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Episodic Falling

Episodic falling is a syndrome of muscle stiffness and collapse, the underlying cause of which is still unknown, even though it has been in evidence in this breed for over forty years. It has in the past and still is frequently misdiagnosed as epilepsy and mild cases are often just written off as a "funny turn".

In 1982, Dr Palmer, from Cambridge University tried to research this condition, bringing it to light at a BSAVA Congress. He made an appeal for information in the dog papers. He was of the opinion that the condition was probably hereditary but without breeder support it was impossible to reach any definite conclusions. Sadly his research was terminated not long afterwards. A further attempt in 1986, by Dr Wright was also abandoned due to lack of information.

The symptoms of episodic falling show considerable variation. Most affected dogs show signs before they are a year old, usually between four to five months of age. There are exceptions to this and some have been three to four years old before having an episode. Very mildly affected cases will just "freeze" momentarily when running and to the unsuspecting, untrained eye they can very easily go unnoticed. Some have a bunny hopping gait when running and will throw their rear ends sideways, falling onto their sides. Some have a "deerstalker" gait where the head is drawn closer and closer to the ground causing them to stumble or pitch forward onto the nose. Others will fall and go into a muscular spasm that can last from a couple of minutes to a few hours.Some of these dogs are also "flycatchers".

Many of them have a stiff, hackneyed gait, especially just before an episode begins and most lack co-ordination of limbs even when moving normally. There is no loss of consciousness and no apparent pain, although some of them do occasionally yelp when they fall. It affects both sexes and all four colours. The trigger for these episodes appears to be exercise, excitement, stress or shock, but in very severe cases they will fall for no obvious reason.

Over the past two years there has been a very marked increase in the number of reported cases, not only in the UK but also in the U.S.A, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Test matings done over a nine year period by a breeder in New Zealand have given the expected Mendalian results for inheritance by a single recessive gene. It will take experts to prove whether this is correct or not.

New research is now ongoing at The Animal Health Trust in the UK, led by Dr Jacques Penderis who is collaborating with Dr Ned Patterson and Dr Jim Mickleson of the University of Minnesota. Firstly they want to try to establish the pattern of inheritance , for which they need pedigrees of affected dogs and their relatives. Secondly they are assessing the effectiveness of different treatment options for severely affected dogs, which are currently extremely limited. Initially some dogs respond well to Diazepam or Clonazepam but there is a tendency for them to develop tolerance to these drugs and the beneficial effect soon wears off. They are now looking at other drugs to which tolerance does not develop and have had promising results from one of them. Thirdly they are collecting blood samples for DNA extraction to conduct genetic linkage analysis to determine the causative gene. If this is successful it will be possible to produce a simple test that will identify carriers.

So please if you can help with information on Episodic Falling contact Dr Jacques Penderis BVSc MVM PhD CertVR DipECVN MRCVS RCVS and European Specialist in Veterinary Neurology Animal Health Trust, Lanwades Park, Kentford, Newmarket, CB8 7UU, UK.

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