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December 2, 2021— Few things fill dog owners with more dread than caring for a pet with seizures. Seizures are scary to watch, difficult to treat and cause lots of anxiety for pet parents. But what happens when a seizure isn’t a seizure? How can a veterinarian or dog owner tell the difference? A team of researchers from Hannover, Germany, is determined to fill in this missing puzzle piece.

Idiopathic epilepsy (IE), the most common cause of seizures in dogs, has been recognized for decades. And, some patients who never fit neatly into the definition of IE were still treated for the disease. Treatment often worked but occasionally failed. It took the advent of cell phones and video to lead many veterinary specialists to question their diagnoses.

Yes, cell phones.

Unlike other diseases, observing a seizure in progress is tricky – and it can be hard for an owner to describe later. Other types of collapse can mimic seizures, complicating the diagnosis. It’s common for owners to make a video for their veterinarian when their pet has a suspected seizure. These videos confirmed what neurologists suspected – there were other movement disorders that looked like IE but weren’t. A new term, paroxysmal dyskinesia (PD), was coined to classify these dogs. But the new classification brought new questions, such as how to differentiate between IE and PD (which isn’t always obvious – see above), how to treat PD and what causes the condition. Finding these very large missing puzzle pieces is a pressing problem.

A team of veterinarians from the University of Veterinary Medicine Hannover in Germany is taking a multi-pronged approach. Their ambitious study plan hopes to provide answers to many of the questions plaguing veterinary neurologists.

“I’ve been interested in seizure disorders since I was a veterinary student and saw my first patient with IE,” said Dr. Nina Meyerhoff, the study’s lead investigator and Foundation Fellowship recipient. “During my residency, I saw more and more cases of dogs with movement disorders that didn’t fit with IE. I applied for a Foundation grant to learn more about this new disease.”

First, the research team will take a close look at the gut microbiome in dogs with IE, PD and healthy controls to see if they differ from each other. They’re also going to look at blood samples from each group to screen for differences in specific proteins as well as check for genetic clues to the disease.

In addition, the team will compare MRIs among the three groups using an advanced form of imaging, known as functional MRI, which is used to study the brain’s cell-to-cell signaling system. The team will repeat this test in IE and PD dogs post-therapy, to see if treatment affects the system. This information could help veterinarians fine tune therapy.

The group hopes their analysis will help veterinarians make more accurate diagnoses and treatment recommendations. In addition, their study will try to fill in a few missing pieces regarding IE that remain elusive. Dr. Meyerhoff has had many owners contact her about participation with study recruitment going well and screening processes underway.

“I think our study could lead to better diagnostics and better treatment for dogs with PD,” said Dr. Meyerhoff. “This could save dogs from PD from taking medications they don’t need and decrease the stress for their owners.”