Health and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
If you are considering a cavalier, start by reading this page in its entirety before filling out the puppy inquiry form.
“But I am not looking for a show dog, just a pet”.
I hear this often. Here are just a few of the top reasons you benefit from getting your purebred dog from a show breeder:
You AND your dog will benefit from the health testing and extensive family history they have on their dogs which empowers them with the tools they need to breed cavaliers that possess the four pillars that have made them so beloved: beauty, type, health and temperament. The reality is very few puppies produced wind up being show potential, so the majority of puppies produced by show breeders are pets...pets with all the care put behind breeding beautiful, healthy, sound dogs that goes behind the show dogs you see in the ring. Show breeders are ALWAYS breeding with the goal of improving the next generation by selective breeding. No dog is perfect and by being able to see your dog's flaws (participating in the show world helps
prevent that kennel blindness that can keep you from viewing your dogs objectively) and choosing pairings that bring strength to those weaker areas is where they differ from backyard breeders or commercial breeders who just want to produce any puppies they can.
Like all breeds, they have their share of health issues. The most prevalent one is early onset Mitral Valve Disease. With cavaliers, it is not a matter of IF your cavalier will develop a heart murmur, but morel likely, WHEN. Fully 50% of them develop a murmur by age 5 and virtually 100% by age 10. The percentage increases by about 10% a year (60% at age 6, 70% at age 7 and so on). There are Cavaliers who go beyond age 10 with no murmur. (My dogs have some of these dogs in their lines.) Sadly, the number of them that turn 10 still murmur-free is not statistically significant.
Reputable breeders screen their dogs using a cardiologist (this is very important that a cardiologist is used and not just a regular vet!) for mitral valve disease and follow the strictest recommended heart breeding protocol which is not to breed before age 2 1/2 and cleared by a cardiologist and to only breed then if all four of the potential grandparents of the planned litter have reached age 5 with no heart murmur (cleared by a cardiologist over the age of five). If absent this information, then the dogs themselves should not be bred until age 5 is reached, still heart-clear. Breeders should really know their lines and the heart histories behind the ancestors. If any breeder tells you they do not have mitral valve disease or early onset mitral valve disease in their lines, they are lying to you or are extremely misinformed and lack critical knowledge (and therefore shouldn't be breeding). The goal of this heart protocol is to continually push back the age of onset of Mitral Valve Disease. Progress is very slow, but progress has been made. A DNA test for MVD would be the holy grail of tools, but none exists.
Understand that when a breeder tells you that a dog is clear from MVD (mitral valve disease), that only means the dog was NOT affected (did not have a murmur) at the time of their exam with the cardiologist. It is certainly possible (and indeed likely) that the dog will develop MVD at some point.
A heart murmur itself is not a death sentence. It is the congestive heart failure which in time develops that is the problem. The later the onset of a murmur, the more likely that a cavalier will have a longer life, though this is not always the case. Knowing as much about the health of the dog's ancestors as possible is a very valuable tool for breeders to have to push back the age of onset of MVD (mitral valve disease). Conscientious breeders have extensive health information on their dogs going back many generations.
Dry Eye/Curly Coat (A condition with much more severe consequences than it sounds) and Episodic Falling Syndrome (EFS) (a condition resembling seizures though it is not a seizure disorder) are genetic conditions that can be DNA tested for in the parents and eliminated through selective breeding. Reputable breeders have these DNA tests done so that they can 100% guarantee that a puppy they produce will NOT be affected by either of these.
Cavaliers are also prone to luxating patellas (knee caps that slip out of their groove). Surgery with months-long rehabilitation requiring the dog be kept confined to crate rest for many long weeks while they heal may be required to relieve an affected dog's pain. With hereditary luxating patellas, the dogs usually wind up requiring TWO surgeries, one for each knee since when hereditary (as opposed to when caused by an injury) the problem tends to be bilateral.
Less common in the breed, but present is hip dysplasia.
They can also be prone to several congenital eye problems and should be cleared by a veterinary ophthalmologist prior to breeding.
Another serious problem is syringomyelia (SM), a painful neurological condition with widely varying symptoms and severity between dogs. The condition is caused by a malformation of the base of the skull (Chiari malformation, or CM) which leads to the brain stem bulging into the opening of the spinal column. This restricts the flow of cerebral spinal fluid around the spinal cord and brain resulting in pockets of spinal fluid forming along the spinal cord. These compress the spinal cord. Dogs affected can be asymptomatic, or have anything ranging from mild symptoms to debilitating pain and neurological problems serious enough to require humanely euthanizing the dog. This condition and its mode of inheritance is less understood and much research is taking place. It has become clear that breeding clear dogs to each other reduces the chance that puppies will be affected. MRI is the only way to diagnose the condition with certainty. There is no cure.
This may all sound bleak, but anyone should go into any long term relationship with eyes wide open. No breeder of cavaliers can honestly assure you that your dog won't have health issues. If having a dog that may require diagnostic testing such as echocardiograms (ECG) annually at a cost of $400-$800 each and heart medication for the last 2 or more years of their lives that costs $100-$150 a month is going to be a burden, a cavalier is not for you or you should make sure to get health insurance when they are a puppy. Even with these issues, they are such a lovely breed. You can help the breed by only supporting breeders who are working to better their health.