01.10.2012 Holistic Health

Pet Therapy for Epilepsy

Olivier Lejus explores alternative treatments for epilepsy

As I mentioned last month in NOVA in my introductory article on this topic, being diagnosed with epilepsy can have an enormous impact in someone's life. Even with conventional medications, episodic seizures can still occur at any time. This places an enormous burden on one's everyday life, and career opportunities are significantly reduced.

Even with the latest medications, epilepsy remains a very difficult disorder to control, and the prescribed drugs can have many debilitating side effects. It has been established that stress is one of the major aggravating factors in this disease, and last month I looked at several studies which showed that regular meditation practice could significantly reduce the incidence of epileptic relapse in most cases. Today we will look at another alternative form of treatment to conventional medications that is worth investigating.

It is commonly known that house pets have a therapeutic effect on most people. For example, medical tests have shown that the blood pressure of family members will come down when their dog is in the room. Also, older people with pets have a lower incidence of depression and autistic children are more receptive to behaviour changes when the family dog is around.

Most animals have auditory, olfactory and ocular powers well beyond human capabilities. Migrating birds and whales can use the earth's magnetic field to fly or swim thousands of kilometres without getting lost and farm animals can feel the onset of an earthquake hours before it occurs.

There have long been anecdotal reports of pet dogs being able to detect the onset of epileptic seizures. These animals appear to be sensitive to very subtle changes in human behaviour or smell that characteristically precede an attack. This is an important factor considering that up to two third of epileptic patients lack a useful warning method for their seizures.

However, it is often hard to predict how the pet will react once his master begins behaving unpredictably. There is always a potential danger that it may become frightened and hurt itself, or even become aggressive and attack the patient or anyone in the vicinity of the incident.

In Sheffield, England, a charity organisation called Support Dogs has for several years developed a specific program to train seizure-alert dogs for this type of work. Once trained, these animals are able to anticipate a seizure and warn their master up to 45 minutes beforehand, without being disturbed themselves by the symptoms. This allows the person involved enough time to take appropriate action to protect themselves against potential injury once they know an attack is coming. Being able to predict when the seizure will occur enables the sufferer to take more control over their own life and thus be more relaxed in social situations. This, in time, leads to an increase in self confidence and a reduction in overall stress for the epileptic patient. A decade after its implementation, program participants have achieved a 43% reduction in epileptic seizures.

One of them is May Lynn Radcliffe who suffered a head injury at a country fair as a young adult. When she was diagnosed as an epileptic soon after, her life was drastically transformed. No longer able to drive, she lost her job. Everyday actions she had long taken for granted like taking a bath, cooking, ironing, or going out to the movies were now potential hazards.

The prescribed medication she was given had horrible side effects and she soon became seriously depressed. Her life changed for the better when a friend mentioned to her the Sheffield Support Dogs program.

Admission was limited to candidates who had been on the same medication for the previous six months. As she was fulfilling this requirement, May Lynn was asked to come for an interview with her close family members to discuss the level of commitment involved. She undertook a three week residential training program where she was taught animal handling techniques with Dougal, her selected support dog. After completion, May and her new found companion began living together under supervision for a short period.

Now, several years later, her life has been transformed, and Dougal and Lyn are inseparable. Lyn mentions that her companion gives her at least a 15 minute alert of impending seizures by various means. For example, if she is watching television, the dog will draw her attention by blocking her view of the screen, or by whining until she understands that an attack is eminent. She has now lost her anxiety, as she knows she will always be warned before an epileptic attack occurs. Her reduction in stress has resulted in fewer seizures and milder medication. Lyn was even happier when she was recently selected to carry the Olympic torch throughout her hometown in the relay before the London Olympic Games.

Epilepsy is a very difficult disease to eliminate. While Western medication is often required, we have now found alternative methods, such as meditation and pet therapy, can have an enormous impact on the quality of life of sufferers. This is truly something to celebrate.

Olivier Lejus MHSc.(TCM), BHSc.(Acup.) is an accredited acupuncturist practising in Sydney

Olivier Lejus

Olivier Lejus BHSc.MHSc. is a registered acupuncturist and Chinese herbalist practising in Sydney. A former casual university lecturer and tutor in Oriental medicine with over 15 years experience in clinical practice, Olivier specialises in Japanese- style acupuncture for the treatment of male and female infertility, migraine, pain, and insomnia.www.olejusacupuncture.com