I had seen this before and a numbing coldness washed through me.

By Charlene Dunlap

After a few minutes her body loosened and her eyes began to focus. She wanted to stand. Somewhere in the primitive part of her brain she knew she must not look vulnerable or the pack might destroy her. Indeed this is an instinct even our highly domesticated dogs still have. Some of the other dogs gathered around biting at the air close to her body. I threatened them away.

I cleaned the floor and took Keila to the grooming room to wash and dry her legs. Such massive constriction of muscles and body organs will express the bladder and sometimes the scent glands and/or rectum. Then I called the vet and told him I was bringing Keila to the clinic. Dr. Corry took a blood test to check electrolytes. She was slightly dehydrated but other than that, the test was normal. A urinalysis was also completely normal. Dr. Corry said there were any number of reasons for seizures: low blood sugar, such as hypoglycemia; trauma, such as head injury; bacterial, such as meningitis, fungal; such as histoplasmosis; protozoal, such as toxoplasmosis; viral, such as rabies or distemper; metabolic, such as eclampsia; and idiopathic, which has no know cause. He tried to reassure me that many dogs have a single, unexplained seizure episode, but I suspected this was not to be Keila's fate.

THREE WEEKS PASSED. Keila was dozing while I dried her on the grooming table. Startled, she lifted her head and began sniffing around herself, totally trans-fixed. What is that strange odor? It's all around me! I realized she was losing control of her muscles. I quickly lifted her to the floor where she began violently shaking her head as though trying to rid herself of some horrific throat obstruction. She collapsed on the floor. This seizure was different from the first only in details. This time her mouth opened wide and her eyes squeezed shut. She screamed once -- an agonized sound. She thrashed her head from side to side taking all of my strength to keep her from bashing it against the floor. Her legs raced, desperate to get away from the THING that gripped her so powerfully.  As before, her muscle control returned quickly and she wanted to stand.  I held her gently, crooning to her.  She stared into my eyes as if seeking an answer for what had happend.  Or, perhaps she was only trying to recongize who I was. 

Despite Keila's seizure patterns, I continued taking her with us everywhere we went. She never had a seizure any place other than at home.

We teach puppies to retrieve by playing games that encourages them to carry all kinds of objects in their mouth. Keila was eager to learn. She soon added her own unique twist to this game. When the family settled for the evening, she went on her treasure hunt. She climbed the steps to the waist high grooming tub and put her front feet on the wall in order to reach a shelf so she could bring me a towel. I was presented with my reading glasses which had been lost for a week. (It was also my suspicion that she was responsible for their lost status.) She brought me a live cricket and looked very perplexed when I squealed and dropped it. A bar of soap, a silver spoon, she never brought the same "gift" twice in one evening.

On our walks in the woods she immediately took the lead not deviating from paths I followed only by ribbons tied to trees. The non-Poodle's noses constantly snagged on all kinds of woodsy smells, but Keila was single-minded in her job as pathfinder.

Keila learned new behaviors as fast as I found time to teach her. Her retention of previous lessons was amazing. Besides obedience signals, she also developed a large repertoire of other cues. At our public demonstrations, children and adults alike loved seeing Keila, with great confidence and flourish, perform her trained behaviors.

However, there was one habit Keila had that I found disturbing. Every evening after she had eaten supper, while the rest of us were ensconced inside the house, Keila insisted on going outside by herself where she lay on a knoll in the back yard, staring out into the dark surrounding woods. Like a sphinx she lay, intently listening to sounds of the night. Her head snapped back and forth as she sought to locate and classify the disembodied noises. Do dogs have the same primal fear that the dark unknown holds for mankind? What monster lurked out there in the dark for her?

Then one day, when Keila was two years old, the Monster from the Dark got her. It slammed her to the floor and locked her in its deadly grip.

I washed her legs and face and finished drying her. She was subdued, her eyes wide and dilated. I lifted her off the table and she lay down in the hall outside the doorway. I could see her from the grooming room as I washed Stoney and it seemed a long time before she finally quit staring at me and closed her eyes. Later that day I made an appointment with the neurology department at the NCSU School of Veterinary Medicine.

MY CHERISHED DOBERMAN, Sasha, died of pancreatic cancer when she was ten. It was a year before I mended enough to look for my next chosen companion. I knew that whoever she was that she would be a Standard Poodle.

Keila's breeder had agreed to meet us halfway from our respective homes in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Of the two six-month old Standard sisters, Keila constantly watched human faces. I took each puppy on a leash and walked her around the area. I carefully watched each puppy's reaction to leaving her people, her reaction to the environment, her reaction to seeing her own reflection in a plate glass window, and especially, I watched her reaction to me. Keila's eyes rarely left my face. This puppy will learn quickly because she pays attention to me.

I delighted in watching Keila's antics as she grew to young adulthood. I vicariously shared her enchantment with owning a youthful body that craved activity. She streaked across the yard, bucking and twisting like a bronco. She skidded to a halt, spun on her heels and dashed away, the wind whistling through her ears. She became muscular and agile.

She was bold and assertive on our canine playyard equipment. She particularly liked the seesaw. Later, the day she first learned to go over the seesaw by herself, I watched from the kitchen window as Keila went up the ramp to the three-foot high apex, waited for the balance to shift and then continued down the narrow board. She immediately repeated the action, imprinting the concept and control deeper into her mind and body.

WE TOOK KEILA to the NCSU School of Veterinary Medicine where they did a medical write-up and history.

The veterinarian performed proprioceptive tests to see if there was any dysfunction in the nervous system. Proprioception is the ability for a dog to stand on the pads with the legs under the body in a normal way. A loss of this ability is a sign of a nervous system lesion. Knuckling over may be a sign of nervous system dysfunction. During several tests the veterinarian placed each foot individually in a knuckled over position and observed how long it took for the foot to right itself. He held front feet off the floor and walked her to see if the back feet could follow in a normal pattern. He held her back feet up and walked her like a wheelbarrow to check her front gait. He held her on first the right then the left side to see of the opposite side would walk normally. He twisted her neck backwards and from side to side to test for abnormal reaction. The neurologist can obtain information about the function of the peripheral sensory nerves from these tests.

In addition to blood tests, a Cerebrospinal Fluid analysis was done. Diseases of the nervous system affect the production of the cerebrospinal fluid. The kind of cells present, and the appearance of the fluid itself. They shaved Keila's head from ear to ear across the top and down below the base of her skull so they could obtain a sample of cerebrospinal fluid using a special needle. This test shows compression of the spinal cord, presence of tumors, and inflammation. As with the other tests, all results were normal.

An Electroencephalogram (EEG) is a means of recording the electrical activity of the cerebral cortex. "Some of the neurological disorders that produce abnormal EEG readings are hydrocephalus, hypoglycemia, hepatic encephalopagy, organophosphate and lead poisoning, concussion, cerebral hemorrhage, brain tumors, and the inflammation of the brain due to viral, bacterial, fungal, and protozoan infections. True epilepsy does not cause any alteration in the EEG brain wave pattern." (The Poodle Owners' Medical Manual by Robert M. Brown, D.V.M.)

After her skull x-ray showed normal and all of the above tests studied, it was concluded that Keila had idiopathic (acquired or true) epilepsy. "True epilepsy has a strong hereditary tendency, occurring primarily in purebred dogs between six months and three years of age." (Robert M. Brown, D.V.M.)

Seizures can appear in many forms, from undistractible "spaciness" to the more commonly thought of spasmodic movements. Some dogs tend to have groups of seizures (cluster seizures) which are more difficult to control with anticonvulsant medication. Cluster seizures are dangerous because the dog can easily go into status epilepticus -- a continuous seizure activity. Because of the continuing muscle constriction, the body temperature elevates and a lack of oxygen causes the brain to swell. Most experts believe it is unwise to repeat a breeding that resulted in an epileptic dog -- but many breeders knowing do so.

THE VETERINARIAN put Keila on low doses of Phenobarbital, a depressant, to be taken at strict eight-hour intervals. Two things happened immediately. First, to be expected, she became very sedated. She slept most of the time and when awake drifted about in a zombie-like state. And, second, she became incontinent. The seizures continued unabated and the time between each seizure lessened until Keila was having seizures at approximate nine-day intervals. Also the seizures began coming in clusters. During the following year Keila's Phenobarbital dose reached the maximum safe level.

When Keila began a cycle, the seizures were basically the same. She hunched down and (sometimes) searched with her nose; her lips pulled back baring all her teeth; her eyes closed tightly and she began violently shaking her head. She collapsed on her side, stiffened, her body straining. Sometimes she screamed -- but not usually. The constriction of her body muscles was enormous and she lost her bladder control and sometimes her glands. After a few minutes her body would relax, her legs race, her eyes blink rapidly -- then she would thrash about trying to stand. On the occasions I happened to have my hands on Keila's body right before a seizure, I could feel "electricity" shooting throughout her skin.

By the beginning of the second year, Keila's refractory seizuring had not responded to maximum levels of the anticonvulsant medication. The veterinarians wanted to add another anticonvulsant drug to the Phenobarbital. As the Phenobarbital made Keila incontinent and seemed to have no effect on the seizures, we were not optimistic about a second drug having a positive effect. About this time I read a breed column in the AKC GAZETTE telling about a study on epilepsy being conducted at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. I called and spoke to Dr. Sheldon Steinberg, Professor and Chief of Neurology of the Dept. of Neurology. Subsequently, Keila was put on Potassium Bromide.

Potassium Bromide can be given once a day as it stays longer in the system, whereas Phenobarbital is metabolized in a matter of hours. When the transition period was complete and Keila's Phenobarbital was replaced with Potassium Bromide, she did not seizure for a month. Also, she was no longer incontinent. When she did seizure, we immediately gave her 10 mgs of Valium. While the seizures did not change, the cluster cycle came less frequently. And, giving her Valium immediately after a seizure seemed to lengthen the time between seizures within the cluster.

At present, Keila has a cluster of seizures at intervals ranging from one month to one year -- and, she usually seizures only at night -- often once or twice every night until she has had between six to twelve seizures. It seems as if she must "shed" a certain number of seizures before she is "normal" again.

KEILA IS NOW SIX years old. Due to impairment of her motor skills from massive seizures and the sedative effect of the Potassium Bromide, her body no longer flawlessly obeys her mind's commands. She once had the grace of a ballerina and, in her mind, still does. She insists on crossing the seesaw and swinging barrel -- but looks as clumsy as a puppy.

She no longer strategizes using behaviors I've taught her. If she thinks of bringing me 'gifts' it is an endless repetition of the same thing. Learning new skills is no longer simple for her.

At night, while I'm getting ready for bed, Keila lies curled against the pillows, nose tucked between her legs, body soft and ethereal in the dim light, snowy ears fanned out around her head like angel wings.

Most of the time Keila lives in a shadowland, venturing out on occasion to brighten our lives with her brilliance. On occasion being catapulted into the nether world where darkness brings fear and uncertainty.

I don't know what the future holds for Keila. Epilepsy can change course at any time. She asks nothing special of this world and quietly accepts the fate she has been dealt. She is more noble than we. But, as breeders and Fate reshuffle their cards, I wonder if they will think of Keila. * * *

(Keila -- August 30, 1988 to December 21, 1999)

THE KEYS FELT COOL as I ran my fingertips over the keyboard. Sunlight filtered through the ivy and philodendrons hanging in the surrounding windows making shadowy filigree on the red tile floor. "Whispering Hope" rose softly from the grand piano. The dogs lounged on the two sofas behind me, pleasantly tired after their morning exercise. I sensed it was Keila who uncurled herself and came to lie behind me on the floor. Perhaps she sensed something unusual within her body and came close for reassurance.

A few minutes later, hearing an unexplainable scuffling sound, I turned to see Keila's supple, beautiful body stiffen into something rigid and alien. I kneeled and caught her head as it crashed towards the tile floor. Her head arched backward as if pulled by an invisible wire, neck taunt and straining, jaws clinched in a morbid grin. The whites of her eyes showed in wild desperation as she fought to regain control of her body. This lasted a few minutes and then the THING released her and she began racing her legs in a frantic, staccato manner. I knelt, holding her, rocking gently, saying words to soothe and comfort, calling her name -- calling her back from the awful place she had been. My words were meant to reassure her, to ease her fears, but my mind was saying, Oh, no, dear God, not Keila. Not my angel. For I had seen this before and a numbing coldness washed through me. My dog has epilepsy.

Intervals between seizures (in a cluster) varied from between five minutes to 24 hours. If the intervals between seizures were short, the adrenaline in Keila's body forced her to move continuously. She trudged around and around the room, which we had closed off in order to be with and protect her. She blindly stumbled into corners and kept butting her head trying to go forward. She walked and walked. Keep moving. Keep moving. It can't get me if I just keep moving. We followed, trying to keep ice on her thighs and stomach to bring her temperature down. Another seizure and she'd be up walking again.

In periods of intense, closely coupled seizure activity her body would use up huge resources of energy and she would become voraciously hungry. Driven to frantic food searching, her eyes played tricks on her. Human fingers at eye level looked edible. Our little brown terrier's hind leg hanging off the window seat looked to Keila like a drumstick. Only a shriek and a quick nip on the nose of her offender saved little Cricket from becoming three-legged.

During a particularly terrible episode when Keila seizured 32 times over a two day period, we took her to our veterinarian to see if he could sedate her enough, without killing her, to break the cycle. The adrenaline gave such super strength to Keila's agitated body that we and our 6'5" veterinarian could not hold her still enough to get a needle in her vein. He finally gave us a prescription for Valium pills and this, along with a serendipitous discovery began our climb out of hell.

Most of her day is spent sleeping. Wherever I am, she follows to lie and sleep. She becomes animated only in play or training sessions. Except, occasionally, right after breakfast. As I'm washing dog dishes, I see a blur of white flash through the kitchen, into the sunroom and out the doggy door. Flinging and tossing her "prey" she teases the other dogs with the wettest washcloth she can find hanging in the bathroom.

At our public demonstrations, Keila lies quietly on the quilt, watching impassively as I talk to the audience or work with the other dogs. When it's her turn and I call her name, she comes to me with strong, purposeful strides. She smiles, wagging her tail, impatient to perform. Her eyes are bright and snap with anticipation for this brief interval. She remembers and performs perfectly everything I taught her before the seizures damaged her mind.

Originally published in
Poodle Variety Magazine
April-May 1995