Cavalier King Charles Spaniels Breed Column
AKC Gazette - March, 2004

Cavalier owners are fast learning more about a disorder which affects our breed: syringomyelia (SM). The condition occurs when the back part of the dog's skull is too small, forcing cerebrospinal fluid into the spinal cord. A fluid-filled cavity develops, damaging the dog's spinal cord.

Researchers hypothesize that SM began in our breed with two siblings, born in the 1950s, whose descendants came together sometime in the 1970s, creating a genetic scenario ideal for the expression of SM. It is said that all Cavaliers from every bloodline possess the genetic possibility of carrying at least one of the three genes thought to be responsible for the condition.

Not surprisingly, until something tangible occurs-a cure, a genetic marker, a set of meaningful breeding guidelines-we can expect to see accusing fingers pointed at stud dogs, breeders, bloodlines, dog foods, the environment, vaccinations, and puppy rearing. Frustration and heartbreak, fueled by images of our dogs in needless pain, often lead to the very human response of laying blame.

Whether SM has surfaced due to genetic bottleneck, popular-sire syndrome, or the luck of the draw is up for speculation. Anyone with a pedigree file is susceptible to the temptation of amateur sleuthing. We may wish hard for a simple solution such as breeding away from dogs X, Y, or Z, yet the inheritance of a polygenetic condition such as SM is too complicated and insidious to be conquered by such easy breeding adjustments.

Honesty from fellow breeders is deemed essential but is very much a double-edged sword. To admit having seen SM in your dogs places you on an unwritten, but very real, blacklist. Conversely, stating that you have never experienced the problem will elicit, from some, the comment that you are a kennel-blind liar, too proud to admit having seen it in your line.

The AKC Canine Health Foundation has become a touchstone in the darkness for us and for all breeders who seek to mitigate or eradicate the problems that plague our dogs. The CHF is mentoring us through the process of collecting comprehensive health data, offering guidance as we invest our hard-sought Cavalier Health Trust funds, and providing matching funds for the studies that we choose to support. Our parent club, the ACKCSC, has approved a $10,000 breed-health survey to be conducted by Purdue University. This data will aid in prioritizing our health concerns for specific presentation to the CHF.

Through the cooperative efforts of many breeders, significant donations of time and money, and the utilization of scientific research and useful breeding parameters, we will adjust and respond to this new threat as best we can. We dare to dream that this, too, shall pass. Though a noble goal, we cannot expect to produce dogs free from all disease and heritable defects while simultaneously maintaining correct breed type, temperament, and conformation.

But through all of this Cavaliers will continue to survive and prosper, most living good, long lives while delighting their masters, as they have for hundreds of years.

- John D. Gammon, AKC Gazette Breed Columnist