by Anne Jones RN, BSNE
There are three conditions with signs that are similar that can be found in Bichons. Each of them is rare in our breed but each will need to be considered if the dog displays these signs. Diagnosis can only be made by a veterinarian or a veterinary neurologist. The intent of this article is to familiarize the pet owner with the diseases so that he or she will know what to look for and to describe to the vet.
Inherited epilepsy is a neurological event that will need diagnosis and treatment from the onset. Your dog will have a seizure and the inherited form of epilepsy usually will appear by the time he is three years old. Inherited epilepsy and seizures that are a sign of other metabolic or neurologic diseases look the same so it takes careful medical examination and testing to determine the underlying cause of the seizure. For a better understanding of epilepsy, there is a significant amount of information on the website of the Epilepsy Foundation and The Canine Epilepsy Network at www.canine-epilepsy.net. Based on data collected by BFCA, inherited epilepsy is relatively rare in Bichons compared to many other breeds.
Seizures begin with a contraction of skeletal muscles and the dog loses consciousness. The legs will stretch out, the dog will fall over and the body will begin to twitch, called the tonic phase. He may vocalize, lose control of his bladder or defecate. As the clonic phase begins, his jaws will snap shut and he will appear to be running in place as his legs rhythmically move. If not stabilized, he may in fact have the ability to run briefly and out of control. In a small breed such as a Bichon, it is best to attempt to wrap him in a towel and hold him close until his body relaxes. Even if he gets up and tries to walk, he will not be in control and should be crated because he will actually still not be in control or aware of surroundings. We do get quite a few reports of seizures in Bichons and they are most often related to some existing condition that needs veterinary diagnosis and treatment. A seizure cannot be ignored. Any seizure is a sign of serious health issues.
The other two conditions mentioned above appear to be extremely rare in Bichons. There is an article on Bichon Dyskinesia on this site and there is no need to go further into explanation of this disease. The important point that must be made is that you will almost certainly not be able to have your veterinarian witness a dyskinesia event in the clinic. Therefore you must make arrangements to videotape several episodes. In the meantime, you should make an appointment with your vet as soon as you have witnessed the behavior. There is the possibility that the dog is having a seizure in some form and a delay could postpone diagnosis and treatment of some other condition. If you want to take a copy of this article or the article on dyskinesia with you, feel free to do so. We always recommend veterinary examination about any unusual sign of illness and he or she will rule out other possible conditions. If there is no other diagnosis, then you may need to consider Bichon dyskinesia if the behavior sounds similar. This condition was first diagnosed in a Bichon in Great Britain and later diagnosed in an American Bichon in 1998. At this time we have fewer than 10 confirmed cases in our files with about as many possible but unconfirmed cases.
White dog shaker syndrome has appeared on lists of diseases likely to occur in Bichons Frises almost as long as Bichons have been recognized as a breed in the United States. As of this date (early 2007), we have had exactly one report come to our health committee of this diagnosis. That does not mean it does not occur but it is either being missed or misdiagnosed. However it does occur in Maltese with some frequency and the Maltese is a cousin in the bichon family of dogs.
White dog shaker syndrome is reported to first appear in young dogs under age 3 years and in both sexes. They have a fine tremor of the body that gets worse when excited or agitated and may be accompanied by weakness, tilting of the head and possibly seizures. It appears to be a condition of the central nervous system, with an increase in white blood cells found in cerebrospinal fluid. Treatment with corticosteroids long term should bring about resolution of symptoms but lifelong low dose treatment may be needed. It is not considered a fatal disease. Information about the condition is found on maltese and terrier web sites because they are the breeds most often diagnosed with it. Because we do not have reports in Bichons does not mean that it can be ruled out. (Please note that there is another condition with head tilt called vestibular disease which occurs mostly in older dogs. That is a disease of the middle ear.)
In summary, with a seizure the dog will collapse and extend his body in a rigid position with jaw snapping or clamping, rhythmic movements of the legs and possibly vocalization. He will continue to be disoriented for a time after the seizure ends. With dyskinesia, the dog walks along normally, halts, extends one or more limbs, holds the position for a period of seconds to minutes, relaxes and walks on. He may fall if the episode involves several limbs. He rises afterward and is clearheaded. With white dog shaker syndrome, there are tremors of the body, agitation and weakness and there may be tilting of the head to one side. These episodes can be lengthy and will likely be more frequent.
In order that we may maintain data on illness in Bichons, we request that anyone having a Bichon diagnosed with any of the above conditions (or of any inherited condition) fill out a Health Incident Report and submit it to our health committee. This enables us to know if disease is present in the breed, how frequently it is diagnosed and, with the submission of pedigree information, the genetic inheritance. While some breeders hesitate to provide pedigree information, this information is only used by a very limited committee and kept confidential to enable us to study trends. Only through knowing the genetic history can the condition be eliminated!