Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Syringomyelia (SM)

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Special Report

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are the most popular toy breed in the UK and their popularity is growing rapidly in the US.

Syringomyelia is very serious condition in which fluid-filled cavities develop within the spinal cord near the brain.  It is sometimes called “neck scratcher’s disease”, as one of its common signs is scratching in the air near the neck. Syringomyelia is a rare disease for most dog breeds but it is a very widespread problem in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. In very basic terms the reason these dogs are prone to this disease is that the Cavalier’s skull is too small for its brain tissue so it is squeezed through the hole at the back of the skull where it blocks the flow of spinal fluid down the spinal cord.

The Symptoms of Syringomyelia

The symptoms of the disease start with the Cavalier feeling hypersensitivity around its neck area and an overwhelming urge to scratch its neck and shoulders. This progesses to the dog suffering severe pain in its neck and shoulders followed by the destruction of parts of the dog’s spinal cord. Affected dogs may lose full control of their bowel and bladder movements and others become completely paralysed.

The video below is an excerpt from the BBC Documentary “Pedigree Dogs Exposed”. It describes the disease and shows footage of the symptoms and the pain they suffer. Some people may find some of the images disturbing.

Since 2000 the number of cases diagnosed in CKCSs has risen dramatically. Researchers estimate that as many as 95% of CKCSs have Chiari-like malformation which is thought to be contributing factor to the onset of syringomyelia. They also estimate that 50% of CKCSs have the disease. It appears that the severity of the disease is getting worse generation by generation and it is not limited to any particular breeding line. It is a worldwide problem and experts believe it is an inherited disease in the Cavalier.

Syringomyelia is now so widespread amongst Cavalier King Charles Spaniels that breeding programmes based on avoiding carriers of SM are now probably impossible. Experts have devised an SM Breeding Protocol which involves removing SM affected dogs from breeding programmes which is achieved by using clinical signs and MRI scans. MRI scans are very expensive, ranging from $800 to $2000 and therefore, not suprisingly, very few CKCS breeders are following this breeding protocol.

Today Cavalier King Charles Spaniels suffer from an alarming number of diseases and protocols tests have been devised to help reduce these. Unfortunately very few breeders are actually putting these protocols into practice. Many will say that they are responsible breeders and that they health check their breeding stock and are doing everything they can to reduce the genetic problems in the breed. Unfortunately this is untrue in most cases. In March 2009, the chairman of the UK CKCS 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.”

Cavalier puppy buyers need to be aware that there are many irresponsible breeders.  Ethical, responsible breeders of Cavalier King Charles spaniels are few and far between. This author believes that informed dog buyers have a very important role to play in the reduction of genetic disorders and can help reduce the numbers of unethical breeders. At the end of the day breeders breed dogs to make money. If buyers refuse to buy dogs that have not been properly tested, breeders will soon feel the effects on their wallets and perhaps realise that ethical responsible breeding is perhaps the way to go. If a breeder says that he health tests his breeding stock, demand to see the results of the tests. If you as a buyer do not check whether your future pet’s breeder is carrying out responsible breeding practices, you will have a  far greater chance of ending up with a very sick dog on your hands which will translate into expensive vet fees.

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