My story starts over 30 years ago. As a young child, I absolutely loved dogs. One birthday, I requested “a dog book” as a present, which duly arrived. I spent hours flicking through. I had one particular favourite: a shot of two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. I announced that I would like “a brown and white one”.
Now, my parents were certainly not ones to just go out and get a dog on their young daughter’s request but they eventually decided that the time was right for us. When I was eight years old, one Saturday morning they announced that we were going to see a litter of Cavalier puppies. After a very exciting visit, a few weeks later we brought home our very own Blenheim puppy, Megan.
Megan and I grew up together until she eventually left us at the grand old age of 13½. She suffered a heart murmur and enlarged heart towards the end of her life, plus she had a few eye and ear problems, but, on the whole, she was a happy, healthy little soul.
Fast forward nearly 20 years later and my love of dogs, Cavaliers in particular, had never gone away. However, I’d not been in a position to have my own dog until recently. The only slight problem was that my partner claimed to be a cat person! This was soon cured by signing up to the ‘Borrow My Doggy’ website and doing some very selective borrowing – two wonderful Cavaliers: Louis and Frankie. He soon fell in love, not so much with dogs in general, but with this wonderful, sweet, affectionate breed.
Knowing he’d be converted, I’d already started doing my research. I knew that Cavaliers were prone to heart, eye and ear problems but I soon discovered that, since we’d had our beautiful Megan, my favourite breed had been afflicted by a whole range of other conditions, thanks in no small part to irresponsible breeding. I was devastated by what had happened, and I now had a huge dilemma. Did I really want to take on a dog, knowing that he or she could end up experiencing terrible pain and unhappiness?
I considered other breeds, but my heart still lay firmly with Cavaliers, so I continued my research and started looking into health testing.
What upset me more than anything was learning that a Kennel Club registered or even Kennel Club Assured status for a breeder meant next to nothing.
The only health test that the Kennel Club insists upon for Cavalier Assured Breeders is an eye test. And that, to me, is unforgivable. It has the power to educate breeders and owners, but instead, it puts its stamp of endorsement on breeding practices that harm the breed.
On the more positive side, I learnt that by ensuring that the parents and grandparents of a litter had undergone certain health tests, the chances of their offspring going on to suffer from awful health conditions such as Mitral Valve Disease and Syringomyelia are greatly reduced. There was a minefield of information to navigate but, by taking some time to read up and enlisting the help of a friend who is very experienced in dog breeding and showing her own favourite breed, I managed to find out what health tests I should be looking for in the parents of any puppy I considered buying.
Now, I need to make one thing clear: for me, this was never about having a ‘perfect’ healthy dog that never has any health issues and never costs me any money in insurance or vet bills. There’s no such thing, and anyone who wants that shouldn’t be considering a dog anyway. There are never guarantees with an animal.
This was about refusing to give my money, and therefore my encouragement, to breeders who claimed to love the breed but don’t care enough to do the best for their puppies by only breeding from health-tested parents.
To me, such people are barely any better than puppy farmers or backyard breeders. Thankfully, we now hear a lot about these, to the point that there’s no excuse for anyone to buy from one but there’s still far too little information out there about responsible breeding and I can see how naïve or inexperienced owners can easily end up thinking they’re doing the right thing by going to a KC-registered breeder, only to find that few or no health tests were carried out on the puppies’ parents.
So, armed with this information, I started my search for a breeder. This was something of a thankless task. A lot of people didn’t bother to respond to enquiries. Those that did mostly didn’t health test to the extent that I wanted or at all. Those that did didn’t have litters planned or had long waiting lists. I even contacted a couple of breeders advertising litters on online sites. I didn’t have high hopes of them meeting my requirements, as I knew that breeders who health test rarely need to advertise, but I’d become quite interested in the world of breeding and health testing and wanted to understand a bit more about these people. Just call me Louis Theroux!
What I discovered was as upsetting as I expected it to be: I got responses telling me that they didn’t need health testing as the puppies weren’t being sold to breed from (I hope I don’t need to explain the irony and stupidity behind that statement) and people using meaningless phrases like “the puppies have been tested by the Kennel Club” or “double DNA clear”.
Some seemed angry and suspicious that I was questioning them and others just seemed completely ignorant of the need to health test, despite claiming to love their dogs and the breed.
Also, I discovered that many breeders who health test thoroughly and at the recommended ages, although rare, are generally very willing to help and guide those of us who share a passion for the responsible development of the breed. A lovely lady who had no litters planned for the foreseeable future spent nearly an hour on the phone with me, just chatting and going over what I should be looking for.
After about six months, I was put in touch with a lady planning her first ever litter. As a loving, passionate Cavalier owner of many years, she wanted to do all the right things with health testing. As well as having waiting lists, I had realised that these breeders are so few and far between that they can be very, very selective about the homes they choose for their puppies. I carefully composed a message to send to her, asking about health testing and explaining my background and potential suitability for a puppy. After exchanging messages over a few days, including one where she set out all of the health testing information, plus the conditions she would be imposing on any new owners, such as breeding restrictions and an agreement not to neuter before 12 months old, I was absolutely bowled over when she said she would be happy to put us on her list.
I was also amazed by the level of care and detail that had gone into the information she provided around the health testing she had done for the dam and that she had insisted upon for the sire too. The dam had been heart tested and eye tested clear annually by experts and was DNA tested clear for Dry Eye, Curly Coat and Episodic Falling. She had also been MRI scanned at over three years old (very important because an MRI done too early is virtually meaningless) and certified clear of Syringomyelia. Crucially, this lady was pleased to show me all the certificates and documentation.
The sire had had all the same tests and was heart, eye and MRI clear over five years old – the older a parent is when it has clear health tests, the better. He was a carrier of Episodic Falling, but with a clear dam, there was no risk of any of the puppies being affected by the disease, only the potential that they too could be carriers.
I was also provided with information about the inbreeding co-efficient (how closely the parents are related), which was 1.2% – the average for the breed being 5.9% – plus details of her intentions in terms of vaccinations, chipping and weaning.
If you are considering a Cavalier puppy and all that sounds mind-boggling then please don’t worry; I felt the same. If you are prepared to invest the time, there are many resources out there to help you interpret the information.
A truly responsible breeder has nothing to hide – in fact, they will be proud of the testing that they do, and will take the time to talk you through things and show you proof of their claims with certificates.
I was feeling very excited to have finally found such a good breeder who maybe had some puppies on the way, but at this point, the litter was only just in the planning, so there were no guarantees of a puppy for us. However, this wonderful lady took me on the journey with her, reporting back to me on the mating, the confirmation of the pregnancy, its progress and ultimately the whelping when four healthy puppies arrived (plus one sadly born sleeping). I burst into tears when I finally received a message to tell us that there was a puppy for us in the litter, a Blenheim boy: Stanley.
Over the time leading up to the birth of the litter and beyond, a friendship developed between me and the breeder, which is not something I had anticipated as part of the process of getting a puppy, but it’s been a wonderful bonus. When I went to meet her and her dogs, only a few days before the litter was due, having duly provided copies of my passport and a utility bill, I was as nervous as I would have been had I been going to a job interview, but thankfully we hit it off and her dogs liked me! I feel I have a wonderful support network to help me raise my puppy and some lovely new friends into the bargain. While every breeder is different, I do feel that those who care enough to health test are far more likely to care enough to stay in touch and give support and guidance to the new puppy owners too.
If I’m honest, I can see why many people don’t want to go through what we did: a long search for a breeder with no guarantees at the end of it that you will have a puppy. And we were among the lucky ones. I know of people who have waited much longer than we did to find a Cavalier. The one thing I do know is that, even if we had been disappointed at any step of the way, however desperate we were to have our Cavalier puppy, there is no way we would have ever compromised on health testing.
The fact is, it just shouldn’t be like this. It’s not a buyers’ market when it comes to Cavalier puppies from fully health-tested parents, and it’s almost understandable that people are driven to compromise out of desperation to get the puppy that they want and the massive shortage in supply.
While I don’t believe that people should be in a position where they can wake up one morning and decide they want a puppy of the gender and colour of their choice on a particular date, nor do I believe that responsible breeders should be in such a minority.
I would love to see the Kennel Club take action and also breeders, who claim to love Cavaliers so much, doing the right thing to ensure the health, happiness and survival of this truly special breed.
The charity Cavalier Matters has extremely helpful information about finding a Cavalier puppy, including information about the various health tests and questions to ask breeders.
You can help by only supporting breeders who health test fully and at the appropriate ages. Also, sign the Cavalier health petition, asking the Kennel Club to only register puppies from parents that have been tested for Mitral Valve Disease and Syringomyelia