6 Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Common Health Issues [+Signs and Prevention]

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cavalier king charles spaniel dressed like a doctor

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has an easygoing, lovable personality that makes it a wonderful family pet, but this regal breed can be prone to certain health issues.

Fortunately, many of the conditions that Cavaliers can develop have recognizable symptoms. So, knowing about the genetic issues of the breed can help you detect problems and seek treatment quickly. In some cases, early intervention can improve your dog’s prognosis and quality of life.

Although Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are predisposed to suffer from some adverse health issues, there’s no guarantee your precious pooch will develop any of these conditions. Most dogs deal with some sort of health challenge during their lifetime. The issues listed below are just more likely to occur in Cavaliers.

The most common Cavalier King Charles Spaniel health issues are mitral valve disease, syringomyelia, orthopedic problems, eye conditions, and episodic falling syndrome.

In this article, we’ll look at 5 common health issues of Cavaliers, how the issues vary across the life cycle, and how this Spaniel’s health compares with other breeds. Finally, I’ll describe health signs you need to be aware of and provide you with some tips for healthcare and prevention.

Common health problems

A relative of King Charles Spaniels, Cavaliers have slightly longer snouts and more athletic frames. However, their genetic line leaves them prone to certain health issues. Below, we’ll examine five of the most common conditions Cavalier King Charles Spaniels can develop.

Mitral valve disease

Mitral valve disease (MVD) is extremely common in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and is the top cause of death for the breed. Over 50% of Cavaliers will show signs of MVD by age 5.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels and Dachshunds are genetically predisposed to MVD, but other small and medium-breed dogs can develop the disease as they age.

MVD generally develops slowly over time and manifests during adulthood. For Cavaliers, up to 10% of dogs can have a heart murmur by age 1.

With MVD, the valve between the left atrium and ventricle deteriorates over time. It can thicken and become leaky, which causes the heart to enlarge. Eventually, affected dogs may develop congestive heart failure.

Symptoms of MVD include:

  • Heart murmur(earliest symptom) detected during physical exam
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased respiratory rate and effort
  • Fainting/collapse
  • Abdominal enlargement from fluid buildup

If your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has a mild heart murmur due to MVD, your veterinarian will monitor it, but treatment may not be needed. However, when the condition progresses, medical treatment helps to prolong your furbaby’s diagnosis.

Because MVD is genetically linked, the most effective prevention is purchasing your puppy from a reputable breeder. Ask questions about the genetic history of the parents and their other offspring.

Treatment of MVD can include medical management with dietary restrictions and drugs such as pimobendan, diuretics, ACE inhibitors, and spironolactone to help control the progression of the disease. Some veterinary hospitals perform surgical valve repair, but it’s not a common treatment for most dogs.


Possibly because they have small skulls, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are predisposed to developing syringomyelia or a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in cavities in the spinal cord.

This condition is extremely rare in most dog breeds but has a higher prevalence in Cavaliers, Brussels Griffons, Pomeranians, Yorkshire Terriers, Boston Terriers, and Chihuahuas.

Symptoms of Syringomyelia usually develop between 3 months and 3 or 4 years of age. You’re not likely to detect the condition when you pick a puppy from the litter.

Because certain dog breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel have extremely small skulls, there may not be enough room to house the brain. As a result, the cerebellum bulges out of the opening at the base of the skull and prevents cerebrospinal fluid from flowing down the brainstem to the spinal cord. The fluid builds up and places pressure on the nervous system.

Signs of syringomyelia include:

  • Phantom scratching at or near the head or back of the neck
  • Pain or sensitivity around the back of the neck
  • Yelping
  • Reluctance to climb or jump
  • Wobbly or uncoordinated hindlimbs
  • Forelimb weakness
  • Neck scoliosis

Syringomyelia is not curable, but it can be managed. Without treatment, dogs with the condition experience considerable pain and a decreased quality of life.

There’s no way to prevent syringomyelia in your Cavalier, but you can do a few things to minimize your pup’s discomfort if she shows signs of the condition. Remove their collar and try elevated water and food bowls. 

Treatment for syringomyelia can help to reduce pain symptoms. Medications include corticosteroids for inflammation and pain-reducers. Some veterinarians may prescribe diuretics or antacids to reduce cerebrospinal fluid production. If your dog doesn’t respond to medical management, surgical decompression may be an option, but it has a guarded prognosis.

Orthopedic issues

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a genetic predisposition to develop patellar luxations and hip dysplasia. The dogs are born with abnormal joint anatomy that causes loose connections and eventual degenerative arthritis.

Luxating patellas are common in small dogs, including Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, and Maltese. In addition to Cavaliers, hip dysplasia can occur in French Bulldogs, Shih Tzus, and large or giant breeds.

Both luxating patellas and hip dysplasia are anatomical conditions that occur from birth. Signs of intermittent lameness or skip-hopping can occur at any age. However, symptoms of degenerative arthritis from either condition usually manifest later in life.

These spaniels are born with an anatomical abnormality that predisposes them to extra movement in a joint. In the case of luxating patellas, the kneecap slips out of its normal groove because the ligament attachment isn’t properly centered on the shinbone. Dogs with hip dysplasia have shallow hip sockets, so the femoral head moves around and irritates the joint.

Symptoms you may observe with these orthopedic conditions include:

  • Cracking/popping sound when bending the affected knee (luxating patella)
  • Holding one hind leg off the ground (luxating patella)
  • Intermittent limping or skipping (luxating patella)
  • Chronic pain
  • Sensitivity to touch around the hip joint
  • Difficulty or reluctance when climbing stairs, getting in the car, or getting on furniture
  • Difficulty walking
  • Swaying gait
  • Difficulty rising

Without treatment for these conditions, repeated irritation to the joints will lead to degenerative changes and increasing levels of pain. Over time, your spaniel will lose mobility and have a reduced quality of life.

Preventative measures for luxating patellas and hip dysplasia include joint supplementation with Glucosamine and Chondroitin, weight management, and purchasing your puppy from a reputable breeder that screens for the condition.

Medical management for these orthopedic conditions includes joint supplements, weight reduction, physical therapy, restricted activity, anti-inflammatory drugs, and joint fluid modifiers. In some severe cases, your veterinarian may recommend surgery.

Eye conditions

The most common eye conditions affecting Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are cataracts, cherry eye, and keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS).

Cavaliers and many brachycephalic breeds like Shih Tzus, Pugs, and French and English Bulldogs are genetically prone to developing cherry eye and dry eye. In addition to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, American Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Siberian Huskies, and French Bulldogs are some dog breeds that are prone to cataracts.

Cherry eye may occur in your Cavalier at any age. However, dry eye and cataracts usually manifest when your dog is mature.

With cherry eye, the ligaments that hold your dog’s tear gland in place break down. The tissue pops out and swells, possibly blocking tear secretion and causing dry eyes. KCS is caused by insufficient tear production and can also result in dry eyes. When dogs have cataracts, the lens clouds and harden, which impairs vision.

Signs of the different eye conditions include:

  • Light sensitivity (KCS or cherry eye)
  • Squinting (KCS or cherry eye)
  • Blinking or holding the eye shut (KCS or cherry eye)
  • Yellow or green eye discharge (KCS or cherry eye)
  • Eye redness (KCS or cherry eye)
  • Pinkish/red mass in the corner of the eye (cherry eye)
  • Milky spotting in the eye (early cataracts)
  • Cloudiness in the center of the eye (later cataracts)

Without treatment for cherry eye or KCS, your dog’s cornea may ulcerate, causing damage to the eye. Your furbaby may suffer permanent sight impairment. Untreated cataracts usually progress, resulting in eventual blindness.

Cherry eye, cataracts, and KCS are genetically linked and challenging to prevent, so your best bet is to check with the breeder about any family history of eye problems. Additionally, you can promote eye and vision health by feeding your furbaby quality food that’s rich in omega fatty acids. Finally, you can limit your pup’s exposure to UV rays to prevent eye damage that may trigger cataracts.

Treatment for KCS usually involves tear-replacing eye drops. Cherry eye and cataracts can both be surgically repaired.

Episodic falling syndrome

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a genetic mutation that predisposes them to a condition known as episodic falling syndrome (EFS) or loss of muscle control.

Because ECS is caused by a genetic mutation, Cavaliers are the only breed known to experience this condition.

EFS symptoms usually manifest in younger dogs between about 2 months and 4 years of age.  The episodes are usually temporary and non-progressive. However, if your Cavalier has a severe case, he may overheat and could suffer brain damage.

Also known as paroxysmal exercise-induced dystonia” or “dyskinesia, EFS is a condition in which a group of muscles suddenly contract involuntarily. The spasms may produce abnormal postures, repetitive movements, or twisting actions. Anxiety, excitement, stress, or strenuous exercise are triggers for the episodes.

Signs of EFS include:

  • Muscle spasms
  • Arched back
  • Abnormally stiff posture
  • Rigid gait
  • Collapsing or incoordination
  • Stretching front legs and paws over the head

These signs will follow a trigger such as vigorous exercise or excitement.

Medical management of EFT can help to reduce the severity of episodes and may prevent neurological damage if your dog’s case is more pronounced.

As a genetic disease, there’s no way to prevent the condition. However, you can request genetic testing to determine if your pooch or a perspective puppy has the mutation. Additionally, if your dog is predisposed to EFT, you may be able to prevent episodes by:

  • Giving your dog vitamin E and tryptophan supplements
  • Scheduling periodic chiropractic adjustments for your dog
  • Keeping your dog calm
  • Avoiding triggers like stress or rigorous activity

Treatment involves physical therapy and certain medications.

Ear infections

With their skull shape and floppy ears, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are prone to developing middle ear infections.

Middle ear infections are common among Cavaliers, Shih Tzus, French Bulldogs, Basset Hounds, and Beagles. 

This condition is not age-specific. It can occur at any age.

Also known as glue ear, with middle ear infections, the ear canal becomes inflamed and fills with a highly viscous fluid that causes the eardrum to bulge. 

Symptoms of an ear infection include:

  • Neck and head pain.
  • Head tilt
  • Wobbly gait
  • Itching around the ears
  • Eye twitching
  • Excessive yawning
  • Drooling
  • Fatigue

If you fail to treat a middle ear infection, your dog will experience considerable pain, discomfort, and potential hearing loss.

Middle ear infections are genetically linked, so prevention involves selecting puppies that don’t have a family history of the condition. Breeders should not mate dogs that suffer from the issue.

Treatment involves making a surgical incision in the ear drum and flushing out the viscous material. 

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Health issues across the lifecycle

When it comes to Cavalier health conditions, certain issues like episodic falling condition can manifest while dogs are puppies, but others like hip dysplasia appear in adulthood or the senior years. 

Cavalier Puppy Health Issues

Certain conditions tend to surface in puppies. While orthopedic issues are congenital and present from birth, you may only notice mild symptoms of patellar luxation during the puppy years. Other issues that can surface in puppies include cherry eye, syringomyelia, episodic falling syndrome, and middle ear infections.

Adult Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Health Issues

Many of the conditions your Cavalier King Charles Spaniel may develop tend to surface in the adult years. Mitral valve disease occurs due to degenerative changes in the valve and usually appears in young adults. Up to 50% of Cavaliers have symptoms by age 5.

Other conditions that usually manifest in adulthood include syringomyelia, patellar luxation, dry eye, episodic falling syndrome, and ear infections.

Senior Cavalier Health Issues

Some of the conditions that Cavalier King Charles Spaniels can develop are degenerative. As a result, they usually manifest later in life. The issues that surface most commonly in the senior years include mitral valve disease, hip dysplasia, and cataracts.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Health Issues and Average Lifespan

The average life span of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is generally 12-15 years. However, certain conditions can cause premature death or impact your furbaby’s quality of life. 

If your dog has mitral valve disease, she will likely develop congestive heart failure and have a shortened life span. Dogs with syringomyelia may also die early. Conditions that can impact your furbaby’s quality of life include orthopedic issues and cataracts.

Cavalier King Charles Health Issues VS Other Dog Breeds

While other breeds have their share of health challenges, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has more genetically linked conditions than most other dogs. Unfortunately, they can be fatal or negatively impact your furbaby’s quality of life. However, their average life span is longer than many breeds.

Health Signs Cavalier Parents Should Beware Of

Because Cavalier King Charles Spaniels can suffer from various genetically linked health conditions, you need to know how to recognize them. That way, you’ll be able to get veterinary help quickly. The top signs include:

  • Heart murmur
  • Chronic cough
  • Exercise intolerance
  • Shortness of breath/increased respirations
  • Phantom scratching near head or back of neck
  • Wobbly gait
  • Neck pain/sensitivity
  • Neck scoliosis
  • Cracking or popping of the joint
  • Intermittent limping or skipping
  • Chronic pain
  • Difficulty walking, climbing, or rising
  • Light sensitivity
  • Eye redness
  • Eye discharge
  • Cloudy lens
  • Muscle spasms or arched back following exercise/excitement
  • Stretching front legs/paws over the head
  • Head tilt
  • Eye twitching 
  • Excessive yawning

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Health Care Tips and Prevention

Cavaliers can develop several serious health conditions that have the potential to shorten their life span or negatively impact their quality of life. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to try to minimize the risks and symptoms your furbaby experiences.

  • Pick a trustworthy breeder with a reputation for breeding dogs with good genetics. 
  • Schedule routine health exams and routine health care with the vet at least once a year. 
  • Maintain a healthy weight. Some conditions, like degenerative joint disease, are worse when dogs are overweight. Depending on your furbaby’s size, she should weigh between 13 and 18 pounds. 
  • Feed your dog a balanced diet with the proper balance of essential nutrients.
  • Give supplements to encourage healthy joints and eyes. 
  • Groom your Cavalier regularly to encourage a healthy coat, skin, and ears. 
  • Use an orthopedic bed with supportive memory foam for your furbaby if she suffers from an orthopedic condition.

The Final Woof

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a lovable family pet, but it can suffer from some significant genetic conditions. Knowing how to recognize health issues that are common to the breed can help you to seek veterinary care quickly when needed. In some cases, early treatment may help to minimize symptoms and improve your dog’s prognosis. If you have a Cavalier, she may not suffer from any of these conditions, but it’s best to be well-prepared. 

Issues that commonly affect the breed include can affect the heart, joints, eyes, or nervous system. Some of these diseases manifest in the puppy stage while others occur later in life. The specialized breeding behind the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel makes it prone to several genetic mutations that cause serious to life-threatening conditions. If you’re considering one of these regal pups, work with a reputable breeder and practice preventative care to minimize the risk of problems.

Photo of author
Dr. Libby Guise earned her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 1994. After working in private practice in Wisconsin for two years, she joined the USDA as a Veterinary Medical Officer. In 2011, Libby came home to focus on raising and teaching her adoptive daughter. She lives in Wisconsin with her daughter, husband, and two furbabies: Charis, a lab-mix rescue pup, and Chesed, a Springer Spaniel.

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