Buying a cavalier puppy

In the wake of the BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed and Martin Clunes' recent ITV dog programme, cavaliers are (rightfully) under scrutiny. All breeds, and the way they are bred, and their breeders, should always be under scrutiny. I have yet to meet a reputable, health focused breeder who didn't welcome a lengthy discussion of their lines and breeding practice, and who wasn't proud to be able to show health clearances, pedigrees with verified ages, and also openly discuss potential problems they have had in the past and how they have worked to address them.

Pet puppy buyers are increasingly asking two things:
• how do I find a good breeder now?
• what can I do to help the breed?

What can I do to help cavaliers?
Second question first: you have enormous power to change the current situation for cavaliers and it rests in your pocketbook. YOUR purchase of a pet puppy is what enables the vast majority of breeders to go on breeding and support both their hobby of showing and breeding dogs. Very few breeders can continue without YOUR support. For the responsible, health focused breeder who is doing the testing that helps a sound breeding programme to emerge and continue, the financial support of puppy buyers is also essential.

So choose your breeder wisely, in such a way that also supports a healthy future for the breed. The breeders you chose to support and to not support helps to determine who has a hard time in making sales and who is able to move forward. If a breeder is doing the tests you expect to see done and getting the results you want to see; if a breeder has the attitude and openess you want to see, then work with him or her! That is where your money should go. I cannot stress enough how central puppy sales are to every breeder, and how much power YOU have to force change.

How do I find a good breeder now?
Using the same techniques you always have been advised to use: but don't just check websites for statements about testing, or accept a breeder's assurances that they 'test' (testing is often a white lie that means 'my vet checks over my dogs once a year' -- that is NOT good enough!). Look for the PROOF, which means asking to see cardiologist certificates for hearts, MRI grades if you want a breeder who MRI scans for syringomyelia, checking dates of birth for breeding dogs.

Here are some basic guides to read before starting your breeder search:
• start with this primer on the main health issues in the breed
• next, learn about finding a good breeder of cavaliers
• then learn how to decode breeder websites

The two key issues you will want to ask about is the breeder's approach to MVD (mitral valve disease) and SM (syringomyelia).

In a nutshell:
• you want parents to each be at least 2.5 years old, and heart clear (no murmurs as verified by a cardiologist, NOT a vet)
• you want grandparents to be at least 5 and also cardiologist heart cleared up to age 5, and ideally beyond

How do you do this?
• you can learn about MVD and see what an actual cardiologist cert looks like here
• you can verify ages by seeing the dog's registration papers or, if you have the name of the parents, often can find them and their birthdates yourself in the online pedigree databases
• you can check some dogs' breeding coefficients. This tells you how inbred the dog is. Generally you want the least amount of inbreeding and the LOWEST coefficient
• you can check at what age the breeder breeds their dogs more generally by using the online databases to look at 'reverse pedigrees' for any breeder's dog. This shows their offspring. Subtract 8 weeks from a dog's birthdate to find when the parents were bred, and check that against their ages.

In a nutshell:
• a breeder should be open about answering questions on SM
• as with MVD and murmurs, simply having asymptomatic dogs doesn't reveal whether they have SM. They must be MRId (learn how to understand a cavalier MRI here
• if the breeder doesn't MRI, they cannot know the status of their breeding dogs
• if they MRI, they should have grading certs and you can ask to see these. If they went to a neurologist who doesn't issue grading certs, you can probably figure out the grade using the table here, but ask why they haven't had the scan cert interpreted for a grade.
• if they have certs, at least one parent, sire or dam, should be an A graded dog

How do you do this?
• be sure you understand what is known about SM and the breeding guidelines, and about what grading certs look like. Read up on these things here. Understand that some dogs with syrinxes (SM) can be bred under these recommendations. Also understand that the genes for SM are believed to now be in every line and that 85-90% of CKCS have the skull malformation. No clear lines have been found yet. The issue is not whether a breeder has produced SM offspring, as many very good breeders have, but what they did about it. Responsible breeders do NOT continue to breed dogs that are producing SM puppies and they also do NOT breed dogs that MRI as E or F dogs -- and only warily breed Ds.
• avoid breeders who argue that SM is a 'crap shoot'. While an AxA mating can always produce a puppy with SM (this is high school genetics!) the fact is there is strong evidence now that while AxA matings rarely produce SM offspring and produces the highest number of A offspring, matings between D, E and F dogs have produced NO A offspring so far and MOSTLY D and F offspring. See paper 1 here.

Things to be wary of:
breeders who claim that their skull shapes mean less chance of SM. There is NO PROOF that skull shapes, either flat or domed, wide or narrow, or nose length, have anything to do with SM incidence. Beware of anyone claiming this alone as the basis of their breeding programme. Unless they have MRId their cavalier they have NO IDEA whether the dog has SM or the malformation simply looking at the shape. ALL cavaliers have a steep downslope at the back of the skull and looking at the outside of a skull is NOT an adequate way to determine internal measurements -- neurologist researchers have had a very hard time even taking internal measurements. A dog's colouring alone can make a skull appear wider, narrower, steeper or shorter. If a breeder is working on skull shape in cavalier lines in conjunction with an active MRI programme and many years of breeding experience with show grade cavaliers, that is a different issue -- discuss the breeder's theories with them to see if you prefer this approach
breeders who say MRIs make no difference. Right now they are the only adequate diagnostic tool for SM. No health-focused breeder would mate two cavaliers with heart murmurs simply because they are not affecting the dog, but this happens regularly right now with SM because breeders have no idea of their dogs' status. Unfortunately SM is a growing, serious, painful problem in the breed and the ONLY way to diagnose right now is an MRI. Breeders may not wish to MRI for a range of reasons -- and discuss this with them -- but that doesn't change the fact that they are then breeding with no awareness of whether their dogs have this condition
breeders who are breeding cavalier crosses as a 'healthier option' and charging for them. There is weak evidence that first generation crosses are somewhat --but not significantly -- healthier -- but the overall breed line health of the parents is obviously more important than whether a dog is a first generation cross. No health focused breeder would have sold a dog on open registration allowing it to be bred. Crossbreed breeders therefore have no idea of the family history behind the dogs they are using for their crosses. Any genetic problem from either side can be passed to the cross offspring - a seemingly health parent means NOTHING. No reputable breeder deliberately breeds crossbreeds and charges for them when the pounds and shelters are full of lovable crossbreeds, including scads of cavalier crosses, as 'heathy' as anything a breeder will deliberately produce and charge for. Using crossbreeding to achieve any gain in health is complex, takes many careful generations and is not to be taken lightly: read more here. Please do not buy crossbreeds. Rescue one, and save a life, if a cross is what you want!
breeders who say they 'test' but cannot show you the actual certificates you wish to see. As casual breeders become ever more aware of what tests should be done in cavaliers, they make vague references on their websites to dupe buyers they know are too timid to ask for the certs. Be brave and help the breed by asking!
starting to think that just getting any old cavalier puppy is suitable since 'all breeders are causing problems in the breed'. that will ensure the demise of the breed to serious health problems and at worst you will be supporting the hell of puppy farm/mill breeding. Take the time to find that health focused breeder. They are out there. They are often the smaller club-registered breeders -- but not always.

Sound difficult? Well, yes -- as always, it takes a lot of work to find a good breeder and there usually isn't going to be the instant gratification of a puppy. In most cases, a dog will live with you for at least a decade. They are costly to care for even before you have to deal with any potential health issues. As with any valuable purchase you care about, put your work in BEFORE to best ensure happiness AFTER and for many, many years.