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 him.

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 word) together.

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 awful disease.

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.