Published: 15 Jun 2017 | Last Updated: 10 Aug 2023 11:15:01

Researchers have found that cavalier King Charles spaniels affected by syringomyelia and Chiari-like malformation, when compared with Border terriers, have an irregular, “drunk-like” gait, measured in variation of gait characteristics. and a wider distance between the thoracic limb paws resulting in a wider base of support when walking.

The study used a simple and novel technique for quantifying gait parameters using a grid on the ground made of electrical tape and two high-speed video cameras. These gait changes are similar, even when less severe, to dogs with spinal cord disease in the first part of the neck and cerebellar disease in humans.

Cavalier King Charles spaniels are sweet and adorable little dogs that are loved by the public, with one currently even starring in ITV’s Victoria. Sadly, a significant proportion of cavaliers are predisposed to a painful and debilitating spinal cord condition known as syringomyelia. The condition is characterised by fluid-filled cavities called syrinxes within the spinal cord which, as they grow, cause pain and neurological deficits. Dog breeds that are miniaturised and short-nosed are more prone to syringomyelia, but Cavaliers are believed to be the most commonly affected breed.

Cavalier King Charles spaniel
Cavalier King Charles spaniel

As humans, we have a preference for infantile (baby-like) features and this unconsciously biases our selection of companion animals as pets. The cavalier shows paedomorphic (baby-like) behaviour and infantile facial features with large eyes, and a large flattened forehead. Selecting for paedomorphic traits changes the morphology of the skull and has selected for an oversized cerebellum in the cavalier. The cerebellum coordinates balance and locomotion from sensory inputs via the spinal cord and brain.

The cavalier King Charles spaniel has an increased variation of the gait parameters stride length, paw distance on the same side and distance between the front paws when walking. The increased variation of walking gait demonstrates a need for wider based support to increase stability, similar to young children and foals and humans with cerebellar ataxia and spinal cord diseases in the neck. Our results add to the body of evidence showing that by breeding for paedomorphic features, dogs have a puppy-like gait in addition to inadvertent alterations of behaviour, skull and brain morphology.

Professor Holger Volk, Head of Department, Clinical Science and Services and specialist in Neurology and Neurosurgery said: “We know the cavalier King Charles spaniel can be affected by pain associated with syringomyelia and this study highlights that coordination of gait appears to be affected as well.”

Co-author of the study and Neurology Resident at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, Dr Emil Olsen, added: “A breeding selection for paedomorphic features and these inherent abnormalities of the cerebellum we already know the cavalier King Charles spaniel has, and formation of syrinxes, not only causes pain but also appear to affect how they walk. This could be a simple monitoring tool for long-term health and assist breeding of sound dogs."

Research Reference

The research paper is published in BMC Veterinary Research DOI10.1186/s12917-017-1077-5

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Notes to Editors

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London. The RVC offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences, being ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences degrees.  It is currently the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC.

A research-led institution, in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) the RVC maintained its position as the top HEFCE funded veterinary focused research institution.

The RVC also provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals; the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital in central London, the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals (Europe's largest small animal referral centre), the Equine Referral Hospital, and the Farm Animal Clinical Centre located at the Hertfordshire campus.

RVC Press Release 15 June 2017

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