Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Breed Information
This sturdy toy breed is a re-creation of the toy spaniels that populated royal courts and noble homes in Europe from the 15th to the 19th centuries. True to their heritage as “comforter dogs,” Cavaliers love to be in a lap. The typical Cavalier is always happy, trusting and easygoing, a friend to everyone he meets. The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel today is a beloved, and increasingly popular, companion dog. He’s small, loving, playful and attractive.
A Cavalier will dog your footsteps throughout the day, from kitchen to bathroom to home office and back again and prefers not to be left alone for hours on end. The ideal home is one with a stay-at-home parent, work-at-home spouse or retired couple.
A Cavalier’s natural animation and cheerfulness stand out in the show ring. He can be a steady and willing competitor in obedience and rally, and excels in agility and flyball. His intuitive nature also makes him a superb therapy dog. He will sit quietly with older people or young children and then turn into a rowdy playmate with active children or adults.
These dogs generally love kids and do well in families with older children who will throw a ball for them, teach them tricks or just hang out with them. Because of their small size, though, Cavaliers must be protected from clumsy toddlers who might fall on them or “pet” them with too much force.
Cavalier temperament ranges from sweet and placid to hard-charging and, yes, stubborn. The sweet, placid Cavaliers sometimes have a reputation for being dumb, and the stubborn ones for being untrainable, but in general, these dogs are smart and learn quickly. They respond well to positive reinforcement techniques, especially when food rewards are offered, but harsh words will cause them to stop trying or even to hide.
Toy breeds such as Cavaliers are sometimes difficult to housetrain, mainly because people don’t put enough effort into it. If you take a Cavalier puppy out on a regular schedule, reward him for pottying outdoors and limit his freedom in the home until he’s reliable, there is no reason he can’t be housetrained as well as any other breed.
At his best, the Cavalier is an adaptable, flexible, hardy little dog. He’s happy to loll around on the sofa with you all day but ready for action when it’s offered. Although he’s classified as a toy breed, the Cavalier is at the larger end of the size scale, weighing 13 to 18 pounds. He often has the same “birdy” nature as his larger spaniel cousins, making him a good choice for people who want a dog who’s not too big but still capable of going for hikes, chasing seagulls at the beach or even retrieving quail, given the training and opportunity. He will also “hunt” butterflies and bugs and loves playing fetch with a ball or stuffed toy.
Always walk the Cavalier on a leash. When he sees a bird or other potential prey, everything else goes out of his head. All too often Cavaliers are hit by cars and killed when they chase a bird or ball — right into the street.
It should go without saying that the Cavalier is not meant to live outdoors. He’s a family dog who needs to be with his people and protected from excessive heat and cold.
Other Quick Facts
- Cavaliers have a silky, medium-length coat with feathering on the ears, legs, chest, feet and tail. They shed moderately.
- The Cavalier coat comes in four colors: Blenheim (chestnut and white), tricolor (black and white with tan points over the eyes, on the cheeks, inside the ears and beneath the tail), ruby (solid red) and black and tan (black with tan points like those on the tricolor).
- Cavaliers can get along with cats when they are raised with them, but some have a strong prey drive and will chase cats. Pet birds should also watch their tailfeathers around Cavaliers.
The History of Cavaliers
Small spaniels have been popular companion dogs for hundreds of years. They were found in royal courts and noble homes in Spain (where the spaniel gets his name), France, England and Scotland and were often prominently featured in their owners’ portraits. The Scottish Stuarts were especially fond of the little dogs. Mary, Queen of Scots had a toy spaniel by her side when she was executed, as did her descendant, England’s King Charles I. It was Charles and his son Charles II who lent their name to the dogs that eventually became known as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
The toy spaniels’ popularity began to wane after a new king, William, replaced James II (also a Stuart) on England’s throne. William was from Holland, and he favored Pugs. People began crossing the Pugs and spaniels, and eventually their look changed, becoming more flat-faced with a domed head. Dogs like the ones seen in old portraits practically disappeared, except for a few lines here and there, like the ones kept by the Churchill family at Blenheim Palace. The dogs might have faded into the past except for one Roswell Eldridge, a wealthy American who offered a prize to anyone who could produce a dog like the ones he had seen in 17th and 18th century paintings.
British breeders took up the challenge and rebuilt the breed, working with long-nosed English Toy Spaniels (called King Charles Spaniels in England). The first of the “new” spaniels was exhibited in 1928 at Crufts Dog Show. Alas, Eldridge did not live long enough to see him, but his estate paid the prize. Since then, the Cavalier has evolved to what he is today: a sturdy and highly popular companion, combining bird-dog nosiness and Toy-dog affection for people.
The Cavalier ranks 23rd among the breeds registered by the American Kennel Club, up from 54th in 2000. That’s one of the largest leaps in popularity in the past decade.
Cavalier Temperament and Personality
The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is small, loving and playful. The typical Cavalier is always happy, trusting and easygoing, a friend to everyone he meets. True to their heritage as “comforter dogs,” Cavaliers love to be in a lap.
Cavalier temperament ranges from sweet and placid to hard-charging and even stubborn. The sweet, placid Cavaliers sometimes have a reputation for being dumb, and the stubborn ones for being untrainable, but in general, these dogs are smart and learn quickly. They respond well to positive reinforcement techniques, especially when food rewards are offered, but harsh words will cause them to stop trying or even to hide. A Cavalier should usually never be shy or aggressive to people or other dogs.
Cavaliers live to be with their people. The ideal home is one with a stay-at-home parent, work-at-home spouse or retired couple. The dogs generally love kids and do well in families with older children who will throw a ball for them, teach them tricks or just hang out with them. Because of their small size, though, Cavaliers must be protected from clumsy toddlers who might fall on them or “pet” them with too much force.
A few things to know about Cavaliers: they love to lick, they love to chase moving objects (especially feathered ones) and they can be manipulative when they want food (those eyes!). It’s difficult or impossible to curb these behaviors so you need to find a way to work around them, such as always keeping the dog on leash in areas with traffic and hardening your heart when your Cavalier wants to share your French fries.
The Cavalier is not perfect. Any dog, no matter how nice, can develop obnoxious levels of barking, digging and other undesirable behaviors if he is bored, untrained or unsupervised.
Start training your puppy the day you bring him home. Even at eight weeks old, he is capable of soaking up everything you can teach him. Don’t wait until he is 6 months old to begin training or you will have a more headstrong dog to deal with. If possible, get him into puppy kindergarten class by the time he is 10 to 12 weeks old, and socialize, socialize, socialize. However, be aware that many puppy training classes require certain vaccines (like kennel cough) to be up to date, and many veterinarians recommend limited exposure to other dogs and public places until puppy vaccines (including rabies, distemper and parvovirus) have been completed. In lieu of formal training, you can begin training your puppy at home and socializing him among family and friends until puppy vaccines are completed.
Talk to the breeder, describe exactly what you’re looking for in a dog, and ask for assistance in selecting a puppy. Breeders see the puppies daily and can make uncannily accurate recommendations once they know something about your lifestyle and personality.
The perfect Cavalier doesn’t spring fully formed from the whelping box. He’s a product of his background and breeding. Whatever you want from a Cavalier, look for one whose parents have nice personalities and who has been well socialized from early puppyhood.
What You Need to Know About Cavalier Health
All dogs have the potential to develop genetic health problems, just as all people have the potential to inherit a particular disease. Run, don’t walk, from any breeder who does not offer a health guarantee on puppies, who tells you that the breed is 100 percent healthy and has no known problems, or who tells you that her puppies are isolated from the main part of the household for health reasons. A reputable breeder will be honest and open about health problems in the breed and the incidence with which they occur in her lines.
The Cavalier can develop certain health problems. They include a heart condition called mitral valve disease, a neurological problem called syringomyelia, patellar (knee) luxation, certain eye problems such as cataracts and keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eye, an ear condition called primary secretory otitis media, allergies and other skin problems. Most of these conditions are suspected to be hereditary.
First things first: Not every Cavalier will get all or even any of these diseases. It’s not unusual for Cavaliers to live 10 to 12 years, and some live to be 15 or older. Now, that said, there’s no denying that the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is at risk of a large number of genetic health problems. Some die in what should be the prime of their life. Here’s a brief rundown on what you should know.
Mitral valve disease is the most common acquired heart disorder in dogs. It’s a defect of the mitral valve, located between the left atrium and left ventricle of the heart. The valve gradually thickens and degenerates, eventually becoming leaky. That forces the heart to work harder to pump blood out and it becomes enlarged. Lots of dogs get MVD in their senior years, but in Cavaliers it can strike at an early age. A heart murmur is the first sign of MVD. Cavaliers with a murmur may go on for years without any problem or need for medication, or they can develop congestive heart failure, which can often be controlled for a time with medication.
Syringomyelia is a nervous system disorder. It results from a congenital bone deformity in which the rear part of the skull is too small. The cerebellum and the brainstem are crowded and obstruct the foramen magnum, the opening at the bottom of the skull. When this happens, the flow of cerebrospinal fluid is obstructed, resulting in the formation of fluid-filled cavities in the spinal cord. The damage can cause pain. Signs include scratching at the neck and sensitivity in the area of the head and neck. The dogs often yelp or scream for no apparent reason, may hold their head in a certain position much of the time, or develop a wobbly walk. Syringomyelia can be mild, requiring no action; managed with pain medication; corrected with surgery; or so severe that the dog must be euthanized.
Many toy breeds and small dogs, the Cavalier included, have a condition known as luxating patella, in which one or both kneecaps are unstable and occasionally, or in more severe cases, always slip out of place. Depending on the level of severity (1 being mild and 4 being severe), luxating patellas can be a minor issue that cause the dog little problem or pain or serious enough to require surgical correction.
Primary secretory otitis media, also known as glue ear, occurs when a mucus plug forms within the middle ear cavity of one or both ears. Signs include head or neck pain, holding the neck carefully, tilting the head, scratching at the ears and hearing loss. Often PSOM is mistaken for syringomyelia or hereditary deafness. It is usually diagnosed with an MRI or CT scan and treated by surgically removing the mucus plug and then flushing the ear, followed by a course of antibiotics and/or corticosteroids.
Eye problems that may affect the breed include juvenile cataracts and dry eye. Dry eye is most common in senior dogs.
The Basics of Cavalier Grooming
For a coated breed, the Cavalier is relatively easy to groom. The medium-length silky coat is not so heavy that it requires hours of brushing, and it sheds dirt easily. The Cavalier sheds, like all dogs, but regular brushing will remove dead hairs so they don’t float off onto your floor, furniture and clothing.
The long, silky hair on the Cavalier’s ears, tail, belly and legs, known as feathering, should be brushed two or three times a week to prevent mats or tangles from forming. Be sure to check behind the ears and where the leg meets the body; that’s where they commonly form. Use a slicker brush or stainless steel comb to remove tangles, then bring out shine with a bristle brush. The coat does not require any trimming for the show ring; indeed, such trimming is prohibited by the breed standard.
A bath every two to four weeks will keep the Cavalier smelling sweet. The only other grooming needed is regular ear cleaning, tooth brushing and nail trimming.