You May Think This Dog Is Doing Something Funny, In Fact It’s a Sign of a Serious Health Problem – Syringomyelia

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are synonymous with history. Many of the breed's ancestors can be seen in pictures from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but experts are warning that the breed we know today is seriously at risk.

New research has revealed that by the age of 7, 70% of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are likely to be affected by a condition called syringomyelia, also referred to as SM and mitral valve disease.

What is syringomyelia

Syringomyelia is a potentially debilitating, painful and life-limiting spinal cord condition characterised by fluid-filled cavities called syrinxes within the spinal cord which, as they grow, cause pain and neurological deficits.

Dog breeds that are miniaturised and short-nosed are more prone to syringomyelia, but Cavaliers are believed to be the most commonly affected breed.

You May Think This Dog Is Doing Something Funny, In Fact It's a Sign of a Serious Health Problem - Syringomyelia

Researching how many dogs are affected in the UK

Until now, there has been little reliable evidence on the frequency and severity of syringomyelia in the overall dog population and this has limited vets’ ability to diagnose and manage this condition.

However, an initiative called VetCompass from the Royal Veterinary College has now revolutionised the ability of scientists to investigate the health of companion animals. VetCompass collects anonymised clinical data from first opinion veterinary clinics across the UK.

This data collected can then be analysed to answer a wide variety of health questions that have been unanswerable until now.

A recent VetCompass study published in the Veterinary Record journal highlights for the first time the frequency and severity of syringomyelia seen in veterinary practices in the UK.

At an overall dog population level, syringomyelia is not that common, affecting just one in 2,000 dogs.

You May Think This Dog Is Doing Something Funny, In Fact It's a Sign of a Serious Health Problem - Syringomyelia

But among Cavaliers, the frequency of syringomyelia is much higher, affecting one in every 60 of the breed with the VetCompass data reveals that almost 2,000 Cavaliers suffer from clinical syringomyelia in the UK at any one time.

For many years, scientists have struggled to identify the true extent and severity of diseases seen in the wider general dog population because the main source of veterinary health data on dogs has come from universities and referral hospitals.

While this referral data is useful, the types of animals and conditions that are referred to these referral centres is unrepresentative of the wider dog population so it is very difficult to extrapolate any findings to the general population. It is mainly complex conditions and severely affected individuals that get referred.

In contrast, the vast majority of animals are managed perfectly well by the primary vet practitioners without ever being referred or even being ill at any one time.

VetCompass has revolutionised the way this first opinion veterinary data is collected and investigated. Syringomyelia is a severe condition for affected dogs, with the VetCompass study showing that 72% of affected dogs were recorded as showing pain.

The study showed that these dogs would often yelp or scream when they were picked up or when their necks were touched. Many of them also showed ‘phantom scratching’ where they would try to scratch at their necks with their hind legs but without ever even making contact with the skin.

Some people refer to this action as ‘playing an air guitar’. There are now effective painkillers and other treatments that can make the lives of affected dogs much better, so earlier diagnosis can make a huge difference to the quality of life of these adorable little dogs.

Dr Dan O’Neill from the Royal College and Dog Breeding Reform Group member says: ‘Such can be the severity of SM that if even one dog gets recognised as being a case and receives some treatment that helps in any way to improve its life, then I will sleep easy for one night.’

There is an official British Veterinary Association/Kennel Club Canine Health Scheme for Chiari-Malformation/Syringomyelia (CM/SM) that all breeders of Cavaliers should use before breeding.

However, as of 31st August this year, only 370 Cavalier scans had been submitted through the scheme.

The Dog Breeding Reform Group  is disappointed that the majority of Cavalier breeders do not make use of the CM/SM Scheme or the SM Breeding Protocol that accompanies it. Until they do, the incidence of CM/SM among Cavaliers will remain high.

Spotting the symptoms of syringomyelia in dogs

Signs of the condition include:

  • Sensitivity around the head and neck area
  • Sleeping with the head raised
  • Scratching or pawing the head or neck region
  • Weak limbs
  • Deafness

If you think your dog is showing any signs, please contact your vet immediately. Early treatment could give them a better quality of life.

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