Epilepsy in dogs is harder on owners than we thought. Veterinarians can help.

Research into canine idiopathic epilepsy generally focuses on clinical aspects of seizure management. Far less attention is paid to what the owners of dogs afflicted with it go through.

A recent study from researchers at the Royal Veterinary College in London, England, aims to put that right.

The study explores the effects of owning a dog with idiopathic epilepsy on the owner’s quality of life and lifestyle. According to the findings, the impact can be profound.

Management of idiopathic epilepsy has typically focused on the use of antiseizure drugs to try to control the frequency and severity of seizures. “Despite potentially high monthly costs for epilepsy treatments and the emotional and time commitments of owners to management, these efforts are often not proportional to success,” the authors write.

Previous research has shown that caring for chronically ill animals can negatively affect their owners’ quality of life, and that trying to manage long-term conditions can be challenging and distressing for owners. But many pet owners choose to pursue advanced treatment options despite social and financial impacts and often place greater importance on their dog’s quality of life than their own.

The researchers did face-to-face interviews with 21 owners of dogs with idiopathic epilepsy to explore how their lives were changed following their dogs’ diagnosis.

The most common dog breeds owned by the study participants were Springer spaniels and mixed-breed dogs (three of each), followed by border collies (two). All but one of the dogs were being treated with prescription antiseizure drugs. Dogs with both generalized seizures and focal seizures were represented, and 14 had been referred for assessment by a neurologist or magnetic resonance imaging.

Participants reported that seizures were very distressing to witness; often, this was exacerbated by the unpredictable nature of the disease because there’s no way to know when and how often seizures might occur.

The researchers found that, following their dog’s initial seizure, all the interviewees recalled feeling distraught, fearful, or uncertain about their dog’s future and disease progression. Few of the participants had had prior experience with canine epilepsy, and most were shocked and upset by the onset of their dog’s seizures.

Some participants reported having trouble following strict daily medication schedules and difficulty finding help in caring for their dog. This, combined with a fear of leaving their dog unsupervised, led to increased use of the internet and online groups for peer support. Owners also reported that the people in their lives did not always understand the magnitude of the commitment required in caring for an epileptic dog.

Although many owners reported having a very emotionally close bond with their dog, they also conceded that owning a dog with epilepsy had a significant impact on their lifestyle. Those impacts affected not only their daily routines but, in some cases, their jobs. Additionally, they reported that the unpredictable timing of seizures negatively impacted their sleep and wellbeing. One owner reported feeling like they were living with “a ticking time bomb.”

The authors concluded that “the commitment required to care for a dog with idiopathic epilepsy, and the lifestyle changes made by their owners, may be far greater than previously estimated. Further consideration of these factors by veterinary professionals and the friends and families of owners of dogs with idiopathic epilepsy could improve owner quality of life and facilitate the provision of additional support.”

Rowena Packer, PhD, a lecturer in Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College, a coauthor on the study, said epilepsy can be an extremely tough condition for owners to manage: “The love, time, and money owners dedicate to their dogs is not necessarily matched by a significant improvement in their condition.”

“Improved awareness and understanding of these challenges by veterinary professionals have the potential to improve communication with clients, to avoid owners feeling that social media is the only place they can go to feel supported and understood,” Packer added.

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