Health: Even untrained dogs can detect when their owner is about to have an epileptic seizure

Dogs can tell when their owner is about to have an epileptic seizure thanks to a unique scent that canines pick up, a study has shown.

The finding — which corroborates several anecdotal stories — means dogs can provide warnings that could save lives if their owner becomes unconscious.

Experts led by Queen’s University Belfast exposed 19 dogs to scents harvested from the sweat of people who were about to have, or had just had a seizure.

They found that all dogs showed observable behavioral changes — such as howling, barking or making eye contact — despite not being trained to do so.

In addition to reducing the injuries that can be associated with unexpected seizures, the finding may also allow for medical interventions before the seizure occurs.

Epilepsy is a neurological disorder that affects approximately 65 million people worldwide – 20 million of whom are unable to control their seizures with medication.

Dogs can tell when their owner is about to have a seizure thanks to a unique scent that canines pick up, study has shown (stock image)

Dogs can tell when their owner is about to have a seizure thanks to a unique scent that canines pick up, study has shown (stock image)

“We hypothesized that, given dogs’ extraordinary sense of smell, a volatile organic compound exhaled by the dog’s epileptic owner may be an early warning mechanism,” said paper author Neil Powell.

This is what dogs react to before the attack itself, explains the Queen’s University Belfast biologist, a longtime dog lover and founder of Ireland’s Search and Rescue Dog Association.

“The results have shown that dogs are a reliable source for detecting an incipient seizure,” he added.

In their research, Dr. Powell and colleagues exposed 19 dogs — none of them had previous experience with epilepsy — to odors characteristic of three different phases of a seizure.

These scents were harvested from the sweat of people with epilepsy before, during and after a seizure. The team also took two non-epileptic sweat samples to use as control samples for the study.

The researchers found that — when presented with the seizure-related scents — all 19 dogs underwent noticeable behavioral changes.

“Our findings clearly showed that all dogs responded to the odor associated with seizures, whether it was by making eye contact with their owner, touching them, howling or barking,” explains Dr. Powell out.

‘There is a unique volatile odor associated with seizures, detectable by dogs who in turn can alert their owner that a seizure is likely to occur.

“Our research was based on companion dogs with no prior training,” he noted.

“If we can train dogs, it has the potential to make a big difference for owners who experience unpredictable seizures and should go a long way in improving not only their safety, but also their quality of life.”

“A reliable method of predicting and detecting seizures is the holy grail for many people with epilepsy and for the parents of children with the condition,” said Peter Murphy, CEO of Epilepsy Ireland.

This is especially true if seizures are accompanied by loss of consciousness, with a high risk of injury.

While recent efforts have focused on technological solutions, it is exciting and very welcome news that anecdotal reports about dogs’ ability to predict seizures are now supported by scientific evidence.

“We are immensely proud of the work of Dr. Powell and we hope the findings will lead to new approaches beyond ‘man’s best friend’ that promote safety and provide reassurance to people with epilepsy.”

Now that his first study has been completed, Dr.  Powell are now investigating how dogs can detect the onset of other medical conditions — and then create a tool to replicate this ability.  Pictured: Dr Powell poses with Fern the dog

Now that his first study has been completed, Dr.  Powell are now investigating how dogs can detect the onset of other medical conditions — and then create a tool to replicate this ability.  Pictured: Dr Powell poses with Fern the dog

Now that his first study has been completed, Dr. Powell are now investigating how dogs can detect the onset of other medical conditions — and then create a tool to replicate this ability. Pictured: Dr Powell poses with Fern the dog

Now that his first study has been completed, Dr. Powell are now investigating how dogs can detect the onset of other medical conditions — and then create a tool to replicate this ability.

“Our ultimate goal is to design an electronic device that can be sensitive to the biomarker that precedes the onset of a seizure and other conditions,” he explained.

The study’s full findings were published in the journal animals.

EPILEPSY: THE BASIS

Epilepsy is a condition that affects the brain and puts patients at risk for seizures.

About one in 100 people in the UK has epilepsy, statistics from Epilepsy Action show.

And in the U.S., 1.2 percent of the population has the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anyone can have a seizure, which doesn’t automatically mean they have epilepsy.

Usually more than one episode is needed for a diagnosis.

Seizures occur when there is a sudden burst of electrical activity in the brain, disrupting the way it works.

Some seizures cause people to stay alert and aware of their surroundings, while others cause people to lose consciousness.

Some also cause patients to experience unusual sensations, feelings, or movements, or to stiffen and fall to the floor where they shake.

Epilepsy can be caused at any age by a stroke, brain infection, head injury, or birth problems that lead to oxygen starvation.

But in more than half of the cases, a cause is never found.

Anti-epileptic drugs do not cure the condition, but help to stop or reduce the seizures.

If these don’t work, brain surgery may be effective.

Source: Epilepsy action

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