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RVC finds more signs of ‘canine dementia’ in dogs with epilepsy

Studies by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) have found that dogs with epilepsy were less trainable than the control dogs in its research.

The RVC’s canine epilepsy research team conducted a series of studies to identify signs of cognitive impairment in dogs with epilepsy. The team carried out these studies by combining a range of techniques including a large scale epidemiological study of over 4000 dogs (measuring trainability and signs associated usually with canine dementia), problem solving tasks and spatial memory tasks to assess the cognitive function of dogs with epilepsy.

The study concluded that dogs with epilepsy found it harder to obey a sit or stay command, were slower to learn new tricks, were more easily distracted by interesting sights, sounds or smells, and were less likely to listen to their owner or pay attention to them.

Within the group of dogs with epilepsy, anti-epileptic drugs were found to worsen behaviour, particularly the medications potassium bromide and zonisamide, along with the use of multiple drugs simultaneously.

In a second study, dogs with epilepsy were found to show more signs of cognitive dysfunction (‘canine dementia’) than control dogs. Dogs with epilepsy more commonly failed to recognise familiar people, had difficulty finding food dropped on the floor, and paced or wandered without direction or purpose.

These signs were seen in young epileptic dogs under four years of age, and are thus unlikely to represent classic canine dementia seen in geriatric patients. Within the group of dogs with epilepsy, those with a history of cluster seizures or a high seizure frequency were most likely to show these signs, which may reflect progressive brain damage from recurrent seizures.

In the most recent study, using a task developed to practically measure signs of cognitive dysfunction in a clinical setting, dogs with epilepsy were found to show reduced performance in a spatial memory task than matched controls.

While most control dogs were able to immediately find a food reward in a room after a short period of ‘forgetting time’, dogs with epilepsy spent longer searching for the reward. These results are published in Veterinary Record.

This research has shown there appears to be a relationship between cognitive impairment and epilepsy in dogs. The researchers, following the conclusion of these studies, would therefore recommend that owners use reward-based methods when training their dogs, and engage in brain-boosting training activities to improve their cognitive abilities.

It is hoped that the studies conducted by the RVC will result in an improvement in the health and welfare of dogs with epilepsy.

Dr Rowena Packer, BBSRC research fellow at RVC, said: “Our findings have practical implications for canine welfare, as well as helping to strengthen the comparison model between dogs and humans. Although some dogs with epilepsy may appear to be ‘naughty’ to their owners, we would urge all owners to avoid using harsh aversive training methods with their dogs, instead we would recommend using reward-based methods such as food rewards or verbal praise.”

Professor Holger Volk, head of department clinical science and services, said: “We increasingly recognise that epilepsy in dogs is far more than a simple seizure disorder. We have learned that apart from seizures and antiepileptic drug side effects, there are multiple behavioural and cognitive changes in epileptic dogs which could also impact their quality of life. There is an urgent need to expand our understanding of the complex interplay of these factors, so that we can develop better precision medicine approaches. A more holistic and at the same time individually tailored management of epileptic canine patients is needed.”

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