Syringomyelia (SM) and Chiari-like malformation (CM) form a serious and widespread condition in cavaliers that threatens the future of this breed. Researchers say over 90% of CKCS have the malformation and studies indicate about 70% will eventually develop syrinxes (SM), making CM/SM a major concern for cavalier owners and breeders.

You can view VIDEOS of affected dogs

What is syringomyelia?
Syringomyelia (sir IN go my EEL ya), or SM, is a potentially painful condition caused by a skull malformation -- the Chiari-like malformation (CM), similar to the Chiari malformation in humans -- that makes the skull too small for the brain. CM often forces the brain to squeeze (herniate) through the opening into the spinal cord. This obstructs the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) circulating around the brain and spine, causing pressure to rise, similar to placing a thumb over the nozzle of a garden hose. This turbulence can create pockets of fluid (syrinxes) in the spinal cord that press on nerves, which can cause pain and disability. There is no cure -- and most cases gradually worsen over time. The aim of treatment is to alleviate pain. Many affected dogs can live many years comfortably with the right treatment, but ALL symptomatic dogs need diagnosis and likely, treatment.

Typical symptoms may include only ONE, or SEVERAL, of these signs:
  • excessive scratching, especially at ears, head, face, neck, shoulders (but not all SM dogs scratch!!)
  • 'air scratching' (the hind leg makes no body contact, typically when walking the dog)
  • scoliosis (especially in young dogs)-- the dog's neck and spine curve into a 'C'
  • weakness in the legs
  • pain/sensitivity to touch, especially around the head/neck, back and/or legs
  • sudden yelping for no reason
  • flipping around to bite at the hindquarters
  • pushing the face into furniture, carpets etc
  • symptoms often increase when the dog is excited, or when air pressure rises, as during rainy/stormy weather
CM/SM is often misdiagnosed by vets, even for years, as:
  • allergies
  • ear problems
  • spinal/disk problems

Why is it appearing in cavaliers?
No one is really sure, but it is likely due to a small but widely affected gene pool (the breed was re-created in the 1920s). While CM/SM appears in small numbers in some other breeds, the vast majority of cases are cavaliers, though Brussels Griffons and chihuahuas are also known to be significantly affected. In a study of over 550 cavalier MRIs, over 90% of cavaliers had CM, and 70% eventually had SM, about 25% by age one. Many fortunately do not seem to be symptomatic during their lives, or symptoms are mistaken for other problems. SM and mitral valve disease (MVD) are the two major health concerns in cavaliers. Cavaliers should NEVER be bred without being MRI’d first to assess SM. An SM breeding protocol is available and should be followed to try to lower incidence in the breed.

What causes CM/SM?
Researchers believe CM/SM is polygenetic -- carried on several different genes that have to combine in particular ways. CM/SM affects all four breed colours, and lines from all over the world. Puppies as young as 12 weeks have been diagnosed, and SM may affect a dog at any age, though more severely affected cavaliers tend to display symptoms before age four (early onset SM).

Tell me more...
This symptoms document lists some of the many possible symptoms (some dogs have several, some dogs have one, some are asymptomatic) and this page offers a step by step approach if you think your dog might have CM/SM. Also see Dr Clare Rusbridge's Canine Chiari-like Malformation and Syringomyelia, and download this podcast in which Dr Rusbridge offers an introduction to the condition.

This site also has video clips of affected cavaliers, tips on finding puppies from health-focused breeders, breeding advice, treatment advice, personal stories of people with affected cavaliers, information on MRIs and MRI images of affected dogs, details of low cost MRI clinics, lists of neurologists, information on past and current research, a blog with latest news and links to related sites. You can also donate towards research into CM/SM.