the odor associated with a seizure, derived from a sweat sample.
Mr Powell, who introduced the Search and Rescue Dog Association to Ireland in the late 1970s, said they conducted an international survey, with epilepsy organisations in different countries sending out questionnaires to members. A statistical analysis of the responses found that of a sample size of approximately 200 dogs, 52% anticipated the seizure in their owner — in some cases up to an hour in advance.
“There were different types of behaviour, from pawing to barking or following their owner everywhere, to staring at them intently and remaining with them during the seizure. A lot of them licked their owners’ faces quite a lot,” Mr Powell said. Mr Powell said gun dogs and terriers featured strongly in the reactive group, but this may have been because more people own these types of dog.
He said the finding that they appeared to react in particular to absence seizures may have been because the owner was more alert than if they had suffered a grand mal seizure, which causes loss of consciousness.
Mr Power said “early indications to me are that they are reacting to scent but further research in this regard is obviously required”.
However, I’m hopeful that if we pinpoint exactly what the dog is reacting to, we could be seeing the use of seizure dogs in the future – which would be of great benefit to people with epilepsy and their families.
Mr Powell presented his research at Epilepsy Ireland’s National Conference in Cork. Epilepsy Ireland national information officer, Geraldine Dunne, said any research that indicates a breakthrough in seizure prediction is a positive: “Often, one of the biggest fears for person’s with epilepsy is not knowing when seizures might take hold. Any research that indicates a breakthrough in seizure prediction is to be warmly welcomed."
Mr Powell said in the long term, they are hoping to find a way of training dogs to provide reliable warnings to their owners about pending seizures, and ultimately, to design an electronic device that would give the same type of warning.