All dogs pictured in this post have or had epilepsy and lead (or led) enriched, active lives. Only one of the dogs also had CCD (and also had an enriched and active life). Thank you to their guardians for allowing me to use their photos. Credits are at the bottom of the post.
Is there a connection between epilepsy and canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD)?
Yes, a dog with epilepsy may be more likely to experience cognitive decline, according to some recent research. Scientists have been studying the relationship between the two conditions. The research has provided some information that could be helpful to guardians of dogs with epilepsy.
In 2018, the Royal Veterinary College in the UK published three research papers on idiopathic canine epilepsy and possible relationships to canine cognitive dysfunction. Idiopathic means without a known cause. Two of the research projects came from a large study of 4,051 dogs done together with researchers from the University of Sydney. This was a survey-type study with an online questionnaire for dog owners. The other project, which included two of the same authors, was a smaller study performed on a group of pet dogs. This was an experimental study where the dogs were given memory and problem-solving tasks. Some of them had a diagnosis of epilepsy and some did not, so the groups could be compared.
The Epilepsy and Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Survey
First, I’ll describe the survey and the two articles that published results about it. The survey was promoted by social media, veterinary practices, and breed clubs for a period of several months in 2016. It was open to dogs of all breeds and mixed breeds. The exact purpose of the survey was not told to participants to prevent bias. It was presented as a “Mature Dog Study.” There were four groups of questions.
- Questions to determine whether the dog met the criteria for epilepsy. These questions covered the dog’s behavior and veterinary care. Two hundred eighty-six dogs solidly fit the criteria for a diagnosis of epilepsy. When the diagnosis was not clear, that dog’s information was not used in the study. The 3,765 dogs without epilepsy were used as a control group for comparison.
- Questions from the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale. This is a well-known questionnaire that yields a score indicating whether a dog might have cognitive dysfunction, and the severity if so.
- Questions about training activities. These questions were about what types of training the dog had participated in. The categories were puppy classes, obedience, agility, gundog, ringcraft, conformation, and flyball.
- Questions about training methods. The purpose of these questions was to find out whether the dog was trained with punishment or positive reinforcement.
You can tell from this interesting combination of questions that all sorts of correlations might be found. It’s no surprise that two articles (so far) resulted from the research.
Here they are, with their findings. I’ll follow with the “in-person” study.
The Findings of the Survey Articles
The study, “Cognitive dysfunction in naturally occurring canine idiopathic epilepsy,” analyzed data to determine the relationship of CCD, epilepsy, and some other factors (Packer et al, 2018b).
Major findings about dogs with epilepsy were:
- Dogs with idiopathic epilepsy (IE) were at a greater risk for CCD. But the cognitive impairment was a little different from the CCD associated with old age. The cognitive dysfunction associated with epilepsy seemed more focused on memory than some of the other typical elements of CCD.
- Cognitive dysfunction started at a younger age in the dogs with epilepsy.
- Anti-epileptic drugs did not seem to play a role in cognitive impairment in either direction; they didn’t protect from it, nor did they make it worse. But the researchers mentioned that since most of the dogs with epilepsy were on medications, their control group for this (dogs with epilepsy who didn’t take medications) was very small.
- Dogs who had frequent seizures or cluster seizures had higher cognitive dysfunction scores on the Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Rating Scale.
- Not all dogs with epilepsy developed CCD.
The following findings applied to dogs with and without epilepsy:
- Older dogs were more at risk for CCD, which verifies previous findings.
- The weight of the dog correlated with the age of onset of CCD, with smaller dogs being more at risk for earlier onset. This contrasts with the findings of two studies about geriatric CCD. One found no correlation with a dog’s size or breed (Watowich et al., 2020) and the other found that larger dogs got CCD earlier (Turcsán et al., 2023).
- Dogs with a history of training were at lower risk for CCD.
The second study, “Negative effects of epilepsy and antiepileptic drugs on the trainability of dogs with naturally occurring idiopathic epilepsy,” measured the impact of epilepsy, anti-epileptic drugs, and the type of training on the “trainability” of dogs (Packer et al., 2018a). Trainability was defined as “the ability and motivation to attend and respond in a positive way to human cues or signals” (Serpell & Hsu, 2005). Questions from a test called the C-BARQ were used to assess rate trainability.
Major findings were:
- Dogs with epilepsy had significantly lower trainability than the dogs without.
- Dogs in both groups who were older than 12 years had significantly lower trainability than those in all other age groups.
- Dogs in both groups with greater exposure to training as adults were more trainable.
- Trainability of dogs treated with two or three anti-epileptic drugs showed the most impairment. (This is in slight contrast to the finding in the previous study that medications didn’t have a negative effect on cognition. But cognition and trainability were assessed in different ways.)
- Dogs with epilepsy may be more impulsive, for example, they had less ability to perform a “stay” compared to other behaviors.
- Dogs in both groups with a history of training and use of reward-based methods showed greater trainability than dogs trained with a mix of rewards and punishment.
The last point is something very important to know. There are many other reasons to use positive reinforcement training, but this study showed evidence that it makes for a more responsive dog. This was true for dogs with and without epilepsy.
The Experimental Study of Epilepsy and Cognition in Dogs
Finally, there was the “in-person” study, “A preliminary assessment of cognitive impairments in canine idiopathic epilepsy.” This study included pet dogs with and without idiopathic epilepsy, and did experimental testing of cognition using two different tasks (Winter et al., 2018). The first task was to remember where a treat was after being taken out of a room and coming back later. The experimenters made sure the dog noticed the treat the first time it was in there. The second task was problem solving: how to open a container to get access to treats inside.
The dogs with epilepsy performed worse on the memory task than the control group, but performed about the same in the problem-solving task. This correlates with the findings in the first study that the cognitive dysfunction in dogs with epilepsy tended to center around memory issues. But the researchers noted the memory impairment in this study was not at a level that would qualify as cognitive dysfunction.
If your dog has epilepsy, they may develop some cognitive problems, whether or not they take medications for the condition. These problems may involve memory more than some of the other issues we see in the cognitive dysfunction some elderly dogs develop. But this doesn’t happen to every dog with epilepsy.
If your dog with epilepsy is slow to respond to cues, please be patient with them! They may not remember or understand what you want, even if they formerly knew.
Training with positive reinforcement has been shown to make dogs more responsive and attentive to what you ask of them than using punishment.
And keep training your dog! It has been shown to have benefits to continue to train when the dog is older, and it may help to protect against CCD.
Copyright 2024 Eileen Anderson
Packer, R. M., McGreevy, P. D., Pergande, A., & Volk, H. A. (2018a). Negative effects of epilepsy and antiepileptic drugs on the trainability of dogs with naturally occurring idiopathic epilepsy. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 200, 106-113.
Packer, R. M., McGreevy, P. D., Salvin, H. E., Valenzuela, M. J., Chaplin, C. M., & Volk, H. A. (2018b). Cognitive dysfunction in naturally occurring canine idiopathic epilepsy. PLoS One, 13(2), e0192182.
Serpell, J.A., Hsu, Y.A., 2005. Effects of breed, sex, and neuter status on trainability in dogs. Anthrozoös 18, 196-207.
Turcsán, B., & Kubinyi, E. (2023). Differential behavioral aging trajectories according to body size, expected lifespan, and head shape in dogs. GeroScience, 1-24.
Watowich, M. M., MacLean, E. L., Hare, B., Call, J., Kaminski, J., Miklósi, Á., & Snyder-Mackler, N. (2020). Age influences domestic dog cognitive performance independent of average breed lifespan. Animal cognition, 23(4), 795–805.
Winter, J., Packer, R. M. A., & Volk, H. A. (2018). Preliminary assessment of cognitive impairments in canine idiopathic epilepsy. Veterinary Record.
Thank you so much to my friends who provided photos of their lovely dogs.
- Truman: Copyright 2018 Rebekah Piedad
- Angel: Copyright 2018 Micha Michiewicz
- Shadow: Copyright 1996 Eileen Anderson
- Libby: Copyright 2018 Katherine Anselm
- Benji: Copyright 2018 Claire Lee
- Mellie: Copyright 2018 Greta Kaplan
- Lily: Copyright 2018 Lynn Shrove