Kim Campbell Thornton's Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
I write about dogs for a living, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that there’s no such thing as the perfect dog. But in my mind, the Cavalier comes close. I’ve loved Cavaliers ever since we acquired our first one after the death of our Greyhound.

From sighthound to toy breed may seem like a strange step, and it wasn’t something I ever expected to happen. We were living in a condo, and our Greyhound’s quiet and laid-back nature was a perfect lifestyle match. But when she lost a leg to cancer and had to be carried up and down the stairs, we realized that it would be too difficult to have another large-breed dog in that particular home. Since we weren’t in the market for a new home, we decided to downsize dogs until we were in a different space.

And that’s how we became Cavalier people.

Once we got that first Cavalier, there was no going back. I love their gentle sportiness, happy nature and willingness to go anywhere and try anything. They are an easy size to live with: not too small and not too big. Not even the potential for health problems can dim my adoration. Our Cavaliers dog my footsteps like canine ladies in waiting, always interested to see what I’m going to do next and ever hopeful that it will involve food or a car ride.

Enter the Cavalier

Harper the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
When scientists unravel the Cavalier genome, it’s sure to feature a gene for lap-sitting. That’s a Cavalier’s favorite spot, but the dogs are hardly lazy. Among their many activities, mine have pointed mule deer while hiking at Yosemite, gone boating with friends and earned titles at Nose Work trials. Many Cavaliers participate in agility, rally and other dog sports. I even know of one who is a hunting dog, retrieving birds with the best of them.

My Cavaliers have been super traveling companions, thanks to their size and easygoing personalities. They have traveled the country by air (in the cabin, of course) and automobile, making friends everywhere from Seattle to Kansas City. Like humorist Will Rogers, my Cavaliers have never met a stranger: Everyone is simply a new best friend.

I’m currently living with my fourth and fifth Cavaliers over a 16-year period. The first was Bella, a three-year-old retired show dog purchased from a breeder who became a good friend. Bella was so fabulous that within a year, we were in the market for a puppy — our first of any breed. Along came Darcy, who was super smart and charming — more than any dog has a right to be.

We were smitten with this breed, so much so that we added a third — a black-and-tan named Twyla adopted from a Cavalier rescue group.

It’s easy for me to see why Cavaliers can be addictive. Our Cavaliers are enthusiastic, cheerful and smart, and their moderate and adaptable activity level was simply icing on the cake once I had fallen in love with their outgoing, fearless nature.

Cavalier Caveats

Although Cavaliers are sturdy and athletic, they often come with a broken heart — literally. A condition called mitral valve disease is endemic in the breed. That means that almost no Cavalier escapes it, although some may have milder cases than others.

According to the Manual of Canine and Feline Cardiology, MVD is the most common type of heart disease in dogs and isn’t unusual in old dogs of any breed or mix. Unfortunately, it can occur in Cavaliers at an earlier age, and the incidence of MVD is considered to be particularly high in the breed.

Twyla the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
After Darcy died of MVD at the too-young age of 6 1/2, a friend asked if I would continue in the breed. After a long pause, I said yes. Not all Cavaliers die young. Bella lived to be 15, and Twyla was probably 12 or 13 when she died. More is known these days about managing the disease, and better drugs are available. But that still doesn’t make it easy to live with.

Cavaliers have other potential health problems that would-be owners should know about. They can be prone to allergies; ear infections, including a predisposition to a type of middle-ear infection called primary secretory otitis media, more familiarly known as “glue ear;” a neurological problem called syringomyelia; hip dysplasia; eye disease; luxating patellas; deafness; and dental disease.

Not every Cavalier will develop all — or even any — of these problems, and some of the problems are not very common. Nonetheless, people who are considering acquiring a Cavalier should be aware of them, so they can talk to breeders about the incidence of health problems in their lines and the steps they’ve taken to reduce or prevent them.

This is important, because Cavalier popularity is rising quickly. In 2014, the breed was the 19th most popular breed registered by the American Kennel Club, up from 25th in 2009. As a result of this surge in popularity, lots of unscrupulous breeders are jumping onto the Cavalier bandwagon to profit from the popular pups.

It’s essential to see up-to-date health certifications on both breeding dogs for the heart, eyes, hips and knees, and when possible, an MRI for syringomyelia. For heart, eyes and knees, “up-to-date” means the certificate should be dated within the past year. That means the breeder has dogs checked annually for evidence of disease.

Hip clearances by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals should not be performed before the dogs are 2 years old, but those issued by PennHIP may be done earlier.

Heart exams should be performed by a board-certified veterinary cardiologist and eye exams by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. Avoid breeders or pet stores that simply say, “The parents were vet checked.”

Ask about the age of the breeding dogs, too. They should be at least 2 1/2 years old with no evidence of heart disease. The parents of the breeding dogs should have been free of heart disease at 5 years of age.

I love my Cavaliers, and I will always have at least one. But I know from experience that the cost of their health care can be expensive and that living with them can bring heartbreak when they die too young. On the other hand, a Cavalier in her golden years is a pearl beyond price, and I wouldn’t miss that for the world.

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