Could man’s best friend help in the quest to understand syringomyelia? Chiari malformation occurs in dogs and, in some breeds, such as the cavalier King Charles spaniel, it is very common indeed. The Cavalier is a loveable and loving spaniel that was established as a breed in 1928 in response to a reward offered for recreating a spaniel similar to those depicted in portraits of the era of the British King Charles II. Their friendly disposition ensures that they are also increasingly common in other western countries, including the USA.
Clare Rusbridge, a veterinary neurologist working in England met her first dog with Chiari malformation, ‘Beau’, in 1995. Beau had been sent to Clare because he had a forelimb, weakness. In addition, he appeared to suffer from intense neck and shoulder irritation, especially when he was walked with a neck collar and leash. A consequence of this was that he scratched in the air with one hind limb while walking. At first Clare was bewildered, and despite many tests, she could not find the cause to Beau’s strange signs. It subsequently became apparent that Beau was not the only Cavalier with this scratching behavior. Finally in 1997, Clare was able to get access to a MRI scanner that could image animal spinal cords. Five dogs including Beau had a scan revealing that they all had syringomyelia and a Chiari malformation. Eight years on and hundreds of Cavaliers all across the world have now been diagnosed with the disease.
Cavaliers with syringomyelia usually have their first signs between 6 months and three years of age however, dogs of any age may be presented. Progression of the disease is very variable. Some dogs have the tendency to scratch with mild pain only and other neurological signs never or very slowly develop. Others can be severely disabled by pain and exhibit neurological deflects within 12 months of the first signs developing. Many people suffering with syringomyelia may find the clinical signs experienced by dogs familiar Pain is by far the most important feature of the disease. Many ask the question, “How can you tell a dog is in pain?” It is not very difficult, especially if the dog in question screams for no reason, for example having its ear groomed. Once friendly, pets may become withdrawn and stop wanting to play. Owners often report that their dog is worse at night, when first getting up, during weather changes, when excited, or related to posture. The dog may seem to be overly sensitive to touch on the side of the neck or ear. Some dogs often develop a scoliosis and some have weaknesses. Treatment of dogs is very similar to humans with the same condition. The bond between dog and an owner can be as close as between humans, making it very difficult to make decisions about treatment such as surgery.