Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Seizure dogs

Yesterday I looked at a possible "alt-med" treatment modality that may actually work -- "Intranasal Light Therapy."  Today, I want to look at another odd claim, and one that also seems to have some sound research to back it up: the idea that some dogs are able to sense when people near them are about to have a seizure.

I have a personal connection to this one, because our neurotic border collie, Doolin, has a strange ability to recognize when my wife is going to get a migraine.  Now, Doolin's behavior is peculiar at the best of times, but in the hours before a migraine strikes, she becomes even weirder -- following Carol around, staring at her mournfully, and whenever she comes to a complete stop, Doolin presses herself up against Carol's leg.  Once the migraine hits -- which it invariably does -- Doolin won't leave her side until it abates.

Doolin, the Migraine Dog, with one of her diagnostic instruments

Now, I know that one anecdotal report doesn't prove anything, especially that "dog behavioral weirdness" is hardly a quantifiable dependent variable.  But there have been peer-reviewed studies done (read two of them here and here) that indicate that some dogs are able to detect seizures before they begin, and potentially give their owners advance warning.

Here's the thing, though.  Once there are claims like this, the woo-woos get involved, and you get all sorts of wacky explanations flying around.  Here are a few that I saw, after perusing woo-woo sites as long as I could stand to:
  • Dogs are in psychic contact with their owners, and are sensing the oncoming seizure through ESP.
  • Dogs can see auras, and seizures cause changes in the color or configuration of the aura.
  • Dogs have a special god-given talent for protecting their owners from harm.  The whole thing is "spiritual."
  • Dogs are living in "several different realms simultaneously" (whatever the hell that means) and get their information about our medical conditions from some other "astral plane."
So.  Yeah.  Predictably, I think all of the above are unadulterated horse waste.  But assuming that there is something going on, here -- and it very much appears that it is -- what are the dogs picking up on?

It's pretty well established that dogs can be trained to detect when a diabetic's blood sugar is too high, and the likely cue is that high blood sugar triggers ketoacidosis -- and results in chemicals being expelled via the breath that the dog could detect by smell.  While it's unlikely that seizures (or migraines) result in a chemical in the blood, and therefore in the sweat or breath, that a dog could sense, it's a possibility.  On the other hand, it's been suggested that dogs may simply be picking up on changes in mannerisms that occur prior to the onset of the seizure.  Dog behavior, and particularly their sensitivity to human expressions, has been studied extensively, and it's not too far a stretch to think that changes in a patient's demeanor prior to a seizure might be detected by a dog who knew the person well, resulting in changes to the dog's behavior that the owner might be able to learn to recognize.

Whatever is going on here, however, it's a pretty cool phenomenon.  I know that I feel more at ease knowing the Doolin the Migraine Dog is on the job.  On the other hand, most of what she spends the rest of her time doing is pacing around the house, looking guilty, sneaking onto the recliner when no one's looking, and bossing around our other dog, Grendel, so I'm not sure that her migraine-detection skills are quite enough to put her in the "useful" column just yet.


  1. I have never seen this for myself, but I have no doubt that it is certainly a reasonable thing for a dog to do, especially one that has grown up around its owner and had time to develop that tight bond. I have heard of dogs who can smell cancer long before it is detectable by doctors, which is bizzare, but still pretty wild.

  2. Mannerisms, sure. But also hormones. Ask me how I know. Wouldn't surprise me at all if I smell different right before a migraine.

  3. Gordon, does Doolin have a propensity for "snorting" on your wife in the time preceding a migraine?

    Dogs use a small blast of air from their nostrils on contact surfaces to uproot and disturb the particles on that surface... then they breathe in through their nose to suck in the particles they had made airborne to analyze them.

    If Doolin is doing this intense snort/sniff behavior to her leg or arm, it would lend creedence to the smell hypothesis.

    Dogs also have superior hearing and it might be possible that dogs can actually hear our heartbeat, respiration, and be able to detect subtle changes in the body's metabolism, biological functionality, etc.

    1. I haven't noticed her doing that (the snort/sniff thing). I suspect the mannerism changes are what she's noticing; perhaps small changes in vital signs (as you mention). But it is curious. Migraines are accompanied by changes in circulation in the brain, and alterations in neural firing patterns (in fact, Carol's doctor says a migraine is a little like a "slow seizure"). So there could be many results that might be imperceptible to a human that a dog's better sensory apparatus could detect.