The Cavalier King Charles spaniel is one of the most popular breeds in the world and one look at them makes it easy to see why. These little dogs have silky, flowing hair, adorable, friendly faces, and a personality that makes them eager to get along with literally everyone and everything.
Bred purely as lap dogs, the Cavalier King Charles is smaller than most other spaniels and comes with a generally lower prey drive, relative to their other spaniel cousins. Instead, they are incredibly affable dogs, taking a fast liking to strangers and family members, living well with other pets, and fitting in comfortably with households of children or seniors.
There’s no way around it, these teensy little spaniels are adorable. With their small stature—right about a foot tall and 15 or so pounds—their large eyes, and exceedingly friendly dispositions, it’s practically impossible not to be charmed by a Cavalier King Charles.
The Cavalier King Charles comes in three basic colors: white with chestnut markings (the most common coloration, often referred to as “Blenheim”), black and tan, or solid ruby. A small number of Cavaliers come in a tricolor pattern as well: black and white, with tan markings on the eyes, ears, and tail.
Regardless of color, their coats are medium length, silky, and very soft. The hair remains straight over their entire bodies, though some feathering may occur on their feet, bellies, and tails as the hair grows.
In recent years, an even smaller subset of the Cavalier King Charles has emerged, commonly referred to as the teacup Cavalier King Charles spaniel. These dogs are not recognized by the AKC or British Kennel Club, and are generally regarded as a “designer” mutation of the standard Cavalier King Charles. Additionally, due to the fact that the only ways of creating a purebred teacup Cavalier are to breed dogs with dwarfism genes, or to breed litter runts, teacup Cavaliers tend to have many health conditions and immune disorders. In fact, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club (CKCSC) recommends against purchasing teacup Cavaliers at all.
The Cavalier King Charles spaniel is one of the sweetest dogs you’re ever going to meet.
“Best dog in the world,” Michelle Beck, DVM, CCRT, CVA-Veterinarian, with the Backlund Animal Clinic in Omaha, Neb., says. “They can be energetic and playful, but they’re also great lap dogs. I have never seen a Cavalier that came into the clinic that was anything but nice and compliant.”
They were literally born to sit in your lap, and these dogs are blessed with one of the most affable personalities in all of dogdom. They get along great with dogs of all sizes, can easily learn to live comfortably with cats, love playing with children, and are just as comfortable lying on the couch with seniors.
One of the things that makes the Cavalier King Charles such a great family dog, is their ludicrous level of adaptability. Spaniels at heart, they love to run and play and will do well with games of fetch or chase, as well as obedience, agility, and field competitions. However, for more sedentary owners or seniors with mobility issues, the Cavalier is every bit as happy to blow all that off and live the life of a couch potato. This does, however, put the onus on their owner to adjust the Cavalier’s food intake to match the kind of family dog they want him to be. Cavaliers can and will put on too much weight if you let them, so adjusting the calorie levels for dogs who aren’t going to be running around as much will help keep them healthy and happy.
One potential drawback to a dog this strongly disposed to being in your lap and at your heel: They do not do well when left alone for long stretches of time. Having another dog playmate can help, but ultimately, these little spaniels are all about you. If you can’t be around them the bulk of the time, you might find your Cavalier exhibiting some separation anxiety, which will most commonly manifest itself as nervous barking or destructive behavior.
This might sound silly to even mention, given the Cavaliers’ tiny size, but these little guys do not make good watchdogs. They’ll absolutely bark when someone comes to the door. But they’re just so eager to meet everyone they come in contact with, they’ll probably be more happy to have a fun new friend than they are to actually let you know there’s an intruder in the house.
Another word of caution: The Cavalier King Charles can be trained for obedience fairly easily, and they are happy to go out and exercise with you, but this breed has absolutely zero street smarts. For this reason, a fenced-in yard is a high priority. Leashes are necessary at all times too, because if your Cav catches an interesting scent or decides to chase a bird (they like chasing birds), he absolutely will run out into traffic with zero hesitation.
That’s all a Cavalier King Charles spaniel really needs to be happy. They love following you around the house, they love sleeping next to you, they love sitting on the couch by you, they will follow you into the bathroom. They are going to be around you every minute they can. Because of this nearly single-minded devotion to being around YOU, they can get along in just about any environment. They do great in apartment settings, and love a nice yard every bit as much. They can develop some breathing problems in the heat, so they shouldn’t be left outside too long unsupervised, or without access to cold water and some shade, but otherwise, they’re good to go for some backyard fun.
Cold climates aren’t always their favorite, thanks to their single coat, but they can usually get along. You’ll just want to pay attention to their feet when they come in, as snow can easily get matted in the hair around their toes and give them frostbite problems.
As far as family settings go, these little buddies are ready for it all. They will happily play with children all day long, though smaller kids should be supervised, because the Cavalier King Charles is small enough to get accidentally hurt fairly easily.
They’re also more than happy to serve as lap dogs and rest quietly on the couch with older owners, killing the day as a close, quiet companion. In fact, the Cavalier King Charles does so well as a couch dog, they also make exceptional therapy animals for senior homes, hospitals, and hospices. As one might expect from all of the above, they are excellent choices for first-time pet owners, as they have almost zero needs or expectations, outside of wanting your love as often as they can get it.
The Cavalier King Charles spaniel’s coat is going to need some regular brushing, probably twice or three times a week, as they are fairly regular shedders. But the good news on that front is that their hair stops growing fairly quickly, and the standard care for a Cavalier King Charles doesn’t involve trimmings! Just brush them regularly to keep their coats from matting and to pull out the loose hair, give them a bath as needed, and they should be good to go.
Yeah, so there’s always got to be a little bitter in the batter, right? Here it comes: The Cavalier King Charles spaniel has a number of health concerns. Not all of them are severe or life-threatening, but several of them are absolutely rampant throughout the breed. In short, if you have a Cavalier King Charles, it almost certainly has one or more of the following issues.
First up, there’s mitral valve disease. This is a heart condition that results in the weakening of valves and can lead to heart murmurs. Those murmurs can worsen as the dog ages, ultimately leading to heart failure. Mitral valve disease is polygenic (it is affected by more than one gene), which means that every Cavalier, regardless of place of birth or bloodline, is susceptible. A survey conducted by the Kennel Club found that mitral valve disease was prevalent in nearly 100 percent of the dogs tested, and that it was the cause of death for nearly 43 percent of Cavaliers. Mitral valve disease is a degenerative condition, so as the dogs age, symptoms can become more pronounced. Statistically, roughly 50 percent of Cavaliers will show symptoms by the age of five, and by age 10 virtually all Cavaliers will have a heart murmur of some type.
Next up, there’s Syringomyelia (SM). SM is a condition affecting the brain and spine, where a malformation in the lower back of the skull reduces the space available to the brain, compressing it and often forcing cerebral spinal fluid out into the spinal cord. Symptoms can range anywhere from mild discomfort to severe pain and partial paralysis.
Much like mitral valve disease, SM is stunningly common in Cavalier King Charles spaniels, with international research numbers showing that over 90 percent of Cavaliers have the malformation that can lead to SM.
“At Iowa State University, they do a targeted MRI specifically for Cavaliers to check for SM,” Beck explains. “They found that while a huge percentage of dogs have the condition, not all of them will show effects from that.”
“It’s really case by case,” she continues. “One dog might have significant redirection that causes severe symptoms, while another might have the malformation, but live a perfectly normal life.”
SM can present at any age, but in nearly 85 percent of cases, symptoms show between the ages of six months and four years. While SM can cause a Cavalier a great deal of pain in the most extreme cases, it can be corrected with surgery, with the majority of dogs going on to normal lifespans.
“Surgeons can redirect that fluid through a tube inserted underneath the skin of the neck and redirect it into the stomach,” Beck explains. “Those dogs have a great health prognosis moving forward.”
Cavalier King Charles spaniels are also fairly susceptible to a condition called idiopathic asymptomatic thrombocytopenia, which is an abnormally low number of platelets in their blood, which can affect clotting. According to surveys, there is roughly a coin flip’s chance that your Cavalier will have thrombocytopenia. Luckily, there is absolutely no adverse effect on your Cavalier’s mood or lifespan, but vets will need to be made aware of the existence of the condition if the dog requires any kind of surgery or stitches for a wound.
All of the above can sound incredibly daunting. But the good news is that a very large number of the Cavaliers who carry SM or mitral valve disease still go on to live happy, healthy, symptom-free lives. While the conditions are all highly common in the breed, Cavaliers still have an average lifespan of up to 15 years. So while all these health concerns are conditions to be aware of, if you’re buying from a reputable breeder and have a vet you like and trust, don’t let any of these conditions scare you away from this delightful breed.
Toy spaniels were remarkably popular in the Old World going back at least to the 17th century. It was at that time that King Charles I and his son King Charles II both took particular fancy to a black-and-tan toy spaniel that was eventually named after them. Over the ensuing two centuries, the King Charles spaniel was crossbred with Asian toys, most notably pugs and Japanese Chin, resulting in a more domed head and a flatter face. The breed became what is today known as the English toy spaniel (or, in the United Kingdom, the King Charles spaniel).
In the 1920s, dog breeders began having a revived interest in the “old style” Charles spaniels, and in 1926 an American breeder named Roswell Eldridge offered a cash prize of £25 to British breeders who could produce “Old World type toy spaniels,” with flatter heads, longer faces, and slightly larger size. The prospect of prize money drove breeders to revive the old style. These dogs were dubbed Cavalier King Charles spaniels. The first Cavalier Club was formed in 1928, and the dogs steadily gained in popularity.
As with many European breeds, WWII decimated Cavalier King Charles numbers, with the Cavalier Club only registering 60 dogs between 1940 and 1945. After the War, however, breeders set out to restore the Cavalier’s numbers. By the end of 1945, the UKC had recognized the breed as separate from the King Charles spaniel. The dogs began to make their way to the United States in 1956, and the AKC recognized the breed in 1995.