Joe Inglis BVSc MRCVS is the vet for the One Show, This Morning and BBC Breakfast. He runs his own line of natural pet food called Pet’s Kitchen
Sleep is something most of us take for granted and appreciate – there’s nothing quite like gently slipping into a deep sleep after a long day at work and letting 8 hours of peace take away all the stresses and strains of the waking day. And the same is true of our pets, with cats and dogs in particular seeming to really enjoy the pleasures of a good long nap.
However, for a very small number of animals (and people) sleep can be far from a relaxing pleasure and it can even pose a threat to their life. The condition of narcolepsy is a rare genetic disease that can affect people and animals and causes sudden bouts of deep sleep which come on out of the blue in the middle of the day. Whilst the sleep in itself is not dangerous and sufferers usually come round within 15-20 seconds, the act of losing consciousness can present dangers if the pet or person is in a potentially dangerous situation – such as swimming for example.
This kind of danger was one of the issues facing the dog I was talking about on Daybreak on ITV recently. Mabel, a rough collie cross was one of the unlucky few dogs to be born with this condition and now, aged 4, she battles against sudden attacks of deep sleep every day of her life.
‘She’s a rescue dog,’ explained Mabel’s owner Trevor as we waited to go on the show, ‘and we only knew that she had narcolepsy when she had her first attack, a couple of days after we brought her home. We were terrified as it looked as though she’d died!’
On the show, Adrian Chiles asked Trevor what happened when Mabel had an episode.
‘She wags her tail furiously and runs around yelping before she hits the ground like she's been struck by a bullet,’ explained Trevor. ‘It usually happens when she’s excited, so when the postman comes, or when she meets other dogs.’
Christine Bleakly then turned to me and asked me what caused this condition.
‘It’s thought to be caused by an imbalance of chemicals in the brain,’ I said, ‘but no-one is really sure of the exact details either in dogs or people.’
I then went on to explain how this lack of understanding meant that treating narcolepsy was not an easy task.
‘The main way we help dogs suffering from this disease is through behavioural advice such as teaching owners how to reduce stress and avoid over-exciting situations which trigger episodes,’ I explained. ‘There are some drugs available such as anti-depressants that can help but in general most cases are managed by owners rather than treated medically.’
During the interview a video of Mabel suffering from an attack of narcolepsy was shown and it really was amazing to watch – one minute she was racing around chasing her tail barking wildly, and then she just collapsed in a heap. After a few seconds she was back on her feet as if nothing had happened – but it was easy to see how distressing these episodes must be for the owners, particularly to begin with before they become used to them. Thankfully there’s no evidence that narcolepsy causes significant distress or discomfort to dogs, and as far as I could see Mabel was otherwise completely healthy and happy.
It was a fascinating case and although it’s very unlikely that Mabel will ever be completely cured, I’m sure she can look forward to a good quality of life ahead thanks to the love and care of her owner Trevor.