Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Overview


CavalierHealth.org is dedicated to providing the Internet user with access to factual information about the major, severe health disorders afflicting the cavalier King Charles spaniel (CKCS) and that are presumed to be inherited, including mitral valve disease (MVD), syringomyelia (SM), hip dysplasia (HD), luxating patellas (knees), retinal dysplasia, and other debilitating and/or painful disorders to which the cavalier breed is predisposed. All of these diseases are listed in the left column of each page. The content of the website consists of compilations of information from many veterinary specialists and other sources knowledgeable about the CKCS.

Many of these disorders are present in other breeds of dogs, some to a greater extent than in the CKCS and some to the same or a lesser extent. We do not contend that all of these diseases are unique to cavaliers. But this website is only about the cavalier King Charles spaniel. Therefore, we focus on the extent to which these genetic disorders affect the cavalier, their symptoms, diagnoses, and treatments, and what breeders can and should do to try to lessen the existence of these diseases in future generations of cavaliers.*

 *Some critics of this website contend that the length of the list of disorders in the left column is intended to overwhelm viewers with the sense that the cavalier King Charles spaniel is a chronically sickly breed and should be avoided. That is not an intent of this website, at all. The purpose of the list of the breed's hereditary disorders, alphabetically by their various alternative names, is to enable cavalier owners to speed their search and find what they might be looking for, based upon any symptoms their cavaliers may be displaying.

Some severe hereditary disorders, such as mitral valve disease (MVD), are pervasive in cavaliers. By age five years, over half of all cavalier King Charles spaniels are expected to have mitral valve murmurs, and that percentage increases to the point that among those that survive to age ten years, nearly all of them are predicted to have MVD. The expected lifespan of a CKCS can be quite short -- as young as seven years to an average of eleven years -- the briefer lives due mainly to the terminal effect of early-onset mitral valve disease. Other disorders, such as hip dysplasia, should afflict one out of every four cavaliers. Still others, such as syringomyelia (SM), are progressing through the breed so rapidly that statistics have not been able to keep up with the pace. The current estimate of SM is over half of all cavaliers, and for its companion disorder, Chiari-like malformation, approaching 100% of all CKCSs.

MRI Scan of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel by RVC

CavalierHealth.org does not include every hereditary defect known to occur in cavaliers. It focuses upon the most severe traits, those that are lethal, painful, blinding, causing deafness, requiring lifetime treatment, or requiring surgery. There are literally dozens of other genetic defects which are prevalent in the cavalier King Charles spaniel but which are not classified as severe or life-threatening. And, thus far, the website has excluded some rarer disorders which CKCSs are believed to be predisposed to, such as incomplete ossification of the humeral condyle (shoulder), various eosinophilic syndromes (other than eosinophilic stomatitis), degenerative myelopathy, femoral artery occlusion, myotonia, xanthine urolithiasis, lymphangiectasia, and pyometra.

Definitions of Genetic & InheritedThis website also excludes some very severe hereditary disorders which occur either at birth or during early puppy-hood and of which the puppy rarely survives or which are so noticeable that no breeder would attempt to pass off an afflicted cavalier as a healthy one. Such afflictions include atrial septal defect, parrot mouth (brachygnathism), wry mouth, and hydrocephalus.

The cavalier King Charles spaniel has become increasingly popular in the United States over the last fifteen years. While it had grown slowly but steadily in popularity between its arrival in the United States from England in 1952 until its introduction into the American Kennel Club in 1995, it was not until AKC's recognition that the numbers of litters of cavalier puppies per year began skyrocketing. Since the first year of AKC recognition, the number of AKC registrations of cavalier King Charles spaniels has increased by over 800%. The cavalier in 2013 was the 18th most popular breed in the AKC out of 178 breeds, up from 20th in 2012 and up from the 70th most popular in 1997.

With its increased popularity has come extraordinary over-breeding, which, for the cavalier King Charles spaniel, may well prove to be its death knell.

While this website focuses upon the CKCS in the United States, the genetic diseases discussed here are worldwide, and no country's cavaliers are immune from the debilitating and/or life-shortening affects of these severe genetic disorders to which cavaliers' genes appear to be most susceptible.

Origin of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

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Mitral Valve Disease (MVD)

The terminal heart disorder MVD is a painful disease for a cavalier to experience, and it is a painful disease for a cavalier owner to witness. It usually results in a premature and agonizing death for the dog, and years of heartbreak for its owners.

In the 1990s, a dedicated group of veterinary cardiologists and geneticists began examining the extremely high incidence of mitral valve disease in cavaliers. They found that MVD was over twenty times more likely to occur in cavalier King Charles spaniels than in any other breed, and that by age 5 years, over half of all cavaliers may be expected to have MVD heart murmurs. By age 10 years, 100% of CKCSs in their studies had such heart murmurs.

These canine heart experts devised a set of breeding rules, called the MVD Breeding Protocol, in 1997 and 1998. The MVD Protocol was unveiled by a panel of these experts to American cavalier breeders at a symposium in May 1998 sponsored by the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, USA. The MVD Protocol called for breeders to limit breeding to only those cavaliers which were at least 5 years old and with hearts clear of MVD murmurs (as diagnosed by board certified veterinary cardiologists). The only exception in the MVD Protocol was to allow the breeding of dogs as young as 2.5 years old if both of the cavalier's parents' hearts were clear of murmurs by age 5 years. Under the leadership of its then president, C. Anne Eckersley-Robins, the board of directors of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, USA endorsed the MVD Protocol in 1998.

This MVD Protocol was expected to drastically reduce and possibly eliminate mitral valve disease in cavaliers under the age of 5 years (called early-onset MVD) over as few as two to three breeding generations. However, the MVD Protocol required that cavalier breeders drastically alter their breeding practices, since nearly all such breeders typically began breeding their cavaliers as young as 1 year of age.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of breeders of cavalier King Charles spaniels in the United States have ignored the MVD Protocol and, instead, have increased the breedings of their underaged cavaliers to meet the ever-increasing demand of the puppy marketplace. In addition, since the American Kennel Club officially recognized the breed in 1995, numerous breeders of other AKC breeds have added cavalier King Charles spaniels to their breeding kennels, without proper awareness or concern about MVD or any of the severe genetic disorders common to the CKCS. Also, in recent years the commercial puppy millers, who breed indiscriminately without any thought of health testing, and sell their puppies nationwide through pet shops and the Internet, have added the MVD-cursed cavalier to their inventory of breeds.

As a result, instead of eliminating early-onset MVD in cavaliers within two to three generations (a generation being 2.5 years) in the eleven years since 1998, the cavalier King Charles spaniel has made no progress in its battle against mitral valve disease, and instead, has regressed.

A panel of ten of the top board certified veterinary cardiologists reported in November 2009 that every cavalier King Charles spaniel is at high risk for developing MVD. They recommend that all CKCSs be screened for mitral valve murmurs every year.

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Syringomyelia (SM)

In recent years, syringomyelia has become a major crippler of cavalier King Charles spaniels. SM is an extremely serious genetic spinal disease which is widespread and believed to affect cavaliers of all bloodlines. The number of diagnosed cases has increased dramatically since 2000.

SM progresses from a cavalier feeling hypersensitivity in its neck area, with an uncontrollable urge to scratch at its neck and shoulders, to severe pain around its head, neck, and shoulders, causing it yelp or scream, followed by destruction of portions of the cavalier's spinal cord. SM is so painful that the affected dog may contort its neck and even sleep and eat only with its head held high. Some cavaliers lose full use of their limbs and bladder and bowel control; others deteriorate to the point of paralysis.

Syringomyelia is so widespread in CKCS bloodlines, that the number of potential carriers is huge, and breeding programs based upon avoiding SM carriers is impossible. Researchers now estimate up to 95% of all cavalier King Charles spaniels have Chiari-like malformation (CM), the skull malformation believed to be a part of the cause of syringomyelia, and that up to 50% of cavaliers have SM.

As with MVD, experts have devised an SM Breeding Protocol, which includes eliminating SM affected dogs -- based upon clinical signs and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) -- from breeding programs, and carefully breeding the others depending upon whether or not they are known carriers of the disease. Participation by cavalier breeders in following this breeding protocol has been minimal.

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Health Testing

Veterinarian examining cavalier King Charles spanielThe term, "health testing" is used quite a bit on this website.  The nature of a particular health test on a cavalier King Charles spaniel depends upon the nature of the genetic disorder:

Mitral valve disease (MVD) requires an annual examination by a board certified veterinary cardiologist, using a stethoscope or Doppler or x-ray.  See Cardiologists for a list of the board certified veterinary cardiologists in the United States, and Clinics for a list of low cost heart testing clinics currently scheduled in the United States.

Hip dysplasia (HD) requires an examination by a board certified veterinary radiologist, using x-rays.  See Clinics for a list of low cost x-ray clinics currently scheduled in the United States.

Patellas require manipulation by a veterinarian.  See Clinics for a list of low cost patella testing clinics currently scheduled in the United States.

Veterinarian applying eye dropsRetinal dysplasia, cataracts, and the other eye-related disorders require an examination by a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist.  See Clinics for a list of low cost eye testing clinics currently scheduled in the United States.

Syringomyelia (SM) suggests an MRI examination or a physical examination conducted by a veterinary neurologist.  See Neurologists for a list of the board certified veterinary neurologists in the United States.

• Many of the other genetic diseases require blood analysis by specialist veterinarians.  See Clinics for a list of low cost blood testing clinics currently scheduled in the United States.

Some tests need be conducted only once in a cavalier's life, such as hip dysplasia x-rays and SM exams.  Others must be performed annually or even more frequently, such as MVD exams, patella manipulations, blood tests, and eye examinations.  If a genetic disorder calls for annual examinations, then reports and certificates older than one year are stale and not pertinent to the cavalier's present state of genetic health.  The timing of examinations of other diseases, such as diabetes mellitus, epilepsy, and episodic falling syndrome, depend upon the symptoms displaying themselves.

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Conclusion

Cavalier Blenheim PupsAt a time when the cavalier King Charles spaniel breeder should be cautious and should choose to not breed underaged dogs and untested dogs, in order to reduce the incidence of MVD and SM and several other progressive and worsening hereditary diseases, we find that most cavalier breeders choose to breed their dogs younger, breed them more often, and either not fully test them for these genetic defects or ignore unfavorable test results and breed them anyway.

As recently as 2009, the chairman of the UK's Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club stated: "There are many members who are still not prepared to health check their breeding stock, and of those who do, it would appear that many would not hesitate to breed from affected animals." And so it goes ...

The cavalier puppy buyer needs to beware of these numerous irresponsible breeders.  There are very few responsible, ethical breeders of cavalier King Charles spaniels who actually do the right thing.  Many will tell you that they are responsible, that they test their breeding stock, that they follow the breeding protocols, that they are doing whatever can be done to reduce severe genetic disorders in their breeding programs.  But very, very few are truthful and actually do what they say they do.  It is a Buyer Beware World in the cavalier King Charles spaniel marketplace.

From Dean Koontz' The Darkest Evening of the Year

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