Monday, May 19, 2008

Basketcase: The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

It's often been said that Kennel Club breeders are trying to "breed to a picture."

Nowhere is that more true than in the case of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed cobbled up in the 1920s and 30s to "recreate" the type of lap dog seen in the oil paintings of aristocrats painted by Titian, van Dyck, Stubbs, and Gainsborough.

While owners of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels like to wrap themselves up in the pretension of having an ancient breed related to British royalty, this particular dog was in fact created in the late 1920s and 30s at the Crufts Dog Show.

This is not to say that small spaniels did not exist back in Tudor times and even before. They certainly did.

In fact, lap dogs are among the oldest canine breeds, and the crossing of small terriers and spaniels to make lap dogs has probably been going on right from the beginning.

What is incontestable is that by the early 20th century, the so-called "King Charles Spaniel" (now known as the English Toy Spaniel in both the U.S. and Canada) no longer resembled the dogs seen in 16th and 17th Century paintings.

The modern dogs had a shorter face and domed heads.

Where did these domed heads and flat faces come from? The flat face, it is conjectured, came from mating King Charles Spaniels' with Pugs and Japanese Chins. The domed head, no doubt, is caused by simply breeding the dogs too small, forcing the brain of the dog to push up the skull -- a common feature found in many toy breeds.

Though most Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed histories claim an old uncorrupted line of the original dog never died out and "was kept at Blenheim Palace, home to the Dukes of Marlborough," this is nonsense. By the turn of the 20th Century, the original-looking dog was so extinct that not a single example of a proper-looking long-faced and flat-skulled "old type" King Charles Spaniel could be found!

In the 1920s, an American by the name of Roswell Eldridge decided to recreate the dog he saw in the old paintings, and he went so far as to print up a flyer and offer a cash award at Crufts for any King Charles Spaniel "of the old-fashioned type" which had a longer muzzle, a flatter skull, and a spot in the middle of the crown of its head.

No dog was forthcoming, and the award remained unclaimed for five years before either a "throwback" or an incorrect King Charles Spaniel (depending on who is telling the story) was presented in 1928 to claim the prize.

This dog was "Ann's Son," a dog owned by Miss Mostyn Walker. Unfortunately Roswell Eldridge had died three months earlier, and so he never saw the object of his desire.

Nonetheless, energized by the prize and the romance of a dog that "looked like those in the van Dyck paintings," a breed name, standard and a club were formed on the spot.

The goal was to "preserve" the breed. Of course, the "breed" consisted of just one dog!

No matter. A course was set, and Ann's Son was soon cross-bred with King Charles Spaniels which, while not perfect examples of the hope-for breed, had faces too long and heads that were too flat to do well in the ring.

By simply breeding "rejects with the right features" to each other, a back breeding program was created and the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel was expanded from one to some.

Slowly, things moved forward, and over several decades the dog's general form was stabilized.

In 1945 the Kennel Club (UK) granted separate registration for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels (the "cavalier" monicker was added to differentiate the dogs from the shorter-faced King Charles Spaniel), and in 1952 the first dogs came to the U.S.

In 1954, Mrs. W. L. (Sally) Lyons Brown of Kentucky formed the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA with the idea of keeping a stud book and eventually getting the dog into the American Kennel Club.

The AKC admitted the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel into its "Miscellaneous" class in 1962, and accepted the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA as the official breed club and registering body at that time.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA applied several times for full Kennel Club recognition, but was rejected each time, and after a number of years the CKCSC-USA simply decided to move forward without the AKC, creating its own stud book, establishing its own show system, and adopting its own code of ethics. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel remained in the "miscellaneous" class of the AKC, but this was mostly done to allow those interested in obedience trials to compete in that venue.

Members of the the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA developed their own culture outside of that of the American Kennel Club, and that culture put a significant premium on their own lengthy code of ethics, which members had to agree to in order to join the club and register their dogs.

This code of ethics stated that "the welfare of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed is of paramount importance. It supersedes any other commitment to Cavaliers, whether that be personal, competitive, or financial."

The code of ethics went on to say that members of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA agreed to not sell dogs to pet shops, agreed to NOT breed bitches before 12 months of age or after age eight, and agreed to never allow a bitch to carry to term and rear more than six litters in her lifetime.

Finally, the breed club's code of ethics noted that "These exists a constant danger that ignorant or disreputable breeders may, by improper practices, produce physically, mentally or temperamentally unsound specimen to the detriment of the breed" and requested that members of the Club consult with other breeders in the club before a mating and to never breed "from or to any Cavalier known to me to have a disqualifying, or disabling health defect."

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA prospered as an independent registry, with slow but steady growth in it membership. In 1992, however, the American Kennel Club decided that it wanted to clear out breeds that had been in the "miscellaneous" class for many years, and they asked the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA to become the breed club.

There was one caveat, however: The Cavalier King Charles Club Spaniel Club of the USA could NOT make acceptance of a ban on selling dogs to pet stores a prerequisite for dog registration. Nor could they require that breeders avoid knowingly crossing dogs with inheritable disqualifying or disabling defects. If the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club of the USA wanted to be the AKC's breed club, they would have to jettison their code of ethics and conform to the AKC's rules which said any dog could and would be registered provided it paid a fee to the AKC and could claim descent from a previously registered AKC dog and dam.

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club USA declined to join the AKC as the parent club of their breed, and so the AKC reached out to a small set of breeders who were a little less ethical and a little more rosette- and cash-hungry. These breeders formed the American Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, and this club was waved into the AKC in 1995.

What happened next?

The short story is that Cavalier King Charles Spaniel registrations shot through the roof.

As the AKC's own web site notes, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were "among the biggest movers" in the last 10 years with a 406% increase in registrations. In fact, Cavalier King Charles spaniel registrations are up 800 percent from what they were 14 years ago, and the Cavalier is now the 25th most popular breed in the AKC (up from 70th 1997) out of a list of 157 breeds in all.

And what has happened to the quality of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel?

As could be predicted, it has fallen through the floor.

A breed with an already bottle-necked gene pool due to its peculiar history and recent origin, was further choked down in 1995 when the AKC recruited a small subset of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel owners to serve as the foundation stock of their new breed club.

The small number of dogs owned by these breeders is as wide as the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is ever going to get in the AKC.

And because so many small AKC dogs come from puppy mill situations where sires may be used hundreds of time, and dams may be pregnant nearly all their lives, the gene pool of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (never strong to begin with) has contracted very rapidly.

In fact, a close reading of the excellent web site leaves one concluding that the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels has been reduced to a genetic basket case, with every Cavalier bloodline infected with at least one of the following genetic defects:

  • Heart mitral valve disease (MVD) is a terminal illness which afflicts over half of all Cavalier King Charles spaniels by the age of 5 years and nearly all Cavaliers by age 10 years. It is CKCSs' leading cause of death, killing over 50% of all Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. >> To read more

  • Syringomyelia (SM) is reported to be "very widespread" in the Cavalier King Charles spaniel breed. Syringomyelia is a disorder of the brain and spinal cord, which may cause severe head and neck pain and possible paralysis. >> To read more
  • Hip dysplasia is reported in a significant percentage of Cavalier King Charles spaniels. It is a genetic disease which can cause the dog pain and debilitation, and be expensive to remedy. >> To read more

  • Brachycephalic Airway Obstruction Syndrome (BAOS) -- Because the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has a short muzzle and a small head, it often has serious breathing problems. Elongated soft palates, stenotic nares, everted laryngeal saccules, and laryngeal collapse are other inherited developmental defects in the breed. >> To read more

  • Luxating Patellas (slipping knees) are are a genetic condition believed to affect 20% to 30% of Cavalier King Charles spaniels. If the condition is not corrected, it can degenerate, with the dog becoming progressively more lame. >> To read more
  • Hereditary eye disease has become widespread in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. A study of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels conducted by the Canine Eye Registration Foundation in 1989 showed that an average of 30% of all Cavaliers evaluated had eye problems. >> To read more


YesBiscuit! said...

Well, dang. I didn't know much about the history of the breed however I did once care for a Cavalier that was so sweet and well mannered, it left a lasting impression on me and I've always wanted one since. If I ever do get one, I hope it won't be plagued with all these health problems. O and I know the AKC show ring demands the dogs are shown with long hair on the feet - I'll be trimming the feet. Don't need 4 mini-Swiffers picking up everything from house and yard!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for an unflinchingly honest look at the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. I have one - a 13 month old black and tan - and I am deeply concerned about the welfare of the breed and the health issues that have resulted from unethical breeding and the odd history of the breed.

The AKC has done an exceptional job of alienating ethical breeders and as such, we can expect to continue to see a downslide in the integrity and health of the purebred in general and a continued increase in registered Puppy Mill dogs.

My dog was not registered with the AKC as my dog's breeder refuses to participate in the whole 'to do' about Cavaliers. I was screened in a lengthy process before being able to get my pooch.

The only way to save the 'breed' is to have ethical breeders limit their breeding and only use the healthiest stock.

Because many Cavaliers do not develop these hereditary conditions at a young age, it is important that a healthy Cavalier is not bred until she is older, at least 5 and then she probably can only have 1-2 litters so as not to violate the ethics of breeding beyond 8 years of age.

Regardless, the issue of ethical breeding extends to all dogs, purebred and mixed. Record numbers of dogs are being abandoned and euthanized.

We have created a terrible situation for these helpless pups.

Anonymous said...

I am just heartsick after reading this post. We took Pepper to the DeBella Dog Walk earlier this month at Green Lane Park in Montgomery County, PA (an annual doggie celebration sponsored by a Philly radio station) and it appeared every 10 year old girl had one of these dogs -- and absolutely adored it. What kind of heartbreak are these unethical breeders and the AKC setting these young girls up for? These girls, who really love their dogs, should be the future of dog breeding/ownership, rather than having their hearts broken before they are teenagers (not to mention the painful future the dogs themselves face)!

Patrick, unfortunately, I'll probably be forwarding this post to way too many parents in the next year -- around here, when a little girl wants a dog and checks out the AKC breed list online, she tells her parents she wants a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel -- then the parents e-mail me and the other dog park officiers "to see what we think of the breed." Thanks, but, gosh, I wish there was better news for everyone all around! :-P

To put a better spin on things, is there any specific type of dog that WOULD be great for a suburban8-10 year old girl? (I really don't recommend Border Collies in this instance and I'm sure Patrick doesn't think that working Jack Russel Terriers are the ticket, also.) But if I can steer these parents in a better direction, it might soften the blow that they REALLY don't want to get their daughter the Cavalier she thinks she wants. And having had a dog as a city girl as a preteen, I think pet ownership as a child makes a more compassionate adult.

Pai said...

I originally read about this many years ago, I believe it was in a DogFancy magazine. It was my first glimpse into just how shady the AKC is -- and it's sad that so many people don't know about their tactics. I remember trying to look up info on the 'theft' of the Cavalier club online, and not really being successful... which shows just how few people there are that know about it.

When show breeders that are heavily invested in the AKC are the ones who keep telling everyone 'a breeder is unethical unless they're an AKC-registered show breeder!' people need to realize that there's no objectivity there at all.

Anonymous said...

>"Record numbers of dogs are being abandoned and euthanized."

Um, actually, no. In fact, the rates of killing in shelters for population control have been falling for decades.

In any case, thanks Patrick for a great post about this poor little breed. Wonderful sweet dogs. I had one for a while, but rehomed him because of another dog in my home (my Sheltie Drew) who hated the Cavalier. The two fought constantly, so Chase because an only child in a friend's family.

Not sure I would ever have another Cavalier, much as I love the little spaniels. Living with flatcoated retrievers and their cancer risk is enough for me.

My veterinary cardiologist co-author (on "Cats For Dummies") advised me against getting Chase in the first place. Strongly, and in no uncertain terms. The words "are you an idiot?" were part of the conversation.

Chase was neutered and is doing well at 8 years of age, but with a heart murmur nonetheless.

PBurns said...

I would agree that euthanization numbers of dogs, in general, are in decline, but that's probably not true for the Cavalier, which is a nightmare expense for a lot of dog owners who end up giving them up or putting their charges down.

During the last 30 years, by the way, shelter intakes and euthenasias have decreased by 60-80 percent in many cities, particularly those located on the East and West coasts of the U.S.

This has NOT been an even decline, however: in the Midwest and in part of the rural South, about as many dogs as every are being killed, which is why "rescue trains" that move dogs from these areas to the East and West coats are so important.

In the meantime, of course, the AKC continues to fund its operation by giving a big wink to the breeding of "misery puppies." See >>


bubbasmom said...

Thank you for this post! I get SO tired of hearing announcers, breeders and exhibitors going on about how "old" their breed is. I have never been convinced that ANY breed could survive unchanged for hundreds of years, given the climate of wars, plague and famine. Yes, there might have been mastiff-TYPE dogs crossing the Alps with Hannibal, but the blobby giants wobbling around today would certainly have a hard time negotiating the climb, much less the altitude.

And it's such a sad commentary on the AKC that a lovely little breed like the Cavalier was buried under the AKC "umbrella" (i.e., bank accounts). For a "non-profit" organization, AKC surely rakes in the dollars...

Anonymous said...

I normally read your column with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, this column leaves me with a bad taste. I own four Cavaliers ranging from 2.5 to 8 years old. ALL of them are healthy. Two came from less than ideal breeders (before I knew any better) and two came from ethical breeders who do the health testing prior to breeding. Many of my friends also own Cavaliers. They are healthy as well.

Though I agree with you regarding the AKC and their willingness to register anything that moves, the attack on the Cavalier breed was not necessary. I would rather own a dog with a heart problem that can be treated with inexpensive medication (which none of my dogs seems to have acquired yet and all are checked by a Cardiologist annually) than a breed such as the Golden that seems to have a unique propensity to develop Cancer at the drop of a hat. JMO

You've also defamed the folks who started the ACKCSC. They knew someone would jump to the AKC's tune once the AKC made it clear the Cavalier WOULD become a registerable breed and wanted that "someone" to be a group of people that cared about the breed (rather than a group of puppymillers who could care less). Google Stephanie Abraham, Susan Adams, Hazel Arnold, Douglas Clevenger, John Gammon, Martha Guimond, Meredith Johnson-Snyder, Patty Kanan, Joanne Nash, Robert Schroll, Julie Sturman and Lamont Yoder and I think you'll find they are anything BUT less than concerned for the Cavalier breed.

Your beef is with the AKC not the Cavalier.

PBurns said...


Not only have you provided NO DATA (about par for the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel community from what I can tell), but what you have said here is DEMONSTRABLY WRONG.

In fact, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a BASKET CASE of a dog, and anyone buying one or breeding one is, in my opinion, either ignorant or crazy. There are MANY healthy lap dogs in the world, but the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (as a breed) is not one of them. Breeding more of these dogs in order to "fix" their health problems is a bit like breeding pygmies in the hope of someday fielding a professional basketball team. No one who knows what they are doing around dogs would ever own this breed, and no one who cared about the health and welfare of dogs would breed more of these genetic wrecks.

The data on canine mortality in all dogs (and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in particular) is simply NOT that hard to find. Try here >>

This is a longitudinal (cohort) analysis of over 350,000 dogs in Sweden. It notes, "[I]n Cavalier King Charles spaniels there were 246 deaths per 10,000 DYAR in the diagnostic category heart that account for 52% of all deaths in that breed. In addition, heart deaths in the Cavalier King Charles spaniel represent 28% of all deaths due to a heart diagnosis in the insured population."

Damn. Cavaliers reall are a basket case breed! How else do you explain how a dog that represents 7.6 percent of the dogs in a 350,000 dog database, represents 28 percent of all heart disease deaths?

As for Golden Retrievers (your comparison breed), the Swedish study reports "Several breeds account for a lower proportion of the total mortality, for example golden retrievers constitute 6% of the total DYAR and less than 4% of total deaths."

In short, your breed is a walking cardiac event, while Goldens are actually healthier than most dogs. In fact, Goldens and Cavaliers have such dramatically different health outcomes that even though Cavs should live longer than Goldens (size being a determinant variable here), Cavs actually die much sooner; so much sooner, in fact, that THEY CANNOT EVEN BE GRAPHED ON THE SAME SCALE. See Figure 1 at >>

Here's a hint for the cavalier breeders: read the directions on the comments section. If you don't have data from a reputable source, just go away. Data is not the same as anectdote. And data is NOT that hard to get.


Anonymous said...

Wow, Patrick you tell it like it is! You don't beat around the bush do you? Few people are that honest - most people, at best, might say "They have some health issues, I'd try a different breed".

Not just good, but great article.

KRS said...

I saw this great FB Post about some Cavalier dogs and wanted to share. Since I saw this post I have googled the heck out of this dogs.

3 Dogs will inherit $75 million dollars! Please share this post! Outrageous reality show about spoiled dogs, an eccentric junkyard millionaire and his girlfriend. He’s planning to leave everything to the dogs! And everyone in the story, including his kids, is trying to figure out how to derail his plan. The Spoiled Cavaliers want to hear your feedback!

rfortunato said...

The only real way to save this breed is to introduce new genetic material (which means breeding some to non - Cavaliers). This effort would need to be sustained and periodic.

Once new individuals are introduced to the gene pool, care must be taken to preserve diversity by NOT sterilizing 90% of each generation, by avoiding having any dogs sire too many puppies in any particular generation and decreasing the degree of inbreeding (COI) of each successive generation.

But since people won't breed to other breeds and MOST people can't understand that sterilizing most and "only breeding the best" is a bad thing - I believe this breed is doomed.