Right, Moss, at 9 years old. (Photo by Tony Esposito.)
Moss was supposed to be my dream dog, and when he was born he seemed to fulfill all my dreams. He was a red tricolor, large, with a beautiful rough coat, and more laid back than his siblings. When he was young, Iris Combe, a British show breeder of Border Collies, was visiting us, and said that she thought he was gorgeous, and could be a show dog. He learned how to herd young as he was born on our farm, and was very good at it. I was also training him to track, which he seemed to like and was good at, and he was willing to be harnessed and to pull a small cart. Furthermore, Moss was very affectionate, and unlike his dam and sire, he loved being petted and hugged. We used to walk our dogs in a town recreation area, that contained horse trails and a jumping course, and whenever we came upon one of the horse jumps, we would encourage all the dogs to jump over them. Moss was the only one who did eagerly, willingly, gracefully and easily.
Left and right, Moss a little younger than a year old.
One day, when Moss was two and a half, I was working in the house, and all the dogs were lying about. Moss was in the dining room, sleeping in a patch of sunlight. He looked golden in the sun, and I remember thinking "my golden boy". Suddenly, he began to have a seizure. One of my other dogs, Ettrick Linn, had epilepsy, but rarely had seizures, and when she did they were of the type commonly referred to as "petit mal" or partial/focal seizures--fully conscious, with just the lower part of her body affected. I had never seen a "grand mal" or tonic-clonic seizure before. Moss was unconscious, lying on his side, and "paddling" with his feet. His whole boy twitched, and he made the most awful grimaces with his face. I panicked, and called the vet that we were currently using. He told me not to worry, but just bring Moss in to see him later. Thereafter, I went through several vets before finding one that I felt was actually competent to treat him, and we got his seizures under some control.
Phenobarbital worked for a while, but not for very long. Moss had frequent cluster seizures, and he was becoming ataxic from the medication. Eventually we went to a neurologist, who put him on potassium bromide and phenobarbital, but we had to keep increasing the dosage. I started to keep a chart of all his seizures, hoping to find some pattern, but in that I was to be disappointed. There WAS no pattern. Sometimes he would go for months without a seizure, and then have several clusters three or four days in a row. A cluster seizure is when the dog goes into another seizure soon after coming out of the previous one. Then he might go for weeks without any seizure, and then have them again. There wasn't even one period in his entire life where he had two periods of on or off seizures that could have been considered alike. The only thing we could count on was that he always had his seizures while at rest, and even that was not a completely invariable, because once, when we were on a walk in the woods, he had one. Furthermore, he was becoming more and more ataxic (which is defined as an inability to coordinate voluntary muscular movements, a common side effect of anti-seizure medications which can cause weakness and/or loss of control of the hind legs). He fell down, which he did frequently, and had to be helped up. He could no longer do any of the things he used to do. He couldn't herd, he couldn't jump, he couldn't pull a cart. And he was hungry all the time from the medication so that he gained a lot of weight. Once, he had 4 cluster seizures in a row, and it took more than 24 hours to come out of the "post ictal" stage, that time right after a seizure where the dog staggers around bumping into things as if he were blind, and seems totally disconnected from his environment. I took him with me in the car that day to run some errands, and he acted like he had never been in a car before. It was very scary. Through all of this, he remained a sweet, loving dog, though he became very shy and would hide behind me if a stranger came along or at the vet's. Because I was with him all the time and felt he couldn't be left alone, we had a very strong bond the like of which I've never had with another dog.
In 1991, when Moss was seven years old, we moved to the Ithaca, New York area and bought a farm. We also started using Cornell University's School of Veterinary Medicine's Small Animal Clinic for our vet care. While this was the best care Moss had ever received, he got no better and his seizures were under no better control. Falling injured him, and he dislocated one hip, but the vets at Cornell did not want to do surgery because of his epilepsy and his age. The hip did not seem to bother him much, or slow him down. Once you pointed him in a direction and started walking, he would follow, and he could move along at a great clip. But he looked weird, and once, when I had him along to a training clinic (because I couldn't leave him at home), people kept asking me what was wrong with him, since he lurched around like a drunkard and always had a silly grin on his face. I suspected that the seizures had damaged his brain to some extent. It certainly had an effect on his nervous system, something you could see when the vet tested him for reactions. A rubber hammer applied to his wrists and toes brought no discernible response.
When Moss was 10 years old, he went into status epilepticus (a serious, life-threatening situation in which the dog fails to come out of the seizure after 5 minutes or more), and had to be hospitalized with intravenous Valium. The cycle was broken and I went to pick him up, but on the way home in the car, he began to seize again, and I turned around and returned to the hospital. I really thought that was going to be the end. I went to the vet we were seeing at the time at Cornell, and asked her what I should do. She told me that there was nothing else they could do for Moss. His medication could not be increased as it was already at the highest tolerable levels. Then she told me that, while she couldn't prescribe it herself because she had no experience with it, she had read that in humans with epilepsy, vitamin E sometimes helped. I was desperate, and immediately put Moss on 400 i.u.s of vitamin E twice a day, and here is the amazing thing: he NEVER had another seizure in his life--never! He lived 4 more years and we began backing him off the seizure medication. By the time he died, at 14 1/2, from liver cancer, no doubt caused by years of being on high doses phenobarbital and potassium bromide, he was almost completely off his medications, and still not having seizures.
Now I want to tell you about epilepsy in Border Collies. When Moss started having seizures, I contacted the breeders of his dam and sire, Jute and Willy. Willy's breeder gave me the usual rhetoric on the subject: "It isn't in MY line, and I never heard of any other dog I bred having it." Jute's breeders were very forthcoming. They told me that her dam had epilepsy, but they thought it was because she had run headlong into a piece of farm machinery and knocked herself unconscious. They gave me the names and phone numbers of all the people who had bought puppies from them from three breedings of Jute's dam and sire. I tried to contact all these people and was able to reach owners of 15 dogs--these were Jute's littermates, or siblings from two other breedings, and their offspring. Out of the 15 dogs, 6 had epilepsy--that's 40%. Furthermore, I began to collect pedigrees of other Border Collies with epilepsy, and found that there were many more of them that went back to the same lines as Jute's dam. When we bred Willy and Jute, we got 5 puppies, including Moss. One of the pups was sold to someone who was very active in obedience, and that dog did so well that she was bred to the famous dog of a very well-known obedience breeder. When I was collecting pedigrees of epileptic dogs, I heard from several people who had pups with epilepsy from that breeding and further breeding down the line. While my research was probably not scientific and probably not at all conclusive, I'm convinced that epilepsy in Border Collies is hereditary. I mean, 40% in three litters from the same dam and sire? And more pups with epilepsy in the subsequent generations? Shortly thereafter, the dog genome project started collecting DNA from epileptic dogs of various breeds including the Border Collie, but by then Willy, Jute, and Moss and all of his siblings were gone, as were all the other dogs in my "study". But I have hope that in the future there will be a simple genetic test for epilepsy, so that more epileptic dogs are not bred to break the hearts of their owners.
For more information on canine epilepsy, visit the Canine Epilepsy Network at
and the Epi Guardian Angels at http://www.canine-epilepsy-guardian-angels.com/default.htm
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