Cary News

August 10, 2014

Tar Heel of the Week: A dog’s seizures lead to a retirement obsession

Willard Moore’s dog was afflicted by canine epilepsy. So he went to work to raise awareness – and research money.

Willard Moore spent decades of his life as a dog lover in waiting – unwilling to subject a canine companion to his long hours of work and lack of space for a pet to roam.

But when he retired, he sought a member of his favorite breed, an English setter, to occupy his expansive Western Wake yard. Yet within months of adopting Molly, chronic seizures forced him to put the dog down.

And so instead of just a pet, he ended up with a new way to spend his retirement – educating dog owners about canine epilepsy and raising money for research into a disorder that affects about 5 percent of dogs.

For going on eight years, Moore has attended more than 100 pet-focused events, passing out more than 1,000 pages of literature on canine epilepsy – all assembled on his own. He also collects donations for a fund set up by the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Molly’s name.

“As a volunteer for all of these events, he is truly making a difference in the lives of pets and owners facing this disease,” says Julie Ann Nettifee Osborne, a researcher at the veterinary college.

Moore, 65, says he started out just passing out a few leaflets, but stepped up his efforts when he realized how many dogs had seizures, and how few people were aware of them.

“It just kind of makes me feel good to be able to do this and to think that we’re helping other folks,” he says.

Time for a dog

Moore grew up in a New Jersey farmhouse on land that had been in the family for generations. By then, much of the land had been sold, but the English setters his father kept as bird dogs still had room to roam.

Moore loved the dogs, which he said were both great hunters and great pets. He always meant to have one of his own, but only if he could give it ample time and space.

“I always said that when the time is right I would get one,” he says. “But my job just never lent itself to proper pet care.”

Moore graduated with a forestry degree from N.C. State in 1970 and soon went to Vietnam, where he was a pilot with the U.S. Air Force.

Once home, he found forestry jobs were scarce, so he says he did “whatever I could do to put beans on the table,” working mostly in New Jersey.

He returned to the Triangle in 1988 and worked for Huffy Bicycles. When he retired in 2006, he started looking for his dog.

Medication ineffective

Moore found Molly on; she was a slim white dog with light brown spots and a sweet disposition who had found her way to the Pitt County animal shelter.

He suspects her previous owner and the shelter workers may have missed her seizures, which often occurred at night.

But one day about a month after he brought her home, she suddenly stood up on her hind legs like a rearing horse and then fell on her side, her legs kicking and jaws snapping open and shut as saliva dripped from her mouth.

Moore had never seen anything like it. So he took her to an emergency veterinarian who diagnosed Molly with canine idiopathic epilepsy, chronic seizures that can’t be explained by tumors, malnutrition or other factors.

Like many pet owners, Moore had never heard of a dog having seizures. Later he learned that some breeds, such as beagles and German shepherds, are at higher risk for the disorder, though Molly’s breed was not among them.

The veterinarians gave her phenobarbital to stave off the seizures, but it didn’t work for Molly. Within a few weeks, she was back at the emergency vet after a cluster of seizures. That was June, and she continued having periodic seizures through August.

Despite more medications, Molly’s seizures only seemed to get worse, though between them she graduated from obedience school and seemed to enjoy life with her new family.

The medications put her at risk of liver failure, so once she was taking maximum dosage, there was little else to do. And the drugs had side effects, making her so hungry, for instance, that she’d eat the bark off of trees.

“She was acting like a drunk old lady,” says Moore. “The seizures were getting worse and still in clusters. I had to learn how to administer Valium to try and break the cycles.”

He bought an infant monitor to put by the crate where she slept, since most of her seizures were happening at night.

Finally, after a particularly intense December seizure, Moore decided it was time to end Molly’s suffering.

Awareness campaign

He also wanted to make her life mean something. So before his veterinarian put Molly to sleep, Moore contacted researchers at his alma mater who were studying canine epilepsy and offered them a sample of Molly’s blood.

Then he started gathering information, from N.C. State and other sources, and passing it on to pet owners at dog-centered events. The first event he went to was the Super Retriever Series, where organizers allowed him to put information out on registration tables.

He continued to add new events to his calendar, such as the veterinary college’s Dog Olympics and the American Kennel Club’s Responsible Dog Ownership Day, as well as fundraisers for various rescue groups.

Soon, he was also bringing the occasional check to the college’s research fund for seizure studies.

“I figured 5 percent of the population is bothered by this terrible disease, then certainly there are other people who might make a similar contribution in one way or another,” he says.

Molly’s research fund

In 2008, the veterinary school created a fund in Molly’s name within its seizure studies fund. Among the studies that receive funding is one aimed at finding a genetic marker that might explain why about a third of dogs affected by seizures, like Molly, don’t respond to medication.

“It was pretty big medicine when they announced the fund in my dog’s name,” he says. “I started out with little more than a folding chair and a stack of literature.”

Now he has a tent, two tables, a chair and a Rubbermaid bin full of literature. His wife made him cloth table covers, and the veterinary college printed contact cards with Molly’s picture on them.

Summers are slow, but starting in September, he’ll be at the Tarheel Labor Day Cluster and the veterinary college’s Dog Olympics.

Moore says most of the people he talks to have never heard of canine epilepsy. Some tell him about their own seizures, or share their own story of a beloved pet. But they all leave with a memory of Molly.

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