by Pat Rock

Puzzle of tetanic spasms

I have shared the tale of my study of the puzzle of tetanic spasms in terriers in the past, but have been approached by some Border Terrier and Welsh Terrier people who have observed this phenomenon in some of their dogs, so here is the information again.

Back in the mid 1970’s I was consulted by another breeder who had observed a weird-looking behavior in one Wire Fox and two Lakelands in her kennel. The spasm she described to me sounded like tetany, which I knew could be connected to calcium metabolism. I was still working in clinical laboratories at the time, so she met me at a show and we collected some tests, which were all normal. Several years later, I observed this spasm in one of my own Lakelands. I had picked her up by the scruff to lift her over an ex-pen and when I set her down she began to stagger, and one of her forelimbs appeared to be experiencing a muscle spasm. She was conscious, just the muscles in the one forequarter seemed to be locked up. Within a minute the spasm passed and she was totally normal. Over the next year I observed these spasms in a total of three of my dogs, ranging in age from 18 months (the index case) to 9 years. The wide range in age of onset was an indicator that environmental factors were likely influential. The duration was short, only the forequarter and sometimes the ribcage or the neck were involved. I ran blood tests for total calcium which were within normal limits, even those collected within minutes of a spasm. It would be many years before I found that the hypocalcemia was only in the ionized fraction of serum calcium. Means to measure ionized calcium were not readily available in clinical medicine in those days. Sometimes there was no apparent trigger, at others it seems that jumping down from a stair or furniture could result in one. Again, it was many years before I was able to determine that these spasms are the canine equivalent of Trousseau’s Sign in humans. If you put a blood pressure cuff on the arm of a hypocalcemic individual, their arm and hand will go into a spasm, with the wrist, hand, and fingers curving sharply inward.

Since there were not video cameras in everyone’s pocket in those days, veterinarians didn’t see the spasm, and many a dog with Trousseau’s Sign was misdiagnosed with epilepsy. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of popular anti-seizure drugs is to raise the blood calcium slightly. When fewer spasms occurred, the vets and owners made a wrong assumption, that they were dealing with epilepsy. Meanwhile, I tried to get answers. I wrote to every vet school (no internet to make it easy) and get nowhere. When a friend reported an affected that was sired by an English import out of a European import, I figured, whatever this is, it is in the entire breed and breeding it out was unlikely. But I still wanted answers. In the late 80’s the college where I taught lab technicians bought a batch of new equipment, including a machine that could analyze ionized calcium. I’d been using dog and horse serum instead of human ever since the advent of the AIDS virus to eliminate risk for students handling it, so I recruited a half dozen affected Lakelands, collected serum samples and by golly, half of them had sub-normal ionized calcium levels. So once again I was energized to find an answer. I began searching the human scientific literature to find researchers working on calcium metabolism, and wrote to them. Still no joy. In the meantime, because of other issues (a litter of puppies developed cystitis while eating a food containing beet pulp, and a breeder friend with another breed had a similar occurrence on the same food. With no medical treatment, the condition cleared up when the food was changed) I began to really scrutinize the contents of the dog food. Prior to that time I had naively put my faith in the veterinarians and researchers hired by the dog food manufacturers, assuming that they had the dog’s best interest at heart (I said I was naïve!). The beet pulp really put me off of fillers and stool firmers. I switched my dogs to a meal-type dry food that was primarily meat and not cooked at high temperatures. About 6 months later I suddenly realized that the three dogs I had that had previously had the muscle spasms hadn’t had any. So I contacted the several pet owners who had also experienced the spasms with their dogs. They switched their dogs to the new food, and no more spasms! But the food had fish meal in it and it smelled and looked like dirt. They didn’t like it, and switched back to a typical commercial kibble, and the spasms returned after a few months. That pretty much sealed it for me—feeding a kibble that was full of plant material, including phytates that bind calcium (the dog food companies would add lots of inorganic calcium so the laboratory analysis looked good, but the dogs could not absorb it). Finally, it seemed like the mystery was solved. And wouldn’t you know, just a few weeks after this Aha! Moment, I received a phone call from a calcium researcher at Johns Hopkins who had read my letter and was interested in studying the calcium disorder in the dogs! I had to tell him that it turned out not to be a genetic disorder at all, just a dietary issue.

Why terriers? This is just a hypothesis, but it seems to me that one of the principal differences between terriers and all other dogs is their reactivity. Terriers have reacted, analyzed and leaped in the time it takes most dogs to realize something is changed in the environment. Calcium ions are necessary for nerve transmission and muscle contraction. Perhaps ionized calcium levels in terriers change more quickly than in other dogs, and they are just not able to transmit enough molecules across the gut wall to serve their needs in the absence of bio-available sources.

Dr. Barbara Royal in her book THE ROYAL TREATMENT talks about her wholistic approach to treating animals. She says the very first thing she does for every patient is look at the animal’s nutrition for answers. She recommends raw feeding, and if you don’t want to do that, cook for your animals or feed them canned, and avoid kibble. She believes every dog and cat deserves to be “wildly healthy,” that is as healthy as they would be in the wild with a species appropriate diet, fresh air and sunshine. I have to agree.