Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to premature aging of the heart valves, which causes them to leak: it’s the leading cause of death of this breed of dog. It’s an inherited disease, affecting over half of all Cavaliers by the age of five and nearly all of them by ten years of age. It’s a huge shame, as breed is one of the most good-natured, gentle dogs of all, yet most of them die prematurely from heart failure.
Thandie and Thula are typical examples, and they’re both at different stages of progression of their heart conditions.
Thula is older – at 11 years of age, and her heart murmur was first noticed at by the vet one of her annual routine health checks three years ago, when she was eight years old. A heart murmur sounds like a loud hiss which the vet can hear when listening to the heart with a stethoscope. At that time, veterinary experts did not recommend starting treatment for heart disease until a dog began to show signs of being unwell. Thula had no such signs: she was bright, well, and enjoying exercise as much as ever. It wasn’t until two years later, when she was ten, that the heart disease began to cause problems. Thula started to have episodes of difficulty breathing while exercising, and she also woke in the night, fighting for breath. An ultrasound examination confirmed that her leaky heart valves were no longer allowing the heart to pump effectively, so she was started onto daily tablets to help. She responded well to treatment, but her leaky valves have, predictably, gradually deteriorated, and she now needs two different types of tablets twice daily to keep her healthy. She’s very well just now, but the leaky heart valves mean that her life will definitely be shorter that it would otherwise have been.
Thandie, at nine years of age, has also just been diagnosed with a loud heart murmur. At this stage, she has no signs of heart disease at all: she never coughs, she enjoys exercise, and she’s never out of breath. When Thula was at this same, early, stage of heart disease, with no signs of illness, it was not recommended that she should start on medication. However a major study of dogs with this type of heart disease has just been published, and a new recommendation has now been issued by veterinary experts.
Now, instead of waiting until a dog starts to suffer from signs of heart disease, it is recommended that early treatment should be given. This doesn’t mean that every dog with a heart murmur needs treatment, but it does mean that dogs with loud heart murmurs (like Thandie) should be investigated in more detail. X-rays and ultrasound should be carried out, and if these prove that the affected animal had an enlarged heart as well as a heart murmur, then medication should be started even when there are no external signs of heart disease. If this is done, studies have shown that the drugs will give dogs like Thandie an extra fifteen months of healthy life before signs of heart disease are seen.
Coincidentally, Thandie has grown a couple of wart-like growths on her head, and they are beginning to bother her, so they need to be surgically removed under sedation and local anaesthetic. She has been scheduled as a day patient early in the New Year, and at the same time as I remove the growths, I’ll take x-ray pictures of her chest. If these confirm that she has an enlarged heart, it will be time for her to start on daily medication. If all goes to plan, she’ll stay healthier and happier for over a year longer as a result of the tablets.