Crufts, the world’s biggest dog show, kicks off next week, but in recent years it has been dogged by controversy ranging from alleged poisoning of a dog to ‘deformed’ or unhealthy dogs winning trophies.
One such breed that has attracted attention is the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, a breed that has sadly become a victim of its own success. Increasing numbers of these dogs are suffering from heart problems and another painful condition caused when the dog’s skull is too small to accommodate its brain causing fluid-filled cavities that destroy the spinal cord.
Campaigners say Cruft’s organiser The Kennel Club has failed to take a strong stance, despite outrage after the TV documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed that showed Cavaliers screaming in pain. This resulted in the BBC ditching its coverage of Crufts in 2008. They claim The Kennel Club is not doing enough to ensure that Cavaliers are screened for Mitral Valve Disease and Syringomyelia before they are bred from.
“The Cavalier is in serious trouble and the Kennel Club needs to do much more. Mandatory testing for both these conditions is the bare minimum,” says Jemima Harrison, the documentary’s director.
Some positive steps in the right direction are however now being taken.
Last week, The Kennel Club announced the establishment of a new working group to review and improve the heart screening of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels within the UK. We speak exclusively to The Kennel Club’s Caroline Kisko.
Q: What prompted the Kennel Club to set up the new working group?
CK: “The Kennel Club decided to set up a working group to make sure the most effective scheme possible evolves from the breed club initiatives that already exist, following consultation with the Veterinary Cardiovascular Society and the Cavalier breed clubs. We did this to ensure that data gathered via screening programmes is collated centrally so it can be better used to draw inferences about aspects of the disease and its genetic parameters.
“The working group is being set up following consultations between The Kennel Club and representatives of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed clubs and the Veterinary Cardiology Society. It will review the current breed club scheme within the UK and ways in which it can collect information more robustly to a stage where it meets criteria where the results may be recorded on the Kennel Club database and be published on the Health Tests Result Finder, alleviating the need to submit echocardiograms to Denmark.”
Q: Who will be members of this group?
CK: “The group is being led by the Veterinary Cardiovascular Society (VCS) and will involve several members of the VCS, as well as the Breed Health Co-ordinator for the breed and representatives from the Kennel Club – Dr Katy Evans, Kennel Club Health Research Manager who leads the Breed Health & Conservation Plans project and Dr Tom Lewis, Kennel Club Genetics & Research Manager.”
“The Kennel Club believes that only healthy dogs should be winning prizes at Crufts and any other show.”
Q: Is there a timescale for decisions to be made?
CK: “The group has a very clear aim and unlike other working groups has a sole focus of developing a protocol for a heart scheme for Cavaliers, therefore no other factors are being tabled for consideration and only those essential to progress have been invited to attend.”
Q: Is there a future for breeds like the Cavalier that are so beset by genetic health issues or as many people think, shouldn’t real action have been taken long ago?
CK: “The health concerns which affect Cavaliers are extremely complex and the Kennel Club and other organisations are working to progress with the situation, which does take time particularly as the complexities of certain conditions, such as syringomyelia, mean that new research is still emerging and in order to make genuine improvements in the breed any action taken needs to be evidence based.
“When existing screening schemes are proven to work we will aim to make them available in the UK, as we did recently with the Danish heart testing scheme developed by the University of Copenhagen and Danish Kennel Club. The Kennel Club will continue to monitor research, potentially fund new research and seek to provide additional support through the development of new health screening schemes. Our breed health & conservation plans project is key to this and the Cavalier has been identified as a key priority breed for the project.
“It is likely that there will always be a demand for Cavalier puppies, even by those who are aware of the health concerns that can affect the breed, both inside and outside of the Kennel Club’s umbrella of influence and therefore we must continue to endeavour to work with all stakeholders to improve the health of this breed.”
Q: What about Crufts….has health screening improved? Do we still see dogs that look deformed or are beset by health issues winning?
CK: “The Kennel Club believes that only healthy dogs should be winning prizes at Crufts and any other show. Breeds identified as Category Three under the Breed Watch system can have visible health conditions or physical exaggerations that can be detrimental to their health and welfare and as such each of these breeds have to complete a veterinary check before any Best of Breed award can be confirmed at general and group championship shows licensed by the Kennel Club, which includes Crufts.
“In Professor Patrick Bateson’s well respected independent inquiry into dog breeding, he said that dog showing and judging can be a powerful lever for change, which the Kennel Club is still intent on ensuring is the case and we have already seen vast improvements in certain breeds because of the united efforts of both breeders and judges working to improve the health of the dogs that compete in shows.”
The Kennel Club has agreed to record the results of the Danish heart scheme, so for any dogs that have participated in the scheme their results will be recorded on the Kennel Club system and published on the Health Test Results Finder.
THE HEALTH ISSUES:
WHAT IS MITRAL VALVE DISEASE?
MVD is a degenerative disease of the heart valves that leads to congestive heart failure. In 2009 a report by a leading veterinary cardiologist stated that 50 per cent of Cavaliers develop MVD heart murmurs by their fifth birthday. It is the biggest killer of Cavaliers under 10.
WHAT IS CM/SM?
Syringomyelia is a painful neurological condition most often seen in Cavaliers, although other breeds like their close relations the Brussels Griffon are also seriously affected. It is often attributed to Chiari-like malformation (CM) of the skull. Put in lay man’s terms, the skull is too small for the brain causing severe pain and forming fluid-filled that cavities that destroy the spinal cord.
Campaigners started a petition, now signed by over 30,000, to call for the ending of the registration by The Kennel Club of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies unless their parents are MRI scanned and heart tested.