The Epilepsy Underground
First published in Australian Shepherd Journal, vol 13 issue
4, July/August, 2003
by Lynn Fremuth
Epilepsy can impact a breeder even when none of her dogs is
affected nor has produced a single affected offspring. This is
an aspect of dealing with suspected epilepsy that's too
frequently downplayed, but which increasing numbers of breeders
may very soon face.
Knowing that one of your dogs has a near-relative that had
seizure disorder brings with it a host of difficult decisions.
Initially, trying to uncover the reason for the seizures
themselves typically ends in a roadblock or a shrug of the
shoulders from the owner/breeder of the dog in question. "Yes,
she produced affected offspring, but we don't think it was
'really' epilepsy. It was probably from something else." Or,
"Yes, he produced affected offspring, but if you voice it
around, you'll ruin his stud career." Or, "Yeah, she had a
seizure, but we're pretty sure it was from a bump on the head."
The owner of an otherwise outstanding individual which happens
to have near relatives that either produced seizures or were,
themselves, affected, must decide how to proceed with her own
breeding goals. Frequently, the knowledge of the seizures puts
one into an untenable position. Being open with those who
inquire can lead to strong criticism, or even ostracism, from
other breeders with related dogs. One finds herself wondering,
"Should I say anything? Certainly that person must know
already...? Maybe not. It's not my part to tell. The breeder
should've done that."
Most problematic is personal knowledge of a stud dog that's
produced an affected littermate or half-sibling of your own dog.
How does one make a subjective decision about the risk of
passing on the chance of epilepsy if the choice is made to breed
your non-affected offspring of that stud?
In my personal experience, I addressed the issue differently for
my prospective stud dog than for my prospective brood bitch,
both of which were close relatives of dogs who may have been
affected by primary epilepsy.
When I started receiving stud inquiries about my male, he was
three years old and unaffected by seizure disorder. However,
because of the knowledge I had, I considered it my duty to
inform prospective bitch owners of his affected near relative. I
made it clear that the cause of the seizures was not clear, that
the lines were common and used extensively, and that my dog
showed no indication of primary epilepsy or any other type of
seizure disorder. This was information that I would've wanted
divulged had I been seeking a stud for my own bitch.
My dog did sire one litter, the owner of which was fully aware
of the situation with seizures in his relatives. It was a top
and bottom linebreeding, which produced no affected individuals.
None of the other interested parties chose to breed to my dog. I
realized that offering him was a Catch-22 for me. I could keep
quiet, which the owners of his relatives were doing, and earn
stud fees. Or I could be forthright, and have him rejected in
favor of (ironically) other studs who were closely related to
I chose to quietly discourage prospective bitch owners who
inquired about my stud, telling them he was not available to
"outside bitches." I didn't intend to breed him to my own bitch,
so he was effectively removed from the breeding population. His
near relatives continued to be used in various breeding
programs. His sire was used for several more years. I have no
information, though, on whether or not there's a higher than
expected incidence of primary epilepsy in those dogs'
descendants as a result.
My bitch was another matter. I knew that many of her near
relatives, as my stud's, were actively used in breeding
programs. I made the decision to breed her after she was three
years old, and to do a total outcross in an effort to avoid
doubling up possible "source dogs" for the undiagnosed seizures
in her near relatives.
It was an extremely difficult decision, but I was prepared to
take total responsibility for the pups that were produced. To be
honest, I knew that my bitch was far superior to many of her
relatives that were being bred, and it made no sense to "martyr"
her on the chance that she might produce seizures.
She went on to produce twelve pups. I waited until her first
litter was three years old and showed no indication of seizure
disorder before breeding her again, to a different stud. I then
bred her one final time a year later to the stud who sired her
first litter, due to an unforeseen loss of the dog I'd kept from
her first litter.
Eleven of her offspring were from the first sire, producing an
"outcross on an outcross" litter. None of those eleven pups is
affected, and none of their descendants (now in the fourth
generation beyond my bitch) are affected.
The twelfth pup was from her second litter, a linebreeding to a
different stud. When I initially inquired to the stud owner,
asking specifically for information about epilepsy, I was told
that nothing had "come up" in his previous litters or in any of
his near relatives. I knew of a possible genetic link in both
his and my bitch's shared pedigree, but went ahead with the
cross. As I said, the lines were popular and extensively used.
Very few people were (and are) willing to be open about
epilepsy, so then, as now, much is done on faith.
I have recently learned that the stud produced a later offspring
with primary epilepsy. The stud dog's owner did not inform me of
this when it came to light. In speaking with an acquaintance who
had used the dog at stud, I found that his owner had not
provided that information to her, either. It's that sort of
secrecy that makes informed breeding decisions next to
impossible. However, when I told this acquaintance that the stud
had produced affected offspring, which would be half-sibs to her
own pups, I got a chilly rather than grateful reply. Most people
prefer not to know about the presence of primary epilepsy in
their dogs' relatives.
I immediately informed the owner of the single pup that resulted
from the breeding of that stud to my bitch. I have no
information about the health status of that pup (now seven years
old), but her owner has other dogs closely related to both my
bitch and the stud dog. It was essential that she be aware of
the bitch's affected half-sibling.
In closing, there are many people who are struggling with
knowledge of epilepsy, in much-used lines and in individual
dogs, that isn't generally available to other breeders. The
pressure to keep the knowledge "confidential" is almost
overwhelming. The best one can hope is to build a relationship
of trust among others with knowledge, and who are willing to
share, via what I think of as The Epilepsy Underground. This can
be a blessing and a curse. The blessing is in being able to make
truly informed breeding choices. With knowledge, one can look at
a pedigree and have a better idea of the probabilities that a
particular cross will bring two "carriers" (for lack of a better
It's fascinating, but alarming, to research pedigrees of
affected lines and try to apply that knowledge to one's own
breeding plans. At times, it seems as if there's nowhere to run
and nowhere to hide. If more breeders would be willing to openly
share their experiences�both positive and negative�with breeding
dogs from affected lines, the pool of knowledge would be
invaluable. As a result, the stigma would be ripped away, and
the breed would be on the road to stemming the increase of this
We cannot simply toss out all dogs who are related to producers
or affected individuals. We have to take informed, cautious
chances. What works? What's disastrous? Can we start to pinpoint
genetic "streams" from related individuals that seem "clean,"
despite the presence of primary epilepsy in near relatives? Can
we pinpoint other "streams" that seem to produce a greater
number of affected dogs than random probability would expect?
The curse of possessing knowledge of epilepsy in one's lines
comes from the extreme pressure one is placed under to keep the
information confidential. I find myself always wondering if a
particular breeder or owner "knows" or even wants to "know."
And I can no longer look at pedigrees the same way the
"blissfully ignorant" do.