I have often dreaded the day that will come when I'd have to deal with the heartbreak of producing a Swissy with epilepsy, the burden of knowing what that dog's owners were going through and feeling absolutely helpless. But I had never really contemplated the predicament I'd find myself in recently, this Winter of 2010/11.
On December 8th, 2010, I bred my Moxie, who was fast approaching 5 1/2 years of age, for what was to be the third and final time. She was the picture of health and had rested 18 months since her previous litter. I chose the sire for this litter earlier in the year but put off breeding due to the demands of my job during the summer. But now everything was set and I was so excited by the prospect of another Moxie litter.
Because Moxie has not been the easiest girl to get pregnant or carry to term, my repro vet counseled me that I should do everything as we did the previous litter (8 live puppies). This involved 4-6 weeks of Baytril prior to breeding ($500 - $750), and doing a natural breeding. Therefore, I was more limited as to choice of stud dog, being restricted to fairly young dogs who were within driving distance. The dog I selected to sire this litter was 3 years and 8 months of age, not exceptionally young by Swissy standards but not terribly old either and it would be his first breeding. Although he had no track record as a stud dog, he did come from a litter of 11, with exceptional depth and breadth of health clearances, and most importantly no seizures in any of the dogs from his litter.
We only got one "tie" but it could not have been more perfectly timed and within a couple weeks Moxie was not only acting but actually looking pregnant. Finally, after about 3 and 1/2 weeks I called the sire owner to let them know that in all likelihood she was pregnant. They couldn't have been more thrilled as they were looking forward to a female puppy from this litter.
AND THEN, at 5:30 the next morning (1/3/11), the world pretty much spun off its axis. I received a call from the sire owner -- the dog had just had a seizure! Half asleep still, my heart started pounding as I thought about these poor folks and what it was like the first time I saw Axel have a seizure. And then about thirty seconds later, I thought about Moxie, most probably full of puppies out of this dog who had just had a seizure. Oh my God, I thought! What can I do? One thing I did know, immediately and without hesitation, there was no way I could ever place these puppies. But what were my options?
Even before contacting the vet that morning, I hopped on the computer to explore options for terminating the pregnancy. When I finally did speak to the vet, she told me to breathe and said "First, there still is a possibility that she is not pregnant." But if she was, there were a couple options available. One, of course, was to immediately spay her. But if I wanted to breed her again, then I could have Moxie undergo prostaglandin treatment. After weighing the options for a day, I decided to go with the latter. And because Moxie did have a history of miscarriage (resorbing puppies), we elected to put off the ultrasound until the end of the week, when she would be about 30 days or so into gestation, an optimal time to begin the prostaglandin treatment.
On January 7th, I took Moxie for her ultrasound, and within a matter of seconds they determined that she was indeed full of puppies. And so, with a heavy heart, I checked her into the vet to begin the treatment. Due to the sensitive nature of handling prostaglandins as well as the side effects, plus the fact that the injections must be administered 2-3 times per day, this treatment really must be done under a vet's care. While I anticipated that Moxie would have to stay at the vet for 7-10 days, she wound up staying at the vet for 14 days. As it turns out, Moxie is just as difficult to get "un-pregnant" as it is to get her pregnant.
Although I don't believe I had any other choice, terminating this pregnancy was not easy to do. Rationally, I know there is still a possibility Moxie may not be a carrier (none of her puppies to date have had seizures, though they are still all under three years of age), in which case the puppies may have been just fine. I know of a such a litter, sired by Axel's epileptic father, and as far as we know, the puppies in that litter are still okay. On the flip side, there is also a possibility that Moxie could even HAVE epilepsy herself. Yes, she is 5 1/2 years old and, so far, healthy. But I have known of other Swissies who did not start having seizures until they were 6 or 7 years old (Axel's father, for one). More likely though, Moxie may well be a carrier for epilepsy and that is the assumption I have always made when breeding her.
The bottom line is these were not puppies who needed to be born. Because I only breed for myself and to improve the breed (which includes health!), there is no way a puppy from this litter would be part of my breeding program. So why not place them all as pets? Well, ask yourself -- who in their right mind would knowingly purchase a puppy sired by a dog who had seizure? Emphasis on KNOWINGLY, because I would have told potential puppy buyers about the sire, and about what it means to own an epileptic Swissy. That if their puppy started having seizures, they might be looking at emergency room visits that could run thousands of dollars each time the dog had a cluster. And in the worst case, they could very well watch their dog die an early death from this horrible disease.
Yes, this was a very difficult experience for all concerned. But it could have been so much worse. What if I had bred Moxie six months earlier, something I would have done were it not for work obligations? I'd be living on egg shells for the years to come, waiting for that first puppy buyer to call. Or worse still, what if the sire didn't have his first seizure until two months later, and I'd be looking at a whelping box full of adorable puppies who would never find homes? All scenarios that make me cringe and reconsider why even breed dogs at all. The reason that I do, and will ultimately breed again, is that I hope that I can make a difference. I do now lie in bed and wonder how many other breeders have found themselves in the same nightmare I faced? What did they do?