Many people with epilepsy find that their quality of life and sense of well-being improves when they have a trained service animal to help them. If you or someone you love has been diagnosed with epilepsy, here’s what you need to know about deciding whether a service animal is right for you — and starting the process to get your own.
Service animals can help people diagnosed with epilepsy in several ways. You’ll need to know what kind of support you want before you invest in a service animal.
It is important to note that in the United States, only dogs and miniature horses can officially be registered as service animals. Other animals, like cats, can be registered as emotional support animals (and provide much-needed support), but they will not be granted the same legal rights and privileges as official service animals.
Many people with medical conditions such as epilepsy find that dogs are the best support animals for them. Although any intelligent dog with a good temperament can be trained as a support animal, most people choose from the following dog breeds:
Seizure alert dogs can detect seizures before they occur. A seizure alert dog can be trained to display a particular behavior, like pawing at the ground, as their way of alerting you or your caregivers of oncoming seizures. The dog’s alerting behavior gives you time to take yourself to a safe place before the onset of a seizure.
There is some controversy over whether dogs can actually detect seizures before they happen. Studies are inconclusive, and more research is needed. The American Kennel Club advises that it is impossible for a dog to be trained in how to detect seizures, but some may do it naturally. However, some people swear by their seizure alert dogs and say that having one has changed their lives for the better.
Seizure response dogs will not detect seizures before they happen, but they can help afterward. They may go get another person, help you get to a phone to call for help, activate a medical alert device, or prevent you from injury by lying beside you during a seizure. These dogs can help people live more independently because they offer a reliable source of aid.
Seizure assistance dogs may perform some of the same tasks as seizure response dogs, but they are also trained to offer emotional support. While people of all ages with epilepsy can have a seizure assistance dog, these animals are most often paired with children.
In addition to notifying parents or adults if a seizure occurs, seizure assistance dogs offer comfort to children. Their support can also allow a child to do things like sleep by themselves in their own room and get through difficult medical procedures with confidence.
There are approximately 20 nonprofit and for-profit organizations in the United States that train seizure alert dogs. Some organizations only train dogs in certain types of service, and others require you to live in a specific region so you can participate in the dog-training process.
In addition, companies have different application procedures and policies. You will likely need to provide proof from a neurologist that you have been diagnosed with epilepsy and that your provider recommends — or even prescribes — a service animal for your needs.
You will also need to have a plan to pay for your service animal. Training can cost between $15,000 and $70,000, and insurance does not cover that expense. There are grants available to people in certain locations and situations to help cover those costs, but getting one can be difficult and take a long time. Some people with epilepsy pursue crowdfunding, take out a loan, or work with an organization that offers a payment plan to cover the costs of a service animal.
In general, you can expect to wait up to 18 months to be paired with a service dog. The dog-training process can take up to two years. You may also need to travel to participate in certain aspects of the training process or have a trainer come to your home several times.
The Epilepsy Foundation is a great place to start looking for seizure dog trainers near you. Their searchable database will allow you to find people who can help you start the process of getting a service dog.
Some MyEpilepsyTeam members have shared how service animals have improved their lives. One member wrote, “I had a service dog for 14 years. She was the best. On one occasion, she even had to grab her own leash and help me find my way back home.” Another shared, “My service dog is Rosco. He helps me when I have complex partial seizures.”
These dogs can help people with severe epilepsy regain lost independence. As one member wrote, “My furry-legged friend cost me $10,000, but now, I can use public transportation.” Others find that their dogs give them confidence: “I’m feeling weak in the legs, but Hazelnut, my service dog, is saying that I'm OK for now.”
There are a few serious responsibilities that come with having a service animal for epilepsy. Every animal comes with a time, energy, and financial commitment. Just like any pet, you will need to make sure your service animal gets enough exercise, plenty of love and attention, and routine vet visits. If your support animal gets sick, you will be responsible for caring for them. By taking on a service dog, you are committing to what could be a decade or more of animal care.
Your whole family will need to be ready to commit to having the animal and learning to work with and around them. While the animal will be there for your epileptic seizures, family members may need to help care for the animal and make a place for them in your daily life.
Service animals can also draw a lot of attention in public places. Even though most people mean well, you will need to be prepared to explain your animal’s job and ask people to stay away so they can work.
If you are ready to make the commitment to a service animal and you know what you’re looking for, start looking for training organizations in your area today.
Do you have a service animal, or are you interested in getting one? Do you have stories you’d like to share about how your service dog has helped you? MyEpilepsyTeam is the place to do it. Here, you can share your stories, ask questions, and hear back from people who understand your journey with epilepsy.
Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation on your Activities page.