Epilepsy in Beagles

Epilepsy is a widely used term describing the uncontrolled movements of muscles known as fits and seizures. There are lots of different things that can cause seizures and they can be a one off or repetitive in different situations. Beagles have been recorded as having epileptic seizures for many years. The reports in the UK stay at the same level year after year and it is thought to be hereditary although there is no test for this yet.

Most epileptic seizures start during sleep and the onset is aged from 2 to 5 years generally. They can involve just a part of the body, the so called petit mal seizures, or Alma's the body, the grand mal. The dog may also lose bladder and or anal function and some owners only know they have had a seizure by the presence of urine or faeces unexpectedly when the animal has been left. Most seizures only last a minute or so but they can sometimes be repeated over and over - cluster seizures or be prolonged- status epilepticus. Both cluster seizures and status epilepticus can be dangerous and sometimes even life threatening.

Most veterinarians will recommend therapy to help control epilepsy if the number of seizures exceeds one a month, if clusters occur, if status has occurred or if there are behavioural changes such as aggression. Therapy usually involves phenobarbitone as the main drug with additions such as potassium bromide. The aim is to significantly reduce or remove the seizures.

There is a rare condition known as Lafora's disease which beagles also suffer from. This is not the same as idiopathic epilepsy and doesn't respond well to normal therapy. The disease is a result of a fault in a pathway which produces a carbohydrate. The fault results in some of the carbohydrate being deposited in nervous tissue and stops them functioning normally.

One of the forms of epilepsy is Lafora’s Disease which we now have a DNA test for. The condition results due to a fault in the carbohydrate pathway which leads to excess carbohydrate being deposited in nervouse tissue and stops their normal function. Originally the condition could only be tested using blood sent to the Children’s Hospital at Toronto, Canada. Now we have two laboratories and more in the pipeline who can test for this condition using cheek swabs. It is a difficult gene to isolate and distinguish between carriers and affected so not all laboratories will be able to offer it.


The Animal Health Trust in the UK are pleased to collect DNA samples from epileptic beagles. They would need to be diagnosed carefully to screen out dogs which had seizures for other reasons. Copies of diagnostic tests and a clinical history would be needed as well. Contact bryan.mclaughlin@aht.org.uk and ask for a DNA kit. It involves a simple cheek swab and instructions are given for taking it. Genetic studies are progressing well and a gene has been isolated in the Belgian Shepherd breeds. Beagles might carry the same gene or another one so screening affected dogs would be very helpful as it would be good to be able to avoid breeding dogs who develop seizures.