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Springer (Spaniel) Rage Syndrome in Bull Terriers?

From BARKS, Issue 1, Spring, 1986 (pp. 18, 19) Copyright Shari A. Mann 1986-2004.

“Rage Syndrome” is evidenced by an unprovoked attack directed toward people or other animals, preceded by a period of disorientation. Frequently, affected animals go directly from a sleep state to a rage / attack state. An awake but peaceful animal may exhibit a transition state, often of quite short duration, in which the eyes, although open, go out of focus (“glaze over”), followed by an intense attack directed toward the nearest living being. I first read the term “Springer Rage” in an article by Maxwell Riddle, DOG WORLD, late 1980 or early 1981.

Based on the above definition, Bull Terriers are indeed occasionally similarly afflicted. The causes of this “rage” are not known, and the most commonly reported “treatment” is euthanasia. Any animal in such a state is dangerous; a Bull Terrier in such a state is awesome and greatly to be feared. The state seems to pass naturally, behavior returns to normal, and the animal seems not to know what it has done. The rage state appears totally unpredictable, frequency of occurrence varies within individual animals, and the intensity of the attack may vary as well.

My first Bull Terrier, Ellie, was one of these afflicted dogs. She was obedience trained to competition level in Novice; her behavior was reliable and predictable when she was awake. It was when she was asleep that she was dangerous. She sporadically attacked our other dogs when waking from a sleep, and once slashed a human earlobe flailing her head about with her mouth open, in search of a dog to bite. She was unquestionably dangerous, yet I chose to risk keeping her, since she slept with me, and her attacks were directed toward our other animals, never people or strange animals. She seemed to return naturally to a normal state, not knowing what had occurred moments before.

Of course the vet was consulted, and all manner of tests were run, without conclusive results. I kept careful records of instances of occurrence. The only conclusions ever reached were: 1) if her sleep was very deep, any sort of sudden awakening was apt to trigger an instance, and 2) extreme activity (hunting) resulting in extreme fatigue seemed to trigger an instance.

I concluded in over 5 years of observation of Ellie that the “bad behavior” was not a matter of choice on Ellie’s part. An attack was simply something that happened to her and to us. We treated her as if she was ill, not as if she was bad. She was on Primadone, a tranquilizer frequently used to control epileptic seizures. To quote my vet, Primadone “eats the liver.” Ellie died at 7; the 5 years of Primadone may well have been a factor in that early death. Without it, though, she would probably have been killed at two.

Since Ellie’s death in 1981, I’ve learned of half a dozen other Bullies with this “rage” problem. I know these dogs and owners personally. They do not appear to be temperament / training problems. Dog “A” attacks her owner when he awakens her by coming home from work in the early morning hours; the rest of the time she’s fine. This bitch is not obedience trained, the breeder told the owner Bullies weren’t intelligent enough to be trained. Dog “B” only attacks when something moves near his head while he’s sleeping. The dog is nice with people and with other dogs, and is moderately well trained, although he tends to be somewhat hyperactive. Dog “C” will be playing in the yard or house, suddenly goes into a trance (very still, glazed eyes), then goes into a rage state. If everyone can get out of range in time, he comes out of it; if anyone is close to him, that person is bitten.

I have personally never heard of a recovery from the “rage syndrome.” Once the symptoms are exhibited, they seem to remain for the life of the dog. Brenda Weintraub, in her letter in Barks (Winter ’84) written in response to the story of Meatball (Barks, Fall ’83) indicated veterinary analysis of physical causes and positive responses to treatment in two specific cases. One bitch suffered from a viral infection n the nerve endings of the brain, the other dog from a severe infestation of hookworm.

There appears to be no pedigree commonality in dogs exhibiting these symptoms. I don’t believe it’s a temperament / training problem, but rather that there is some unknown physical / neurological cause for the aberrant behavior. The dogs with this problem are not “bad” (badly behaved); they seem subject to seizures, the cause of which is physical but as yet unknown. That they pose a physical threat to their keepers is clear. Very likely they should not be kept alive. It is hard to imagine that anyone would knowingly breed from an afflicted animal, although there are not statistics to prove the progeny would, or even might, be similarly afflicted.

These seizures are not a common problem, but when they occur it is tragic. The owners so often own a single pet Bully. They invariably feel guilty, as if they were somehow personally responsible. That is unlikely. And how can the breeder be blamed, when the seizures seem not to arise in baby puppies? I have not heard of more than one puppy from a litter being affected, or of more than one puppy from a sire or dam among the six Northern California cases. It does stand to reason that a top sire, used 50 times in the course of his stud career, might produce more than one such pup. It hardly seems fair to compare that sire with one used 10 times, or twice. Statistics can be misleading: in one instance an affected puppy was the only puppy in the litter. Think what could be done with that statistically.

I lived with a “Raging Bull” for five years, trying the whole time to find out what was wrong. No one was interested in my carefully kept records of her seizures. All I’ve learned since is that there are many others like Ellie, and we still don’t know anything about causes or control. This in a breed that has eliminated the deafness problem!

If you have a “Raging Bull” story, write it down. If you are currently struggling with this problem, document as much as you can. It would be helpful to know age of onset, frequency and duration of occurrence, what external stimuli trigger attacks / seizures, if there are any behavior problems while the dog is in a “normal” state and so on. Some time in the future, when we learn to trust each other and to love our animals more than ourselves and our vanities, your information may be part of a data base that will aid in solution of the problem. If you would like to send me your stories, I will keep a record, and I will keep all information confidential. Information without names is much better than no information at all.

In the meantime, believe this: it is not your fault your dog behaves this way, nor is it the breeder’s. It happens, the way any random disease happens. Find the solution you can live with best. Euthanasia is justified. If you do not choose euthanasia, be aware of the risk you are taking: if your dog hurts any other creature you must bear the burden of responsibility. Your dog is sick, he has seizures; he is not an evil being. But you are still responsible for his actions.

Shari A. Mann
San Francisco, CA

Author’s note: Not enough has changed, since I wrote this 18 years ago.