We started looking for a dog just a few months after we got married. It was casual enough at first, but soon a lot of our spare time was spent at Seattle’s various shelters, searching for the pup who had everything we were looking for (brains, beauty, and “kind eyes,” in the words of my husband, Michael). We started to get impatient and maybe a little desperate.
And then we heard about Sammy. Sammy was the foster dog of Michael’s friend from work, a black lab and German shorthaired pointer mix around five years old. She’d been rescued from a pretty traumatizing puppyhood, but remained sweet, super-smart … and epileptic.
It was love at first sight.
We (plus many of our friends and family) were wary of the epilepsy situation, but decided to meet Sammy anyway. Bouncing around our friend’s kitchen, chasing tennis balls and crashing into walls, nuzzling us with her soft, pointy nose—Sammy won us over. It was love at first sight. Days later she was snuggled next to Michael and I on the couch. Just like that, she was ours.
Waiting for the seizures
At first, though we knew it could happen, Sammy didn’t have any seizures. We quickly got into a rhythm with the newest member of our family. Sammy loved all food, playing fetch, sprawling out on her back with her legs spread open (very classy) and us. She really loved us.
Would she have her first seizure here at the beer garden? At this backyard BBQ?
We took her everywhere: to the dog park, restaurants with outdoor areas, friends’ houses, the beach. I even took her to my dog-friendly office every couple of weeks. But we were always a little nervous about her epilepsy. Would it strike now? Would she have her first seizure here at the beer garden? At this backyard BBQ?
The first episode
Months after we adopted Sammy I woke up to a strange shaking of the bed. Sammy, who always slept beside me, was thrashing around, her mouth stretched open, her eyes wide and blank. Our friend had told us what to expect, but as Michael and I tried to move her safely off the bed and onto some towels, I couldn’t help bursting into tears.
I felt absolutely helpless because all we could do was wait for it to end.
I felt absolutely helpless because all we could do was wait for it to end, and then comfort and snuggle her afterwards as she paced around, panting and exhausted. Though that was just the first seizure of many, it’s something I’ll never forget.
Dog epilepsy in general, and Sammy’s in particular
Before getting Sammy we did plenty of research on epilepsy in dogs. Honestly, it was pretty scary stuff. It’s actually fairly common in canines, especially in certain breeds like beagles, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and Shetland sheepdogs. There are causes for dog seizures, like ingesting something poisonous or physical trauma, but epilepsy is a specific, serious condition caused by something abnormal in the brain. It can be managed, but not cured.
As she got older, the amount and severity of the seizures increased, and her treatment had to evolve.
Sammy’s seizures started slowly. She had one every six months or so for the first year, then they started coming every three to four months—and then she began having cluster seizures, which are multiple episodes over the course of one day. As she got older, the amount and severity of the seizures increased, and her treatment had to evolve.
Our new normal: learning to live with Sammy’s seizures
Whoever was woken up first would yell “seizure!”
Pretty early on, we knew we needed to come up with a plan for her seizures. We started by putting a waterproof sheet on the mattress because she inevitably peed whenever she started seizing. Whoever was woken up first would yell “seizure!” While one of us carefully pulled her off the bed before she fell, the other grabbed towels. We’d then make sure she had a safe area to thrash around in without injuring herself.
We’d get ready for Seizure Day, which is what we started calling the 24 hours following the first seizure.
Once she was done, we’d comfort her until she started to relax, and give her a bath (because again, the pee). Then we’d get ready for Seizure Day, which is what we started calling the 24 hours following the first seizure. We didn’t know exactly how many seizures she’d have over that period of time. It could be anywhere from three to six, or even more as she got older.
We knew we needed to be prepared. We’d clear our schedules since one of us needed to be home with her, and then clear the living room so she could hang out without hurting herself by banging into furniture. It was quite a process, but Michael and I soon had it down like clockwork.
Treatments for dog epilepsy
We tried a few different things for Sammy’s epilepsy. She started off taking a smallish dose of Phenobarbital, the most common anti-epileptic drug, but we had to up that amount as soon as she started having the cluster seizures.
It often seemed like we’d solve one problem and another would pop up.
After a couple of years when the seizures increased in frequency we tried to change her medication to Zonisamide, but she just had more seizures. We then decided to add Potassium Bromide to her Phenobarbital regimen and that seemed to do the trick and even stop the seizures. However, her anxiety level seemed to increase. Finding that perfect balance was frustrating. It often seemed like we’d solve one problem and another would pop up!
Other treatments for epilepsy include supplements, strict diets, and various kinds of medications. If you have an epileptic dog, checking with your vet is always the best option.
Sammy’s last days
Sammy had her last cluster of seizures this past fall, about four months before I had my daughter. It was different that time—she had almost 10 seizures in the span of 24 hours. They seemed to put a ton of stress on her already tired body and brain, and she was never quite the same after.
Just a few weeks ago Sammy passed away. She was ten years old. She was so loved, though she was tired and suffering.
You know what wasn’t complicated? How much we loved her.
I’m not going to lie. Having a dog with epilepsy was a challenge in many ways. The money spent on medication, the stress of anticipating her next seizure, the fear of leaving her when we went on vacation: all of that made her a more complicated dog. But you know what wasn’t complicated? How much we loved her.
If there’s one thing I can emphasize it’s this: there are so many dogs who need and deserve to be loved. Don’t let your idea of the “perfect dog” prevent you from loving one that’s a little more complex.
Sammy was many things. She was awesome at playing fetch with tennis balls, she was a monster about eating all the food she could find, she was super-sweet with everyone she met—including our newborn daughter Eloise—and she was epileptic. But that didn’t stop her from being the perfect dog for us.