Sunday, January 20, 2013

Living with an Epileptic Dog

Recently I had a long discussion with a girl who found a homeless dog and took it in. The dog was having seizures and she was concerned about leaving her alone for long periods of time, and I wanted to give her what information I could, as one of our pups - Rigby - has epilepsy.

This conversation led to my realizing that I'd never posted anything detailed about Rigby's epilepsy, or about living with an epileptic dog. There are forums and articles out there about this, but the one thing I would have loved to read when we first brought him home was a story about what it's like to live with an epileptic pet...and so it's clearly past time that I tell mine - and Rigby's - story.

We adopted Rigby in February 2010. He was an owner surrender at Greenville County Animal Care Services - which meant that he was immediately on their put to sleep list. Now, Rigby's a darn cute dog, so there's a chance that if we hadn't come along and given him a home, a rescue group or person who fosters dogs off the PTS list would have saved him...but generally I prefer not to think about all of that, for obvious reasons. He appeared on the urgent rescue list, we went to meet him, we agreed to adopt him.

Unfortunately, at the time GCACS was having an outbreak of canine cough in their facility, so we couldn't bring him home right away...and right about the time he was healthy and they were ready to neuter him (God only knows why, at about five years old, he hadn't been neutered yet), Rigby had a seizure. This of course led to the concern that he possibly wasn't healthy enough to go through the neutering procedure.

We'll never know if Rigby was always epileptic, or if it was adult onset epilepsy (possibly brought on by the stress of being abandoned by his owners and then stuck at GCACS for weeks). When the vet tested him, there was no epilepsy medication in his system, but maybe he was never on it. Or maybe it had simply been long enough since he'd had it that it wouldn't have shown up. Regardless, GCACS decided to keep him a little longer in hopes of him not seizing so that they could neuter him.

And then he had another seizure. At this point they asked us to take him home - despite the fact that he still wasn't fixed - and bring him to our own vet. We did so, and our vet gave him a blood test to check his levels and put him on phenobarbital. What followed were several months of monitoring and tweaking of medication dosages...and several horrific seizures...though thankfully at one point the vet agreed that there had been enough of a break in these seizures for Rigby to get fixed.

Unfortunately when Rigby has seizures, they are of the Grand Mal version - the really, really bad ones. His limbs go rigid. If he is standing he falls over (or in one case, he actually flipped over backwards). His entire body jerks and thrashes and trembles. He foams at the mouth. And he urinates involuntarily. During the month or so that it took us to regulate his medication and get him to the proper dosage, he had 5 of these Grand Mal seizures.

It doesn't seem like much, I know - it's not as if he was having one every single day, though I've heard of cases like that - but trust me, it's a terrible and distressing thing to experience, both for the animal and for the owner. It is, so they say, not for the faint of heart.

Now, as I mentioned, it took us about a month to get Rigby's medication dosage straightened out. Thankfully, once we did there was a nearly-immediate drop in the frequency of his seizures. Throughout the next four months, he only had two of them, and so far as I know he's not had any (::knock on wood::) for years now.

There are of course extra expenses involved with treating an epileptic pet, but thankfully they aren't extreme. We pay about $20 for three months' worth of phenobarbital for Rigby, and then once a year he has to have a blood test done to ensure that the medication isn't effecting his body in negative ways - this test runs maybe $80-90. As you can see, luckily epilepsy truly is one of the less expensive ailments to treat in a pet - at least under "normal" circumstances.

The pheno that Rigby takes has a few side effects - for instance, making it a bit easier for him to put on weight. I counteract that by giving him plenty of exercise - I run with my dogs in the morning and walk them in the evening - and while he could probably stand to lose a couple of pounds, he's not overweight, which is important when dealing with an animal that has a consistent health issue, of course.

I'm not sure if some of Rigby's quirks - how needy he is, for instance (he literally follows me EVERYWHERE and has to be constantly reassured) are due to his condition, or are thanks to the fact that he was abandoned by his owners, or if he was simply always like this. But he is, on one hand, one of the best dogs I've had - and on the other hand, one of the most high maintenance dogs I've had...even when not considering the epilepsy ;)

Still, I love him all the same. How could I not? He comes when he's called. He loves to cuddle. He's extremely smart and knows several [albeit basic] tricks. He actually enjoys going in his crate - which is the best thing for him, because if he was to have a seizure he's much safer in there than out and about in the house where he could fall off furniture, bang his head/injure himself on something, or get stuck somewhere (like the time he had a seizure under our bed in the middle of the night - I could never explain how awful that was). And of course our other pets are safer as well, because after a seizure Rigby is disoriented. He's always been fine with me during the recovery period, and somehow our other dog Wendy has known to stay away from him - but he's been snippy with the cats, which is definitely a concern.

I'm not the perfect pet owner. Once in a great while I forget to give Rigby his pills, if I'm in a rush to get out the dor in the morning or in a rush to get to bed at night. Sometimes I get frustrated with the fact that he constantly needs to be in my lap or by my side; his neediness simply gets in the way at times. And just the thought of him having a seizure practically gives me an anxiety attack.

But I'm glad that I didn't shy away from giving Rigby a home, even when people told me that it would be understandable to "return" him to GCACS because of his epilepsy. Because sometimes Rigby will get stressed out - his breathing pattern will change and all I can think is that at any moment he may have a seizure - but I can look him in the eye and tell him it's okay and pet him...and he calms down. I do not doubt for a moment that he loves me in that way that only dogs can love someone, and I can't imagine not having him in my life.

My point is, if you are new to dealing with a pet that has epilepsy - take a deep breath. I can't promise you that everything will always be okay, but I can tell you that sticking with your pet and getting him or her on the proper medication can lead to plenty of rewarding time and good memories :) Pin It


  1. Found this post after doing a search regarding my newly diagnosed dog, and I really appreciate it, we are still figuring things out.

    1. Good luck with your dog! I'm glad my story was of some help :)

      (and gosh I wish the pictures weren't just broken links...oh blogger)