Published: 27 Apr 2018 | Last Updated: 14 May 2018 16:25:41

You can’t teach epileptic dogs new tricks? A series of pioneering research studies from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) into dogs with epilepsy have revealed that:         

    • Dogs with epilepsy find it harder to obey commands, are slower to learn new tricks, have spatial memory deficits and are easily distracted. 
    • Aversive training methods, such as bark-activated collars, prong collars and verbal punishment are associated with poor trainability and their use should be avoided.
    • Some anti-epileptic drugs (the medications commonly used to treat seizures) were found to worsen the cognitive impairment of dogs with epilepsy.       
Professor Holger Volk and Dr Rowena Packer
  • Dogs with greater exposure to training activities, including obedience classes, agility, and gun-dog training, were found to be associated with higher trainability and have fewer signs of cognitive dysfunction.  

Epilepsy is the most common chronic neurological disorder found in dogs and humans, with 1 in 111 of the population being affected. Epilepsy is characterised by recurrent seizures, but in human patients it is often accompanied with cognitive deficits, for example impairments in learning and memory. Research into canines is increasingly finding similarities between epilepsy in dogs and human patients, but it is not yet known whether the mental abilities of dogs are also affected.

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 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.  

Dogs with epilepsy were found to be less trainable than control dogs1. 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 (the medications commonly used to treat seizures) 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 dogs2. 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 study3, 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 today3.  

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.”

Notes to Editors

For more information please contact:
Uche Graves or Alexander Cassells
Press Line: 0800 368 9520   

Links to papers

1)     Packer RMA; McGreevy PD; Pergande A; Volk HA (2018) Negative effects of epilepsy and anti-epileptic drugs on the trainability of dogs with naturally occurring idiopathic epilepsy. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 200: 106-113.  

2)     Packer RMA; McGreevy PD; Salvin HA; Valenzuela M; Chaplin C; Volk HA (2018) Cognitive dysfunction in naturally occurring canine idiopathic epilepsy. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0192182.  

3)     Winter J; Packer RMA; Volk HA (2018) A preliminary assessment of cognitive impairments in canine idiopathic epilepsy. Veterinary Record 10.1136/vr.104603.

About the Royal Veterinary College

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school, and is a constituent College of the University of London. 
  • The RVC offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences, being ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences degrees.  
  • It is currently the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC. In 2017, the RVC received a Gold award from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the highest rating a university can receive. 
  • A research-led institution, in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) the RVC was ranked as the top vet school in the Agriculture, Veterinary and Food Science unit of assessment, with 79% of submitted academics producing world-class or internationally excellent research. 
  • The College also provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals; the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital in central London, the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals (Europe's largest small animal referral centre), the Equine Referral Hospital, and the Farm Animal Clinical Centre located at the Hertfordshire campus.

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