Thursday, March 14, 2024 Medscape Medical News by Eve Bender  March 12, 2024

Working with medically trained service dogs is associated with a 31% reduction in seizures compared with usual care in treatment-resistant epilepsy, a new study showed.

Investigators speculate that the dogs may ease participants’ stress, leading to a decrease in seizure frequency, although they note this relationship warrants more study.

“Despite the development of numerous antiseizure medications over the past 15 years, up to 30% of people with epilepsy experience persistent seizures,” study author Valérie van Hezik-Wester, MSc, of Erasmus University Rotterdam in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, said in a press release.

The unpredictable nature of seizures is one of the most disabling aspects of epilepsy, Hezik-Wester added. Seizure dogs are trained to recognize seizures and respond when they occur.

“The tasks that these dogs perform along with their companionship may reduce seizure-related anxiety, also potentially reducing seizures caused by stress, the most common trigger for seizures,” she said.

The findings were published online on February 28 in Neurology.

Improve Quality of Life

The study included 25 individuals with medically refractory epilepsy who had an average of two or more seizures per week, with seizure characteristics associated with a high risk for injuries or dysfunction. They also had to be able to care for a service dog.

All were observed under usual care, which included antiseizure medications, neurostimulation devices, and other supportive therapies. Participants could then choose to work with a service dog that had completed socialization and obedience training or be assigned a puppy they would train at home.

The median follow-up was 19 months with usual care and 12 months with the intervention. Participants recorded seizure activity in diaries and completed surveys on seizure severity, quality of life, and well-being every 3 months. Daily seizure counts were converted to obtain cumulative seizure frequencies over 28-day periods.

Of the 25 original participants, six discontinued trial participation before the end of follow-up, four of whom left the study due to difficulty with dog care and training.

Participants receiving usual care reported an average of 115 seizures per 28-day period, while those with trained service dogs recorded 73 seizures in the same period, or a 37% difference between groups.

Researchers found that participants had an average of 31% fewer seizures during the past 3 months when they had seizure dogs, with seven participants achieving a 50%-100% reduction in seizures.

The number of seizure-free days increased from an average of 11 days per 28-day period before receiving a service dog to 15 days after working with a dog.

Scores on the EQ-5D-5L, which measures perceived health problems, decreased on average by 2.5% per consecutive 28-day period with the intervention, reflecting an increase in generic health-related quality of life (0.975; 95% CI, 0.954-0.997).

“These findings show that seizure dogs can help people with epilepsy,” said van Hezik-Wester. “However, we also found that this partnership with seizure dogs might not be the right fit for everyone, as some people discontinued their participation in this program. More research is needed to better understand which people can benefit from working with seizure dogs.”

Enhanced Quality of Life

In an accompanying editorial, Amir Mbonde, MB, and Amy Crepeau, MD, of Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Arizona, noted the findings add to a growing body of work on the effectiveness of service dogs in reducing seizure frequency.

“In addition to improved seizure control, the EPISODE study demonstrated the benefit of seizure dogs in enhancing the quality of life for patients, a crucial component of comprehensive epilepsy care,” they wrote.

In prior studies, seizure dogs have identified an odor that a person emits before a seizure in up to 97% of people, they noted, adding that this ability “offers immense clinical benefits to people with epilepsy, enhancing their independence, social engagement, employment opportunities, self-confidence, and thus quality of life.”

Study limitations include its small sample size and high attrition rate.

The study was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development and Innovatiefonds Zorgverzekeraars. Smith and Jones reported no relevant financial relationships. The authors reported no disclosures.

Lead image: Audrey Butterfuss/Dreamstime

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