Pet dogs can predict their owner's epileptic seizures, new research shows
Queen’s University Belfast has said the discovery could save lives.
New research led by Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland shows that dogs can predict epileptic seizures.
Epilepsy is a debilitating and potentially life-threatening neurological condition that affects around 65 million people worldwide, 30% of which are unable to control their seizures by medication.
As there is currently no reliable and simple early warning seizure-onset device available, many people with unstable epilepsy live in fear of injury or sudden death.
However, there have been anecdotal accounts of pet dogs being able to predict their owner’s epileptic seizures, with the animals reported as becoming attentive and demonstrating attention-seeking behaviours.
Until now, no scientific study had investigated the accuracy of these claims.
According to Queen's University Belfast, epileptic seizures are associated with a specific smell, with the study analysing the reaction of dogs to the odour.
It found that the dogs could predict when a seizure was imminent, the university said in a statement.
"The researchers explored how a cohort of pet dogs reacted to the emergence of seizure-associated odours," the statement reads.
"Using two specially designed pieces of apparatus called the Remote Odour Delivery Mechanism (RODM), the researchers separately delivered epileptic seizure-associated odours and nonseizure associated odours and recorded the reactions of the dogs to each.
"Using 19 pet dogs with no experience of epilepsy, the researchers exposed them to odours that were deemed to be characteristic of three seizure phases, by using sweat harvested from people with epilepsy. By altering the alternating odours emerging from sweat samples, captured before seizure, during a seizure and after a seizure, and two nonseizure controls, the researchers recorded the response of the 19 pet dogs.
"They found that all 19 dogs demonstrated more affiliative behavioural changes when confronted by seizure-associated odours, compared with their response to control odours."
The study has been published in the journal MDPI Animals.
Lead researcher Dr Neil Powell said: “Our findings clearly showed that all dogs reacted to the seizure-associated odour whether this was through making eye contact with their owner, touching them, crying or barking. There is a unique volatile smell linked to epileptic seizures, detectable by dogs who can in turn warn their owner a seizure is likely to occur.
“Our research was based on pet dogs with no prior training. If we can train dogs, this has the potential to make a big difference to owners who experience unpredictable seizures and should go a long way in improving not only their safety, but also their quality of life.”
The research was funded by and conducted in partnership with Epilepsy Ireland and Disability Assistance Dogs.
CEO of Epilepsy Ireland Peter Murphy said that a reliable method of seizure prediction and detection is "the holy grail" for many people living with epilepsy and the parents of children with the condition.