It’s a hard word to say, but an important one to learn if you are thinking of investing your time, love and money into a new puppy.
Because the condition known as Syringomyelia is extremely serious, has very upsetting effects and is running like wildfire through one of our favourite little breeds of dog.
What is Syringomyelia?
You may have heard that King Charles’ Spaniels can have a problem with the pressure in their brain.
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The condition occurs when fluid filled cavities develop in the top of the spinal cord, near the brain.
The problem has arisen because of the way that these little dogs have been deliberately selectively bred to have a small head.
Not enough room
Distressingly, this has resulted in the back of the dog’s head being too small to accommodate the cerebellum.
Because it’s brain doesn’t fit where it is supposed to, it squeezes through the hole at the back of the skull.
Blocking the flow of cerebrospinal fluid down the spinal cord.
The variable pressure created by the abnormal flow of Cerebrospinal fluid creates cavities in the spinal cord. Forming cysts along the spinal column.
Getting a bit complicated?
This is not an easy concept to understand if you are not familiar with fairly complex biology, so let’s take a step back.
To put it simply, King Charles Spaniels heads are too small for their brains, which is damaging their brain and the spinal column connected to it.
There is a mis-match between the size of the brain and the skull.
So what does that mean for the lives of the dogs who are suffering from it’s effects?
If your pup has syringomyelia, it will often become evident from about 6 months old.
Symptoms will be exagerated when he is excited, sleeping or just waking up, or with atmospheric pressure changes in the weather.
Symptoms vary widely, but include the following:
- hypersensitivity at the neck area
- phantom scratching (near but not on the neck)
- Severe pain in the head, neck and shoulders – causing the dog to yelp
- Tail chasing
- Paw licking and biting
- Hopping while on the lead
- Prolonged head rubbing
- Fly Catching
- Frequent body shaking as if wet
The following video gives some clear examples of dogs displaying these behaviours.
Warning: You may find this distressing to watch
If you think your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel may be demonstrating any of the actions shown in the video above, please take him to the vet immediately.
Diagnosis & Treatment
If a dog shows signs of syringomyelia, this can only be confirmed as a diagnosis with the use of an MRI.
Options for treatment are sadly very limited.
In the early stages of the condition medication can relieve the symptoms, but not the progression.
Anticonvulsants can also give some help in the later stages.
What about surgery?
Surgery can be an option to allow cerebrospinal fluid to flow normally, but it is a very difficult operation and not many veterinary surgeons are specialised in it.
Surgery is also very expensive. However, it is often successful. Although evidence suggests that over time recurrence of disease can occur, and some dogs still show signs of pain and scratching after they recover.
Whilst syringomyelia has been found in other breeds, this is usually secondary to other tumours and far rarer.
It is thought that about 70% of Cavaliers over 6 year olds have this scary condition.
95% have the bone malformation believed to cause it.
And more than 50% of all King Charles spaniels overall, probably have syringomyelia. A truly shocking statistic
So what can we do?
There is a breeding protocol that has been set up by the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club.
It requests that all Cavaliers undergo MRIs. The results will be stored in the Kennel Club’s Mate Select Database.
This will generate an estimated breeding value for syringomyelia. This value will allow breeders to assess the impact of mating two dogs.
However, there is sadly still no insistence on it for Kennel Club registration, and no mention of the disorder on their breed page – which is extraordinary given it’s prevalence and distressing effects, You need to look at the KC’s health page for the breed to discover that the disease exists, and even here, the prevalence is not stated, so puppy buyers could be forgiven for thinking it isn’t a problem.
What Happens Next?
The future of the Cavalier King Charles depends on what breeders do now.
Strict use of MRI on any potential breeding pair, and outbreeding to healthier breeds of dogs would hugely assist their recovery.
The question simply remains whether or not the breeders are willing to go this extra step to help these wonderful little dogs to become healthy members of the canine world in the future.
For more information on this tragic condition and on various campaigns to help save our cavaliers, please visit the following websites
- The Cavalier Campaign
- The Cavalier Re-creation Project
- Syringomyelia by Veterinary neurologist Dr Clare Rusbridge