Rage syndrome is the rather alarming sounding name for a rather alarming behavioural condition that is thankfully very rare. It is often confused with a range of other behavioural problems, and is commonly misdiagnosed, as it can be difficult to identify definitively. It is generally considered to be a genetically inherited condition, with the Cocker Spaniel breed being the most affected, followed by the Springer Spaniel and then various other breeds and cross-breeds. Thankfully, the condition is extremely rare even within affected breeds.
Rage syndrome is also sometimes known as sudden onset aggression, or Cocker rage syndrome and Springer rage syndrome respectively when referring to breed-specific presentations of the condition.
The English Cocker Spaniel is the breed of dog with the most reported cases of rage syndrome overall, and it is most likely to present itself in dogs with a red, golden or black solid coloured coat. Dogs with a two-colour coat are less likely to be affected, and as the condition is inheritable, some breed lines run a greater risk of producing puppies with the syndrome than others.
The English Springer Spaniel is another breed that is affected to a lesser extent, although to date, the syndrome would appear to only be present in show-standard Springer breeding lines and not in purebred working dog lines.
Other breeds that have collated data and turned up evidence of a small number of cases of the condition include the Border Collie, Bernese Mountain Dog, Golden Retriever, Papillon, Rottweiler, and English Bull Terrier.
Studies of rage syndrome in dogs indicate that male dogs are more likely to develop the condition than females, and neutering does not affect the condition either positively or negatively.
Attacks of rage syndrome in dogs are sudden in onset and come with little or no prior warning. The signature of the condition is a sudden and unexpected display of extreme aggression in the dog, which is over quickly and then apparently, completely forgotten by the dog, which appears to be totally unaware of what they have done and may appear shocked that the people around them are angry, distressed or treating the dog differently. In countries where rabies has not been eradicated (unlike the UK) rage syndrome is often confused with rabies, although the two conditions are not related.
There is no way to prevent an attack occurring, as it is not caused by a training issue, and the dog appears to have no memory of the attack after the event, and so, cannot be conditioned to follow a new behaviour pattern.
There is almost certainly a neurological short circuit or brain chemistry issue at play in cases of rage syndrome, as many dogs will appear to fall into a fuge state for a couple of seconds before an attack, losing focus and appearing to “zone out.” The dog then appears to snap back to consciousness, and the attack begins, and is often over within a few seconds. Often there are no obvious external triggers for an attack, but some handlers report that their dogs have specific triggers, such as being approached unexpectedly or the presence of strangers in their personal space.
Rage syndrome in dogs usually begins to present itself between the ages of three months and one year old, although it is possible that a dog may live to two years old before their first attack. Many dogs appear to manifest symptoms of rage syndrome when they reach one of the key canine learning stages, at twelve weeks old, six months old, one year old or two years old respectively.
In the majority of cases, rage syndrome is found to be a genetically inherited disorder, and indeed one Westminster Kennel Club show winning Springer Spaniel who was later used extensively at stud has been identified as the source of the condition in the English Springer Spaniel. Rage syndrome can be considered as similar to epilepsy, as it appears to affect the brain’s emotion centres and cause fuges and out-of-character attacks that the dog is totally unaware of afterwards.
Rage syndrome in dogs is difficult to definitively diagnose, and is often mistakenly considered to be a training issue or conscious behavioural problem, which is not the case. Genetic testing can sometimes confirm or deny a diagnosis, although EEG scanning is the only foolproof way of firmly establishing a diagnosis.
Selective breeding by removing affected dogs or those that potentially carry the risk factors for rage syndrome from the breeding pool can ultimately breed the condition out of future offspring, and these dogs should of course not be bred from. Treatment with the same groups of medicines that are used to manage epilepsy in dogs can sometimes prove effective, but this requires lifelong medication and does not prove effective in all dogs with the condition.
Ultimately, if the dog is dangerous during an attack, and has or appears likely to bite or attack people or other animals and medication proves ineffective, having the dog in question put to sleep is sometimes the only option. Dogs that suffer from rage syndrome or are under two years old and considered to be at risk of developing the syndrome due to their genetic lineage should be muzzled at all times in public places, carefully supervised, and not left unattended with children or people who are unaware of the condition’s existence.