"There is no compelling evidence that dogs do anticipate and respond to seizures, only anecdotal evidence," notes Dr. Nathan Fountain, director of the Comprehensive Epilepsy Program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "The important thing is to note that dogs provide a benefit beyond just anticipating or responding to seizures. It's about quality of life."
Harrison is quick to agree: "Mostly, [Owen] just makes me feel comfortable. When you're coming out of a seizure, you're very disoriented. The fact that Owen is there to comfort me is very important."
Seizure-alert dogs are specifically trained to recognize and respond to their owners' seizures. And while the study noted Owen's breed is not listed among them, Jennifer Arnold, the executive director of Canine Assistants, an Atlanta assisted dog-training program, says, "probably all dogs have the ability to predict seizures. But the dogs who feel the closest bond will want to let people know that this is coming."
In addition, Uthman believes "it is very likely that cats can do this as well." No study has yet examined the relationship between cats and seizure alert or response.
Barking vs. Biting
Despite the positive effects of most reported incidents in the surveys, an equal number of doctors stress the potential danger involving untrained dogs and people with epilepsy, particularly children.
"A seizure can be a very disturbing thing," Dalziel warns. "Dogs and people can respond in various different ways — they can be scared or they can have a good response, maybe guarding the person having the seizure. But a dog, you can't calm them down, and you don't know how they'll respond."
Even protective behaviors leave possible problems. Detroit-based Dr. Gregory Barkley, chair of the Epilepsy Foundation Professional Advisory Board, stresses: "A dog who stands guard and doesn't let a person get robbed during a seizure — which has actually happened to some of my patients — is good, but … how does a dog know between a robber and an EMT [emergency medical technician]?"
Arnold warns her clients of the dangers of untrained dogs in the home: "Certain breeds of dogs, or even specific dogs, respond in inappropriate or potentially dangerous ways … the problem is that we just don't know how they'll respond until there is a seizure."
Many epilepsy specialists and veterinarians around the country remain skeptical, suggesting while there is probably little harm in someone with epilepsy having a household dog, there was not enough evidence to purchase a trained alert or response dog, a cost that can run several thousand dollars.
And the University of Calgary's Kirton stresses, "People and families living with epilepsy should not be buying dogs in the hopes that they will assist them with their seizures."