Trudy was a year old when a friend of Gillian’s found that she could no longer keep her, for personal reasons. Gillian had met the little dog, and she adored her: she’s a placid, good natured dog who gets on well with every human and every animal she meets. So when Gillian heard that she was looking for a good home, she was very happy to welcome her into her family. It was only when she took Trudy to the vet for a vaccination booster that Gillian discovered that Trudy has two serious issues, both of which are inherited diseases that are common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.
The first problem was that Trudy often scratches the left side of her neck with her back left leg. She does this many times a day, especially when out on walks. Gillian had just begun to see it as a strange habit, but when I examined Trudy, I explained the background to this issue. It’s nothing to do with skin disease, or sore ears, as many people think. In fact, it’s called “air scratching”, because dogs that do this aren’t even making contact with the skin. It’s caused by a common problem called “syringomyelia”, which happens as a consequence of the shortened, dome-like skull of Cavaliers. The back part of the brain is compressed by the skull, causing an outpouching of fluid which causes an irritation to the spinal cord. This in turn causes an itchy sensation, which is why dogs like Trudy paddle their back leg in this way so often. It’s difficult to treat: in severe cases, skull surgery is sometimes possible, and in other cases, calming medication can be given. Trudy isn’t severe enough to need such radical action, but the issue does still upset her quality of life in an unfortunate way.
Her second inherited problem is also common in Cavaliers: she has a loud heart murmur because of a leaky heart valve. Trudy has no signs of heart disease at the moment, but it’s almost certain that at some stage in the next few years, she’ll start to cough and to have difficulty breathing. Medication will give her short term relief from these signs, but her life will be shortened compared to that of a healthy dog.
The sad truth is that this is not inevitable: if more care was taken to breed dogs for good health rather than “cute” looks, these breeds could be as healthy as any other dog, and live far longer, happier lives.
Gillian adores Trudy, and she’s sad to know about these health issues. There’s nothing she can do about them, and she’s just going to focus on giving Trudy the best life possible, even if it’s shorter than it might be. And one day, when she gets another dog, she’ll get a healthy cross-bred mutt.