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Hereditary Weaknesses in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

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One of the goals of reputable Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breeders is to raise animals that will have as few hereditary weaknesses as possible. 

Make appropriate inquires of any breeder regarding the sire and dam of any puppy you are looking to buy. Under ideal conditions, you would want certification that both the sire and dam have been examined by a cardiologist for signs of mitral valve disease and found to be clear at age 5.  You may also ask for evidence that the sire and dam's eyes have been cleared by an opthamologist.

The following information provides a brief overview of some of the hereditary weaknesses that may be found in Cavalier Spaniels. For further information, consult the Cavalier Health Organization, an organization dedicated to providing easy Internet access to factual information about the health of and severe genetic health disorders which afflict the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

Mitral Valve Disease

Mitral Valve Disease (MVD) is a heart disorder that commonly affects Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. As Cavalier King Charles Spaniels age, a degenerative thickening and progressive deformity can develop that causes the mitral valve (located in the heart between the left atrium and left ventricle) to leak. Over time, the leak can result in blood pooling behind the heart, causing fluids to accumulate in the lungs and sometimes leading to congestive heart failure.

Unfortunately, there is no prevention and no know cure today for MVD. In mild cases, your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel may have no obvious symptoms of mitral valve disease. In more advanced cases, a CavalierKing Charles might exhibit heavy breathing, coughing and reluctance to exercise. On rare occasions, the mitral valve can tear, causing fever and respiratory illness.

Veterinarians may initially detect mitral valve disease as a heart murmur. A chest x-ray can help evaluate whether the heart has enlarged, but an echocardiogram is necessary for a definitive diagnosis. Moderate cases are generally not treated at this stage. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels with advanced mitral valve disease or congestive heart failure may be treated with diuretics (to increase urine to eliminate excess fluids) and vasodilators (to dilate blood vessels) to provide relief and extend the dog’s life. Surgical valve repair or replacement may be an option for some Cavalier Spaniel dogs.

The American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club warns that mitral valve disease is a particular problem for this breed. Reports have been made of nearly 50 percent of all Cavaliers developing a valve murmur by the age of 4 or 5, and nearly all Cavaliers showing a murmur by 10 years of age.

If you wish to make a tax-deductible donation to the American King Charles Spaniel Club’s Charitable Trust to help finance veterinary research into diseases known to affect Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, you can download a donation form here with mailing instructions.

Healthy Cavalies


Another hereditary condition affecting Cavalier King Charles Spaniels as well as a number of other breeds is called Syringomyelia. In certain animals, a section of the skull is too small, which crowds the brain and blocks the hole at the bottom of the skull. Cerebrospinal fluid is prevented from flowing through the hole and instead enters the spinal cord, creating a cavity called Syringomyelia.

If Syringomyelia is present, canine health symptoms will typically appear between 6 months and 3 years of age, although this condition can develop at any age. This condition is painful to the dog, causing sensitivity around the head, neck and shoulders. It is sometimes detected by owners who observe their pets crying and scratching their shoulders. In mild cases, animals can be treated with painkillers. In more serious cases, a veterinarian can surgically remove a portion of the skull to open up the blocked area. This surgical intervention is most successful in animals that were diagnosed early, before permanent neurological damage occurs. If left untreated, the disease can worsen to the point where euthanasia is the only humane option.

A vet will a require magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test to make a definitive diagnosis. Unfortunately there is currently no DNA screening test that can detect the condition.

Patellar Luxation

Often seen in smaller dog breeds including the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, patellar luxation refers to a slipped kneecap. A genetic deformity of the femur (thigh bone) causes the patella, or kneecap, to shift out of place (luxate) and become misaligned. In small dog breeds, the patella typically shifts toward the inside of the rear leg, called medial luxation. In larger breeds, the patella tends to slip towards the outside of the rear leg, referred to as lateral luxation.

This congenital condition is most often observed when a puppy is 4 to 6 months old.  Affected dogs may appear to have occasional lameness. Or the dog may “skip” about until the kneecap pops back into place.

If you believe this condition may be present in your Cavalie King Charles Spaniel puppy, your vet can conduct a physical examination and take x-rays. In mild cases, where the patella slips only occasionally, treatment may be unnecessary. In more serious cases, surgery may be indicated.

Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia occurs when the hip socket (which is rounded in a healthy animal) flattens out, therefore making it difficult for the ball at the top of the femur (thigh bone) to rotate easily in the hip socket.

Dogs with hip dysplasia frequently have trouble getting up and changing positions. They may sit with their weight on their front legs to take the pressure off the hip joint, and may appear to “hop” on their back legs when running.

In mild cases, your vet can treat the condition with anti-inflammatory and pain relief drugs. Surgery may be an option for animals with serious hip dysplasia.

Although the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals estimates that 11% of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are afflicted with hip dysplasia, it is far more common in larger dog breeds. 

Retinal Dysplasia

The retina is the smooth surface that rounds the interior of the eye. In retinal dysplasia, the retina is wrinkled or folded. It’s not possible to tell how your Cavalier King Charels Spaniels eyesight may be affected by retinal dysplasia, but many Cavalier King Charles Spaniels appear to have no discomfort or difficulty.  However, in other breeds, cases of retinal dysplasia have been observed where the animal’s retinas became detached, causing blindness. For the most part, retinal dysplasia is of primary concern to Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breeders who work to avoid promoting this hereditary condition.

Epilepsy, Fly Catching & Episodic Weakness

Hereditary epilepsy is not a common problem for the Cavalier Spaniel breed, though it does occasionally happen. If present, seizures can present themselves unexpectedly and most often in a dog between 6 and 12 months of age. If affected, your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel can generally be successfully treated by drug therapy.

A related condition is often called “fly catching behavior” where a dog seems to be snapping at nonexistent flies. This condition is frequently left untreated as the dog is rarely harmed by this bizarre behavior.

Another unexplained behavior that appears to be similar to epilepsy and “fly catching” is sometimes referred to as episodic weakness. This presents itself as a dog that suddenly stiffens, lowers its head and may tremble or even fall over. Generally the behavior subsides within a few minutes with no apparent harm to the animal. The cause of this behavior is not yet known and there is no recommended course of treatment.

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