Anyone who truly loves Cavaliers will be hoping that this year’s Crufts doesn’t result in yet another “Best Of Breed” winner who, when it comes to responsible breeding, turns out to be the worst of examples. All too often, the winners have been bred at a ridiculously tender age, making a mockery of health protocols put in place to reduce the burden of inherited disease that these gorgeous little dogs carry. On the eve of Crufts, the Cavalier health petition passed the 35,000-signature mark: making clear that a large number of dog lovers do feel strongly that much more must be done to help this breed.
We’ve done an analysis of some of the top-winning and most prolific-siring Cavaliers of 2016 and 2017. While this threw up a lot of areas of great concern, there were some positives. For example, the number of top show dogs, many of which are very young Cavaliers, being bred on the 2017 list was fewer than in 2016. It is too early to know whether this is merely a blip or the reasons why their owners have delayed or decided against breeding but it offers perhaps a glimmer of hope. And boy do these little dogs need that.
Since Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired on the BBC a decade ago, little has improved for the breed.
Life expectancy for Kennel Club-registered Cavaliers continues to fall and research published last year showed that 20 years of the UK Cavalier Club’s voluntary heart scheme had produced negligible improvement in tackling Mitral Valve Disease (MVD), a condition that is 20 times more prevalent in Cavaliers than any other breed. The report’s authors concluded that “compliance of breeders with the voluntary scheme was poor.” It was as low as 4% in one of the time periods studied. This contrasts dramatically with Denmark, where a compulsory scheme has reduced the risk of MVD by over 73%.
To many, it seems those with real influence and the power to affect change – the Kennel Club and Cavalier breed clubs – are happy to pass the buck, holding backyard breeders and puppy farmers responsible for the Cavalier health crisis. Without doubt, they play a part. However, when those at the pinnacle of the breed, who other breeders look up to, choose to flout guidelines, it is easy to understand why others think its also fine to cut corners.
After Crufts last year, at which the Cavalier best of breed was another young dog who had fathered numerous litters before the age guidelines advised, we did our own investigations. Having looked at the ages at which the top-winning Cavaliers were bred from between 2012 and 2016 and what health data was available on MyKC and the Cavalier Club website, a clear pattern emerged.
In this five-year period, this group of winning Cavaliers produced 755 litters, 30% of which were bred outside of guidelines because of the very young age of one or both of the parents. Of the total litters, 46% were bred by breeders who were past or present breed club committee members or puppy coordinators. Non-compliance with this group was even higher: 39%.
Widespread non compliance from those who run the breed and who members of the public contact for advice about Cavaliers and when looking for a puppy is very troubling and raised many questions.
We called the blog that launched this research “Cavalier hearts: the difference between what Cavalier breeders do and what they say.”
There isn’t like-for-like raw data available for 2017, which is why we decided to look at the most prolific Cavaliers sires of KC-registered puppies and the top-winning dogs and sires in relation to points won at UK Championship Shows to give a snapshot.
In 2016, the list of most prolific studs contains 13 dogs: 39% of litters had at least parent underage and 6% had at least one parent under 18 months. In 2017, 49.5% of litters produced by the most prolific studs were bred outside of guidelines with 3% having a parent under 18 months. A staggering 36% had no recorded health tests for either of the parents.
The lists for these two years contain Cavaliers breeders from across the spectrum, including top show producers. However, non compliance occurs across the board.
It is an irrelevance to an animal suffering from a life-limiting inherited condition whether its breeder is a Crufts winner or puppy farmer who has chosen not to do everything possible to reduce the risk of it developing MVD, Syringomyelia or another inherited condition.
However, it should be much easier for the puppy-buying public to differentiate between responsible and irresponsible breeders. For example, the litters produced by one dog in the 2016 most prolific sires list were all bred before the dog reached 2.5 years and 44% of the litters were with bitches under 18 months old. Yet, the breeder’s website states: “Cavaliers are victims of their own success which means many breeders exploit them for financial gain. Please ensure you only buy a puppy from appropriately health tested parents. All our Cavaliers are health tested in line with current requirement.” Yet again, a case of do what we say, not what we do!
The other data we examined deals with the show exhibitors – the group that dominates the Cavalier breed clubs and influences the direction of the breed. Results for top-winning sires (whose offspring had won points at UK Championship shows) were consistent: 19% of litters were bred outside of guidelines in 2016 and 20% in 2017.
Perhaps of most interest were the top winning Cavaliers themselves: the top dogs on the show scene. Undoubtedly, there must be real temptation – and pressure from others – to breed from such animals while they are enjoying a wave of success, all too often as young dogs. As stated earlier, fewer of the 2017 top dogs had any recorded offspring than those on the 2016 list. Hopefully, this suggests a move away from breeding Cavaliers too young by some breeders.
Nonetheless, in 2017 90% of litters bred by these top show dogs had one or both parents underage, with 30% having a parent under 18 months.
In 2016, 71% were outside of guidelines with 25% having at least one parent under 18 months. So, over the two years, 75% of litters were not compliant with guidelines.
While this might represent fewer than 50 litters, their high-profile breeders have a huge influence on the wider world of Cavalier breeding.
One of the 2016 list of top dogs produced 10 litters, all sired before the dog reached 2.5 years old. The first was sired before his first birthday and a further three before he reached 18 months. His owner was a long-standing Cavalier Club committee member and was, at the time, a puppy coordinator.
Also in the 2016 list is a dog owned by a breeder and exhibitor with multiple Crufts titles. Not only was his first litter sired when he was under age with an underage bitch but the second was sired with a bitch whose first eye test was recorded only after this, her second, litter of puppies was born. The result of the test? She had hereditary cataracts and should never been bred from.
Such a casual and complacent attitude to health testing is unacceptable. But why is the age at which tests are done so important? For complex inherited conditions such as MVD and Syringomyelia, which Cavaliers suffer from in far higher numbers than any other breed, there is no DNA test. A Cavalier might have a clear heart test or MRI scan at 18 months but go on to develop one – or both – of these conditions months later.
This is why it is so important to keep repeating tests throughout a dog’s lifetime and not to breed too young. Doing so packs generations very closely together and means numerous puppies can be born – and then in turn bred from themselves – before any condition becomes apparent. Interestingly, none of the stud dogs in our analysis is recorded as having been through the official BVA/KC SM/CM scheme or the Cavalier Club’s voluntary list of MRI’d Cavaliers.
In 2016 the Kennel Club announced its intention to introduce an official heart scheme to the UK, along the lines of the Danish model. This allows Cavaliers to be bred from 18 months. It uses doppler, rather than auscultation. This is very sensitive and picks up changes within the heart much earlier. As said earlier, the Danish scheme has seen the risk of MVD fall by over 73% for the breed. However, it is also mandatory. Any UK scheme will be voluntary.
Research has shown that not only do too many UK breeders breed their Cavaliers too young, but too few make use of a long-established and inexpensive heart testing scheme. Breeding at 18 months is only acceptable within the context of a compulsory, rigorous heart testing scheme. We need breed clubs and the Kennel Club to do everything possible to ensure guidelines are adhered to. The evidence we’ve seen of the sort of litters registered by the Kennel Club and the health credentials of litters bred by the leading figures in the Cavalier world, suggests this is unlikely to happen.
To see the analysis Cavaliers Are Special carried out this year click here
To view and sign the Cavalier Health Petition asking the Kennel Club only to register Cavalier puppies whose parents have been heart tested and MRI scanned click here