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My Idiopathic Pup
Pondering one Border Collie's genetics
Cowboy hit the idiopathic jackpot.

This post is really a spontaneous one. I’ve thought about this for many years, and I’ve had discussions with many a dog person on the topic of breeding. I am not a breeder and I have great empathy for those that truly advocate for their breed and those who attempt to maintain vigor and health in their breeding practices.

I am prompted to write today because of a scary episode that happened a few days ago with Cowboy, my five-and-a-half-year-old Border Collie. I was outside playing ball with him—doing our usual go outs and recalls. In the middle of one of the recalls, Cowboy started to arc in a circle, as if he were chasing a bee. Alas, no bees running around Wisconsin at the end of November.

Within seconds, he was down on the ground in the midst of a grand-mal seizure. I stayed by him, and watched him for 15 to 30 seconds that seemed like forever. When it was over, he was a little weak in his hind end and I rushed him to the emergency vet. By the time we arrived, Cowboy was his usual self and we did the customary “rule out” blood work and neurological exam. Everything came out normal, and it is likely that Cowboy may have a diagnosis of “idiopathic” epilepsy.

Time will tell how and if this progresses, but it made me think about the word “idopathic.” As a nurse I know that idiopathic refers to an unknown or indefinable cause. Well, it seems that my Cowboy, has hit the jackpot in the idiopathic category. He is definitely another heart dog—beautiful in appearance and sound in temperament. But Cowboy came to me with an interesting genetic package: He was cryptorchid, developed osteochondritis dessicans in his shoulder, had an unusual idiopathic swallowing problem as a pup, and now may have idiopathic epilepsy.

What is known about the Border Collie and their genetics is that in the past ten to twenty years as their popularity has dramatically risen, the vigor of the Border Collie’s genetics has been seriously compromised. It is not unusual to hear from a working stock dog breeder, “If you have a dog that works, don’t worry about the genetics.”

Well, my response to that, albeit sarcastic, is a similar word, but a different meaning.


And sorrow.

This problem, often called “kennel blindness,” occurs all over the sporting world of dogs and the Border Collie is likely one of the last breeds to be affected by impulsive and unwise breeding programs. This stems from the concept of line breeding, that in order to produce outstanding traits, breed within the lineage of your successful dogs and accept the risks of outing recessive genes that carry pathology with them. After all, the breeder can choose to keep a few dogs that look promising, cull others, or place them in pet homes.

Cowboy will be fine. He is in a loving and safe home. He has people who will accommodate him and pay for potential medical needs. I worry about the future of this breed as well as others. I wonder what truly motivates such shortsighted and cavalier breeding practices. I hope that breeders will start to be a little introspective and honest and share their information about their bloodlines. Too many hide the history or make statements like “my dog got kicked in the head by a cow and then developed epilepsy.”

Anyone with experience and dedication to a specific breed can identify the weaknesses that circulate through each breed. The ER vet told me that there is a line of Labrador Retrievers that suffer from exercise-induced seizures. Those who know Flat-Coated Retrievers know about the challenges of lymphoma in the breed. And so it goes.

This is nothing new of course, but really worth thinking about and discussing. It’s actually quite extraordinary how quickly we can influence genetics. Think Belyaev and his foxes. The great concern is, that once we’ve opened Pandora’s box of pathologic genes, how then, do we clean up the mess?

Well, thanks for listening. I’m wise enough to know there are no easy answers. But, I do hope that those who breed and love their breeds will start responding to these challenging questions.

Often times, things just aren’t so idiopathic.

Judy Illes lives in rural Wisconsin. When she and her Border Collie, Cowboy, are not out enjoying the great outdoors, she blogs about her life with dogs and those that she trained in her in-home program, Thinking Dog, llc. Illes also worked at Call of the Wild School for Dogs in Chicago and received her training from some smart urban dogs.
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Submitted by Sally | December 30 2009 |

Thank you for bringing attention to this issue, Judy! Your loving care and concern shines through your every word. It is a balancing act of breeding priorities, isn't it. I think a healthy, happy dog with a great owner-relationship is the best and happiest outcome, even if certain specific preferred genetic breed traits are not spot-on!

Thanks again for your thoughtful writing!

Submitted by Anonymous | January 5 2010 |

Your Mileage May Vary:

My Border/Aussie cross has had seizures off and on for the past 5 years now. Admittedly she started this Older (15) so we really didn't worry about the Phenobarb. And glad we didn't. The dosages she has been on are minimal, but they control the seizures. Yep evacuating the bowels is a symptom of a seizure, and by walking the house when I return, I can tell that the seizures are under control. No Puddles, no seizures.

Seizures are not limited to pure breeds. Admittedly Tannie had encephalitis, and survived at age 4+-. Don't be afraid of the drugs. Talk to your vet, make your best choices.

I now actually have 2 seizure dogs. Spot, Aussie cattle/springer (from your neck of the woods), has started having quarterly seizures at 3 years old. You do what you can, love them as long as possible.

I agree that responsible breeding is Very Important, but care is also important. Can't change the genes after they are born.

With Tannie we've gone from 0.7mg/kg to 1.5mg/kg, and various vets have told me that we could go higher. And when panicked I have gone to 3 mg/kg. But mostly a baseline small dose keeps Tannie without seizures. We've tried to taper off, and been good for about 9 months without, but I keep a stock. now at 19, yep daily...Peanut butter is your freind. Also SHE reminds me now, "Give me drugs now" Mostly licking, which she rarely does.

The rule I have been told by several vets, if the seizure lasts more than 3 mins (not including afterglow) then there is a more serious prob. And IME the hind leg shakiness is pretty standard. I've gotten good at running to the bathroom for a towel, looking at the clock, and keeping her head from banging, all at the same time..

Don't give up, and good luck

Submitted by Judy Illes | January 7 2010 |

Dear A-
Thanks for your thoughtful and wise input. I know so many people will benefit from this discussion.
Sounds like you really have a good approach with your dogs. It's so individual, isn't it? And, knowing your own dogs and what they can tolerate. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

Submitted by Fred | December 30 2009 |

Thanks for your article. Good luck with your border collie, and here's hoping for no more unpleasant genetic surprises.

Submitted by Amy | December 30 2009 |

Hun, I know how scary and emotional it can be. I have a boder collie mixed with blue tick heeler. She has the body size and shape of the heeler but her hair, color, facial features and personality are all border collie. Her name is Tessa (Tess Tess) and when she was about 2 years old and one day while she was playing with our cat, she was fine one minute and the next minute she was arching and rigid. During this episode she seem unable to see or hear but she seemed to slightly respond to touch so I sat rubbing her for what seemed an eternity while I cried and shook with fear. I thought she had somehow been poisoned and was dying in a stroke or something. Took her to the vet and after extensive tests, they came to the same conclusion as your baby. No definite cause determined but since the episodes have began, she has suffered a few injuries from her seizures. Oh man, speaking about seizures, she's just starting one...brb.

Submitted by Amy | December 30 2009 |

Ok, I have pillows around "Tess Tess" so she can't smack her head on the floor and my daughter is sitting with her now. We try to take turns with her. As I was starting to say before, because of these "episodes" she has, she has suffered some injuries during a seizure. Once she had a seizure in the kitchen while we were all at the store, when I came home, I saw she had a gash over her left eye from the stupid floor vent so I fixed her up and sealed the wound. Another time she had a seizure in the dining room (very old hard wood floor) and got her dewclaw caught inbetween the boards and tore it out so I again had to stop the bleeding and seal the wound. She has had potty accidents as a result of these episodes and a few times even threw up after them...usually only after really bad Grand-mal seizures. Be VERY careful of medicines used to minimize this epileptic condition! Some vets may try to put your dog on Phenobarbital to reduce the seizures...DON'T LET THEM GIVE THAT TO YOUR BABY! Phenobarbital has a deadly side effect in dogs, it will cause your dog's liver to shut down and they drop in weight and start getting weak...it will kill the dog over time. They had put my Tess Tess on it before I knew anything about the medication and within a year she lost over half her weight, her hair started falling out, no apatite or energy so I took her to a different vet and they were irate about the Phenobarbital being given to her by the previous vet, that's when I found out the medicine caused all this damage to her body. They said there is a medication (Potassium bromide) that's alot safer for Tess Tess and it won't shut her liver down. I knew I had to do something so we tried the new medication and threw out the old medication. They checked her liver for the next year and she was very lucky. Her liver sustained no permanent damage (which is rare) and has made a full recovery. Tess Tess has been on Potassium bromide for years now and there has been NO organ damage of any kind. Plus she has gone from having a seizure every other day in the beginning, to maybe 1 seizure a month at the most...all because of this Potassium bromide they put her on. The condition can not be left untreated because without medication, the dog will only live a short life and WILL die from a heart attack due to the strain on the heart during these seizures, so PLEASE PLEASE get your cowboy on Potassium bromide so you don't lose him at a younger age.

Submitted by Amy | December 30 2009 |

Oh I almost forgot... If you are wondering what the triggers are that start the seizure in Border Collies, here is what has been concluded so far.

Adrenaline Rushes:
(very common) getting overly excited (happy) or trying to protect or defend (anger), playing and chasing other pets, fear of punishement when they do something wrong. The first sign of the trigger being present is uncontrollable trembling/shaking. (causes Grand-Mals and moderate).

Temperature extremes:
can trigger (less common) if the dog goes from nice and warm to out in the cold without proper clothing (doggy vest/coat/sweater) or if the dog is left in high heat or very cold for too long (this is the more common trigger) (causes moderate depending on dog's exposure).

(very common) is one of the most overlooked and forgotten triggers. If the dog isn't drinking enough, the muscles with cramp due to moisture-loss in the body (usually ends in a Grand-Mal).

Hope this helps

Submitted by judy Illes | December 30 2009 |

Dear Amy and others, Kind thanks for reading this article and for your wise advice. I will certainly consider all of these recommendations and so far, Cowboy has not had anymore seizures but as I said time will tell. I too, have heard about the bad side effects of Phenobarbitol. But again, thanks for your responses and all the sage advice. Such great dogs we have and as always, we try to do right by them.
Judy and Cowboy

Submitted by judy Illes | December 30 2009 |

Amy- one other factor regarding this case. A week after the initial visit the ER doctor phoned me to tell me Cowboy had positive IGG and IGM titers for toxoplasmosis. The IGM indicates recent infection. They tested for that and neospora as they can trigger seizures in dogs. Cowboy is being treated for toxoplasmosis, so there is a remote chance the pathogen was the cause. I am just grateful to have access to thoughtful veterinarians. I just post this so that if others have a similar experience they can request these blood tests.

Submitted by Julia Kamysz Lane | December 30 2009 |

Thank you for the thought-provoking post. This is exactly why breeders of Catahoula Leopard Dogs do not want AKC to recognize their breed. They're concerned that the conformation set will focus on breeding cool double glass eyes or pretty red leopard coats to the point where aesthetics will trump work ethic and temperament. Look at the difference between long-legged field-bred Labs and stocky conformation Labs. Or Schutzhund German Shepherds and conformation GSDs whose severely angulated hind ends make them useless for actual work. What is a Catahoula if he doesn't know how to herd, hunt or bay? Current Catahoula breeders will tell you that that is no Catahoula!

Submitted by Amy | December 31 2009 |

I will keep you and Cowboy in my prayers. I do hope Cowboy's seizures are caused by a pathogen and can be treated so he doesn't suffer like Tess Tess does. I hate seeing my baby going through this and I'm pretty helpless since there is no full cure. They did run the tests on Tess and her's aren't caused by pathogens so all we can do is try to keep soft items around her so she can't hurt herself during an episode. I've had people look down on my because they thought I was doing something to Tess to cause these episodes (some people are sick in the head) even though they know I run a private animal safe haven from my home and have a wonderful success rate in rehabilitating mistreated pets and get them into new loving homes. I guess some people just enjoy looking for the worst in people instead of just asking why she seizes like this. I actually had a lady call animal control on me because she thought I was abusing Tess when I was walking her and she seized in the middle of a crosswalk. I had to go home and show all her medical paperwork to show animal control that Tess has this condition and she is being cared for to the best of our and the vet's ability. Some people just jump to conclusions without taking time to ask or understand. I hope everything works out and Cowboy's seizures can be stopped so he doesn't end up with a shortened lifespan like Tess will have. No matter how much i try to prepare for that realization, it will still be very devastating to me when her heart does give out. She was my 2nd rescue and I kept her as my own due to this condition so it's going to be hard. My 1st rescue passed away this August due to old age and a clot in the lungs...She was beaten by prior owners in the face...she was a little sheltie and lived to the age of 18 (not many live that long). My 3rd rescue is a severely beaten Hovawart who I kept due to she refused to warm up to anyone but me since it was a man that beat her and she just won't trust men. My 4th rescue is a pit puppy that was supposed to be used as bait in a fighting ring to be killed to get the other pits to attack...I stole him and ran across state lines. So I kept the worst cases in our home instead of adopting them out. Atleast my other dogs will come get me if Tess does into an episode so she can be cared for so they are a big help. Ok i have to get going, getting ready for a trip to visit family for New Years. Take care and many blessings to you and Cowboy!

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