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Cognitive impairments found in dogs with epilepsy

Dogs with epilepsy find it harder to obey commands, are slower to learn new tricks, have spatial memory deficits and are easily distracted, research suggests.

Researchers at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) 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 4,000 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.

In a study published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science, dogs with epilepsy were found to be less trainable than control dogs. 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 study published in PLOS ONE, 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 4 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 anti-epileptic 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.”


Negative effects of epilepsy and antiepileptic drugs on the trainability of dogs with naturally occurring idiopathic epilepsy by Rowena M.A. Packer, Paul D. McGreevy, Amy Pergande and Holger A. Volk, published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science (2018) 200:106-113, doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2017.11.008

Cognitive dysfunction in naturally occurring canine idiopathic epilepsy by Rowena M. A. Packer, Paul D. McGreevy, Hannah E. Salvin, Michael J. Valenzuela, Chloe M. Chaplin, Holger A. Volk, published in PLOS ONE (2018) 13(2): e0192182, doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0192182

Preliminary assessment of cognitive impairments in canine idiopathic epilepsy by Joshua Winter, Rowena Mary Anne Packer and Holger Andreas Volk, published in Veterinary Record, online 26 April 2018, doi: 10.1136/vr.104603

Article details

  • Date
  • 08 May 2018
  • Source
  • Royal Veterinary College
  • Subject(s)
  • Dogs, Cats, and other Companion Animals