Poor Mafia presented to AdelaideVet recently because he was showing disturbing behaviour changes. He was having frequent intermittent strange episodes of altered mental state where he would become highly distressed, frenzied and aggressive. During the episodes he would become very stiff and tense in his face and body, his eyes would bulge, his pupils would dilate and he would growl, stare, lunge and snap. His behaviour would become very reactive and impulsive. He would attack his owner during these episodes as if he didn’t recognise her and couldn’t control himself. He would bite her and break the skin, causing nasty injuries. These episodes seemed very spontaneous and unpredictable. They occurred very suddenly and were very dramatic and scary. Sometimes they would happen for no apparent reason at all. Sometimes they would be triggered by activity happening around him or someone entering a room or moving towards him. Sometimes he would have multiple episodes like this in a single day, while other days he would not have a single episode. Often after an aggressive episode he would seem drowsy and disorientated for a while. Otherwise, between episodes he would seem perfectly normal, social, friendly and happy again, like nothing had happened. His owner described him as “the perfect dog” apart from these strange attacks of behaviour.
When we first saw Mafia he had been having these episodes for about 1 year but they were getting steadily worse. His owner mentioned that other dogs related to Mafia from the same breeder have also exhibited odd neurological signs and aggression. Another interesting piece of information was that as a young puppy he had been fed raw meat and had been very ill with gastro-intestinal disease, suffering severe tummy upset for several months caused by Salmonella.
Mafia also had signs of generalised anxiety. He was generally restless and hyper-vigilant, sensitive to noises, easily startled, fearful of and reactive to unfamiliar things and overly clingy and needy. He was often agitated and busy at home for no reason and had trouble settling and “switching off” to rest. He was also becoming increasingly irritable and aggressive towards his companion dog at home, especially around food.
When assessed in consult Mafia’s behaviour was not normal. He showed signs of severe anxiety and had impairments in the way he responded to things in the environment. He was overly fearful of things and would often startle at things he had already investigated as if he was noticing it again for the first time. He was generally hyper-active, agitated and hyper-vigilant. He was extremely sensitive to noises. He often stared at me intensely and perceived me as threatening. He frequently jumped and pawed at his owner trying to seek help and reassurance for his anxiety. When he stopped moving and reacting to things briefly it was apparent he was extremely exhausted and fatigued. He would almost doze off for micro-naps while standing – but would then re-activate with the slightest change around him.
Mafia’s history and behaviour in consult was alarming and suggested a disease process going on in his brain. There were many different things on his differential diagnoses list but one thing I was particularly worried about was a disease called Toxoplasmosis. This is caused by the parasite Toxoplasma Gondi which is transmitted in raw meat (especially Kangaroo meat) as well as in cat faeces. Toxoplasmosis is the reason pregnant women are advised not to handle raw meat or clean cat litter. Toxoplasma also affects humans and is especially dangerous to developing babies if their mothers are exposed to the disease when pregnant. Toxoplasma can affect the central nervous system and cause injury and inflammation in the brain. In infected people, it has been seen to cause severe behaviour, personality and mood disturbances. Many people who were initially diagnosed with Schizophrenia were later found to have Toxoplasma as the cause of their mental illness.
The parasite can be diagnosed via a special blood test which looks at antibodies to the parasite in the body. Mafia was started on some anti-anxiety medication while we awaited the results of his blood tests. A few weeks later his blood results returned and they confirmed he was positive for Toxoplasma. His antibody levels were extremely high. This was consistent with severe Toxoplasma infection.
Mafia was prescribed a special type of antibiotic which kills the parasite. After a long and rocky road he is finally showing very encouraging improvement in his behaviour. His aggression is dramatically reducing and his general functioning and quality of life is increasing. He has come a really long way and I am really proud of him.This case is an important reminder of the dangers of feeding raw meat to dogs. Raw feeding is commonly recommended by breeders and is becoming quite popular but it is actually very dangerous and never recommended. Raw meat is often contaminated with infectious agents. In Mafia’s case, his being fed raw meat as a puppy likely was the cause of his Toxoplasmosis as well as his terrible Salmonella poisoning. The fact that Mafia’s breeder had seen several cases of neurological disease and unexplained aggression in their dogs was likely due to their shared history of exposure to raw meat feeding and infected mother dogs passing the parasite to their puppies in utero.
This case is also a great reminder of why dogs with behavioural problems need to see a vet for medical investigation rather than first being referred to trainers. Abnormal behaviour can be a sign of many medical diseases and treatment can often dramatically improve and normalise their undesirable behaviour.