My wife and I are expecting our first Cavalier to join us in May, but she's experiencing some trepidation about it now, as am I to be honest. We've spent months preparing for a dog, right down to already having harnesses, beds, crates, brushes etc waiting, and taking numerous personality tests and taking part in an assessment with an animal behaviour therapist. The Cavalier, it seems, is the dog for us. Having researched more on the breed we were enamored by its wonderful temperament, especially reading so many owners talking about their dogs habits and charming personalities (a favourite of ours was stories about them loving to dive under the blankets on the bed!). But, as with all research, the more we did the more we found, and in the case of the Cavalier what we found were health problems. We were and are willing to take care of animals when they get sick, but with the Cavalier it almost seems like we're guaranteeing this for ourselves, rather than it being a potential risk as it is with most dogs. As part of our investigating my wife finally managed to make herself watch the "Pedigree Dogs Expose" documentary (she'd previously felt it would be too much for her) as we understood it showed some info on SM. Whilst I'm fairly sure it was overstated in some areas (TV+passionate cause combined making good opportunities for that), what we saw was very distressing and we're uncertain about proceeding with bringing a Cavalier into our lives. The idea that some (I may be wrong here?) 75% of the breed will suffer pain related to CM/SM? That 75% can't be made up exclusively of puppy farm dogs so how can we know whether or not our dog stands a really good chance at being ok? The breeder we're working with has said we can see the MRI scans of the mother/father/grandparents before we put down a deposit, as well as cardiologist reports. The father, mother and grandparents have all been CM/SM low grade so far but the mother is also only two so it could still show up.
It might seem silly but we've whipped ourselves into, if not a frenzy, at least a muddle. With good hearts and spines in the predecessors does anyone know what sort of... odds (horrible way of putting it) our guy might have? Or is it seemingly more random than that?
We really do love the breed and deciding against going through with bringing him home would feel awful, but, we suspect, not as awful as watching him fit or struggle to breathe in a few years time. Of course any dog can get sick but as I said before, reducing the chance of the dog getting sick is very important surely?
So... does anyone have any thoughts or advice to help us decide? Would having this wonderful little dog in our lives be worth the potential heartache should something go wrong? Is there any other breed that even comes close to this legendarily wonderful temperament?
Hi and welcome. You raise some important issues and difficult questions, with no easy answers.
We have a lot of people here with cavaliers with no signs of SM, and lots of us have cavaliers with SM, that are on medications or have had surgery. (I have three out of five I have owned, with SM).
I know the producer of Pedigree Dogs Exposed, and she is an award-winning documentary maker. There is no overstatement of the problems in the breed -- I know the researchers she spoke to, and she cited relevant statistics from current research. Sadly, a study of over 500 cavaliers with no symptoms showed that over 70% would likely have SM by the time they are age 7 or so. That's shocking. Not all of those dogs will suffer pain with it, and many may have little/no pain at all -- however, the problem is that it is very difficult to assess pain in dogs, especially neuropathic pain. Researchers are trying to create better models of assessing SM pain in dogs. SM is considered one of the most painful human conditions and most people with syrinxes do seem to eventually experience some degree of pain and discomfort over a lifetime, from what I have read. HUman sufferers say it can be a quite unbearable pain.
The board here has focused on making sure people get information on the facts about the condition, the research, and the things a puppy buyer should look for in a breeder.
What worries me is that you say the mother of your prospective pup is just aged two? This if true would make me walk away from the breeder. Whatever about SM and the recommended breeding guidelines, which state that grades are meaningless for breeding purposes if done before age 2.5 (so her 'low grades' mean little for any dog scanned below age 2.5)... the bigger issue is that no cavalier should be bred before age 2.5, period. This has been the breeding protocol for heart disease for nearly 20 years and no breeder can say they do not know this. Heart disease is endemic in the breed and is also progressive so breeders need to wait til 2.5 to breed -- and then ONLY if they know both parents of each breeding dog was heart clear at age 5 (eg all four grandparents). If this wasn't the case then a breeder shouldn't breed til the parent dogs are age 5 and heart clear.
That said -- it would also be amazing if this breeder has MRI scans not just for both parents but all 4 grandparents! -- as few have such extensive information especially in the US, where less scanning is done. If she has all this information -- excellent news! Yet... very strange for someone to be scanning and cardio testing and ignoring the age element of the breeding protocols!!? :confused:
So I have to be honest: the breeder sounds suspicious and I would have a gut feeling that she actually may not have the scans she says she has.
It is not puppy farm cavaliers but all cavaliers equally, that have these problems. The even greater risk with a puppy farm dog is that you are certain no testing has been done at all. And, of course, no one should support that horrific practice of farming dogs in terrible conditions.
There is good research work showing that tested dogs, bred using the age protocols, turn up significantly lower rates of SM and early-onset heart problems. :) But these two conditions are unfortunately, rife in the breed, and those of us who love cavaliers live with that uncertainty of risk over the life of their dog, and need to be familiar with the signs of both conditions, the breeding protocols, the things breeders should be doing, and support healthy breeding and truly health focused breeders. :thmbsup:
We all love cavaliers and want to see this breed continue. That will take dedication from good breeders as well as puppy buyers, who need to make sure the poor breeders do not get our support or money that enables them to keep breeding with no regard for the breed's future or their puppies' health.
People care enough here that we have created one SM health fund that has raised nearly $40,000 to date to help breeders scan breeding dogs, especially older dogs. Members here also have created two other funds, for collecting tissues valuable for research after the death of a dog, and to raise funds generally for breed welfare (health and rescue).
Only you can decide whether you want to own a breed that has two major, endemic health issues, and a higher than average rate of many other illnesses, too. If you opt for a cavalier, I'd recommend getting insurance as well, from a company that covers genetic illnesses such as SM and MVD (most do not).
[On the temperament -- there are many breeds and mixes with pleasing temperaments. :) Cavaliers are not the only option. I adore cavaliers, but nearly everyone will say of the breed they love, that they have wonderful temperaments! Cavaliers can be snappy, overly shy, fear aggressive etc as well, due to poor breeding or poor socialising by owners. So temperament is only partly related to breed.]
PS I should add: SM and MVD do not generally make these dogs have fits, or to struggle to breathe when only a few years old. They tend to be gradual onset conditions, with varied symptoms; not all symptomatic dogs have serious problems with either condition (but it is a crisis in the breed that they have these health problems). You can read more about symptoms and what it is like living with dogs with these conditions from owners posting in our SM/MVD forum here. Many cavaliers go a lifetime with no major problems -- that's the case with three of my dogs, including two that have SM but seem to have very slow-progressing, mild cases (they are now around 7-9, and are rescues of unknown background). Most of mine have MVD now; I lost one last year to MVD at 11. I have found MVD harder to deal with than SM so far. Half of all cavaliers will have heart murmurs by age 5-6 -- that is shocking given that it is an old dog's disease.
The breed does have a higher than average level of epilepsy and also a unique condition called episodic falling syndrome, which is similar to a fit. It also can have a syndrome which causes breathing problems, and breathing issues can come with advanced stages of heart disease, but not SM.
Cavaliers are wonderful companions and great family dogs but they are very health compromised.
I appeared in the PDE documentary. I can assure you that it was not overstated.
If you buy a cavalier you are taking a chance that you will end up with a dog that has a heart that ages earlier than other breeds. Cavaliers with early heart murmurs can go on without any problems until really old. Others can die breathless and unable to exercise at seven years old.
You also take a chance that your cavalier may develop Syringomyelia at some time. Some cavaliers have shown painful symptoms that could not be controlled while still puppies, some have died when in their teens without showing any obvious symptoms.
I have had quite a few SM dogs and watching them and wondering just how much discomfort they are in is not pleasant. There are drugs that can control SM pain but getting the combination & the dose correct for the individual dogs, the constant need to tweak & increase the dose, can be a nightmare.
If you buy a cavalier you need to give yourself the best chance of a healthier puppy by buying from a truly responsible breeder. One that eye tests (cataracts are showing up again in cavaliers) heart checks and MRI scans when the cavalier is over 2.5 years old, not someone who tests when the parent(s) are really too young.
You need to be aware it is not what breeders say that proves they are responsible, it is being open & honest and willing to show all health certificates.
As a sensible buyer you need to know how to read those certificates. There is plenty of information about puppy buying on this site.
Apologies, the bitch I mentioned above is three, not two. And thanks for the replies! I'll certainly make sure I get a good handle on reading the certificates. My lady has tried to explain what she has learned about graded murmurs and A/B/C (?) grades of SM, but two heads are better than one and I'll have a look.
Thank you especially for your comments re: the PDE documentary. I thought there might have been some dramatic license employed and whilst I'm actually sad that that isn't the case, I appreciate knowing that from first hand experience.
We're really struggling to decide. Our previous dogs have been spitz' which are wonderful dogs, but certainly stubborn. The plus side of them is they are relatively healthy and any undesirable traits - being vocal, for instance - tend to be things that are reasonably easy to deal with.
Anyway, I will look in to more info and I suppose we will have to keep mulling it over for the moment. Thank you again.
Ok, three is much better than two. :)
The letter grading system is an old grading system. One problem with it, and with any grades on certificates outside the UK, is that few breeders are submitting their scans to the British Vet COuncil/UK Kennel Club MRI scheme to have a grade assigned. So many breeders are self-assigning grades. In some ways this is understandable, as the US clubs have shown no leadership at all in dealing with the condition and giving breeders guidance (the UK Club has at least posted information, helped arrange very low cost scanning days, and helped co-fund scans now and then). But every US breeder can submit their scan to the BVA to benefit research and get an accurate grade from a panel of three well-known expert neurologists. For the price of a single puppy from a litter, a breeder could submit a couple dozen scans for this valuable service to the breed and their own breeding programme.
Many breeds do have health problems but -- regardless of what some breeders say -- this is not a healthy breed generally and many of us do begin to deal with breed genetic health problems by the time the dog reaches middle age. We should be able to make that choice consciously and good breeders should make buyers very aware of these realities. I ran irish breed rescue for years and always went through these health issues with prospective homes and never once had anyone back out of adopting a rescue cavalier, so I don;t understand why many breeders shy away from doing the same.
If you have found a breeder who has this range of scans and can verify the grades (though I'd ask why she is still using the old grading system...) and also is doing proper heart testing and using the breeding protocols, then you are in a very good starting point, but there are no guarantees, of course, and that can be hard for some people to live with and make them feel they have to always be watching their dog.
I had one dog from a wonderful, health focused breeder with generally long lived dogs, who nonetheless had mitral valve disease (a murmur) by age 7 as well as congenital deafness by that age. She had an excellent MRI scan at age 9, however. She lived til close to 11 but spent the last year of her life with serious heart disease, on a range of medications, and it was devastating to go through it. The very best breeders will produce dogs that have issues and most of us will lose our dog at some point after age 7 from MVD. The lucky ones make it well into their teens but these are rare. The average age of death is around 10, young for a toy breed.
The difficulty for the individual cavalier puppy buyer is that these conditions can be lowered in severity, and the age of onset pushed back, in dogs from health focused breeders. But they cannot yet be eliminated, and it seems pretty much every cavalier carries the genes for the two most severe conditions and the problems are extremely widespread.
A good breeder will be very happy to talk through your concerns with you. :thmbsup:
Well, are you asking it is a risk? Yes it is. However as you have learned there are ways to "try to reduce" the risks like finding a health focused breeder, and I will say sounds like your breeder is on the right track. Personally I have never cared for a sick cavalier but I have owned a dog with medical/health problems in the past and lost him too early due to his illness AND I still choose to own a cavalier. Honestly I think any well informed loving owner does to some extent feel like they are living with a "time bomb" so the speak just holding our breathe and waiting for one of the many health problems to show up. Investing your heart and life into something that will end in heartbreak....who wants to do that? Only you and your wife can decide how you are going to look at the real possibility (and likelihood) at some point you will be caring for a sick dog...Is it worth it? Seven or eight good years, then doing everything you can, vet visits, specialists, medications, non-stop watching carefully, and worry with an outcome that will break your heart.... What if its 10 years, or 2? That is a VERY personal decision and VERY difficult. Yes, owning a cavalier is a leap of faith I guess.
Here's the bottom line for me. I would rather have all those beautiful wonderful loving experiences I believe you can only get from having a pet you love so very much. I do worry, I am financially prepared (having a good insurance policy is a MUST for a cavalier+ a nice little saving account tucked away), I spend time still learning everything I can about all known medical problems in cavaliers so I can spot a problem easily but at the end of the day I focus on loving my dog. For me, knowing its only a matter of time before Fletcher is sick I try VERY hard to enjoy every healthy day we have........I don't skip walks, grooming, playing, training, cuddling, petting or even just looking at his sweet little face. I think for me its also why I seem to even find the "joy" in the naughty things he does. I'm committed to making his life as wonderful as possible healthy, sick or in between. None of us has a crystal ball and none us truly know what tomorrow brings. I'm pleased with just taking it as it comes.
I agree with Karlin and think you need to bring up your concerns with your breeder. For many cavalier owners its a balance of enjoy and worry. Maybe you just need to hear that. I myself needed to understand this before I got a cavalier. I was somewhat concerned I was making a decision based on a cute little doggie, and my own selfish wants and not fully understand the risks.
I also think it would be alright to wait......maybe you and your wife just need more time to digest all this.
If you are in the UK and working with a UK breeder, then there definitely could be a good chance of having MRIs for two generations. I'd talk to them about your concerns. I'd also ask if they are using the BVA scheme and if not, who actually gave the A/B/C grades -- some have worked with neurologists who never actually worked with the first grading scheme and hence the grade interpretations may be the breeder's own. The scans may well have been done before the new scheme so she may only have the old format for grades. :thmsbup:
Any health-focusued, honest breeder will talk you through the breed risks.