One in 60 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels under threat

One in 60 Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are affected by an inherited condition called syringomyelia. The findings were revealed by a veterinary research initiative at the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).

The spinal cord condition is potentially debilitating, painful and life-limiting. Fluid filled cavities called syrinxes grow within the spinal cord, causing pain and neurological deficits. Dog breeds that are miniaturised and short-nosed are more prone to syringomyelia. Cavaliers are believed to be the most commonly affected breed.

Revolution in data collection

An initiative called VetCompass from the RVC collects anonymised clinical data from first opinion veterinary clinics across the UK. The data can be analysed to answer a wide variety of health questions.

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


At an overall dog population level, syringomyelia is not that common, affecting just one in 2,000 dogs. But among Cavaliers, the frequency of syringomyelia is much higher, affecting one in every 60 of the breed. VetCompass data reveals that almost 2,000 Cavaliers suffer from clinical syringomyelia in the UK at any one time.

The VetCompass study showing that 72 percent 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 hindlegs 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. Earlier diagnosis can make a huge difference to quality of life.

Symptoms include:

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

Dr Dan O’Neill, Companion Animal Epidemiologist at the RVC, said:“I loved being a first opinion practice vet for over 20 years where I could help animals on a one-by-one basis. But now, with VetCompass, we can help animals by their thousands. An example is this syringomyelia study which may lead to many affected dogs getting treatment much earlier and therefore making their lives so much better.”


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