Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is a charming and lovable little companion dog. The breed’s large eyes and constantly wagging tail are sure to endear them to everyone, and they are patient and affectionate towards other pets and children. Although its name invokes its origins in the court of Charles II, the Cavalier King Charles, or ‘Cavie’, is actually a recently developed breed, modelled after the toy spaniels seen in many old paintings of European royalty.

Cavies are highly adaptable and will learn to live happily in most environments. They are suited to indoor-only living, but are at heart a down-sized sporting breed and therefore need a moderate amount of exercise every day. They need to be in constant contact with their owners, and should not be left on their own for long periods, as they can become upset and depressed with regular isolation.

The Cavalier suffers from several significant health problems, notably heart disease, and care should be taken when choosing a puppy not to select one out of pity. The smallest and weakest pup in any litter is far more likely to suffer some of the problems discussed below. The Cavie sheds moderately, and requires regular brushing by the owner, as well as routine visits to a professional groomer. The life expectancy for the breed is in the range 9–11 years, with heart failure being the life-limiting factor in most individuals.

About & History

Spaniels were very popular in the courts and estates of the European nobility throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when hunting and other outdoor pursuits occupied much of the aristocracy’s free time. Toy spaniels were especially popular with Charles II, being often featured in paintings from his reign, and it is said that he never went anywhere without several of these little dogs. The toy spaniels at the time were true hunting dogs, being athletic and capable of many hours of vigorous activity, in common with other breeds such as Irish Setters and English Springer Spaniels.

Unfortunately, in the years after Charles’ death, the popularity of these dogs waned, as ‘cute’ breeds, such as the Pug became more fashionable as companion dogs. Because of extensive crossbreeding with these new arrivals, the spaniels’ conformation changed dramatically, with shortening of the face, protrusion of the eyes, and loss of athletic prowess. However, the Dukes of Marlborough remained long-time fans of the older type of spaniel, retaining a line of hunting toy spaniels at Blenheim Palace that were required to be capable of keeping up with a trotting horse.

The modern Cavie retains similarities to this line, and the red-and-white variation of the breed is now called ‘blenheim’ in recognition of this fact. While the short-nosed spaniel type was recognised as the King Charles Spaniel (without the ‘Cavalier’ tag), an American cynologist, Roswell Eldridge, offered a large cash prize at Crufts in the 1920s for anyone that could present toy spaniels which were good examples of the traditional type of hunting dog. A dog named ‘Ann’s Son’ won the prize in 1928, leading to the establishment of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed club, and the breed’s subsequent development.

It was recognised as a pedigree in its own right by the Kennel Club in 1945. However, due partly to its late introduction to the United States, but also because of very stringent rules surrounding the registration of new breeds, the Cavie was not recognised by the American Kennel Club until 1995. Despite this late development, the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel has soared in popularity to now rank as the 19th most popular breed on the AKC register.


Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Large Photo

The Cavalier is a well-balanced small breed dog which should be built for activity. The head should not be domed, but instead flat between the ears, with a shallow stop leading to a tapering muzzle of moderate length in proportion to the skull. The lips are loose but not pendulous, and any tendency to an over- or under-bite is undesirable. The ears are set high on the side of the head, quite long, and well feathered. The large, round eyes are dark and should not protrude. They are very expressive and ever-cheerful.

The neck is slightly arched, leading to quite a short, level back. The ribs are well-sprung to accommodate a large lung capacity. The limbs should not be delicate; good examples of the breed should have strong bone structure and proportionate muscling. The paws are notable for their well-developed feathering, giving the Cavalier a soft, padding stride. The tail should be of moderate length and well-plumed, and a characteristic of the breed is the tail’s constant wagging when the dog is in motion. The coat is long, silky, and not curled, with pronounced feathering of the ears, limbs and chest. The colour variations seen are:

  • Black & Tan
  • Tricolour
  • Blenheim (Red & White)
  • Ruby

In terms of size, male Cavies stand around 31–33 cm (12-13 in) tall, and weigh anywhere from 8 to 10 kg (17 to 22 lb), while females are generally between 29 and 31 cm (11–12 in) in height, and weigh 7–8.5 kg (15–19 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel’s personality makes it, in many ways, the perfect family dog. The breed is, almost without exception, cheerful, affectionate, gentle and playful. They are very dependable with children, being patient and tolerant of poking and prodding, and have the energy and attitude to make good playmates for older children.

Cavies are truly happy only when in the company of owners, which is part of what makes them usually such a pleasure to own. However, this is also reflected in their inability to tolerate separation for long periods, and they are not suited to households where there is nobody at home for long periods each day. Cavaliers are eager to please, and harsh words or treatment will upset them badly; equally, a kind word will set off a gleeful wag of the tail and an invitation to petting or play.

Because of their cheerful demeanour, they are usually more than happy to meet new people and animals, and they are generally fearless and outgoing towards other dogs – even much larger breeds. For these reasons, they are not good guard dogs, barking only out of excitement, and more likely to welcome an intruder into the home rather than attempting to chase him away.


Photo of Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy

While Cavaliers are rated of being only of ‘average’ working intelligence, their desire to please goes a long way, in that they will persist in their efforts to get things right. Persistence and patience by the owner will pay dividends, especially if training is begun from a young age.

Ample praise and an enthusiastic attitude are usually all the reward the breed requires, and as some Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have a tendency to obesity, offering treats as rewards is not generally encouraged.


The Cavalier is notable for several common health complaints. Chief among these is cardiovascular disease, which unfortunately affects the great majority of individuals from middle age.


An opaque density, usually white or creamy-coloured, which forms in the lens of one or both eyes, adversely affecting vision. Seen to develop or as a congenital problem in many breeds, including the Cavalier.

Corneal Dystrophy

The term ‘dystrophy’ implies abnormal growth, in this case of the clear corneal tissues at the front of the eye. This condition results in pits or other irregularities in this, normally very smooth, tissue, which may or may not be of clinical significance.

Diabetes Mellitus

Signs of diabetes include weight loss, excessive thirst, and increased appetite. This condition is usually caused by autoimmune destruction of pancreatic islet cells which produce insulin, a hormone responsible for regulating blood glucose levels. Treatment involves regular insulin injections.

Dry-Eye Curly-Coat Syndrome

An unusual genetic disorder of Cavaliers that results in decreased tear production, coat changes and painful skin pathology. Walking is usually very uncomfortable for affected dogs, and most are therefore euthanised.

Episodic Falling

Another disorder unique to this breed, in which exercise induces disordered muscular activity, causing collapse. It is usually recognised in dogs from a young age, with many cases stabilising in adulthood.

Femoral Artery Occlusion

There appears to be a tendency in some Cavaliers to having weak-walled femoral arteries, the vessels responsible for most of the blood supply to the hindlimbs. Affected dogs may show intermittent hindlimb weakness or discomfort.


Thyroid underactivity is usually caused by immune-mediated destruction of thyroid follicular cells. Signs such as weight gain, hair loss, and skin infections may be seen, as thyroid hormone is responsible for regulating many bodily processes, including aspects of metabolism and hair and skin cell turnover.

Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca

This condition is commonly known as ‘dry eye’, as loss of function of small tear-producing cells in the eyelids causes corneal dryness and irritation. This is yet another immune-mediated disease, and can usually be managed successfully with topical immunosuppressive medications


Although uncommon, some Cavalier puppies may be born with small, underdeveloped eyes, and will therefore be congenitally blind.

Mitral Endocardiosis

The mitral valve is responsible for preventing back-leak of blood from the heart’s left ventricle to the left atrium during contraction. Endocardiosis is the process of degeneration and loss of function of this valve. This is an exceptionally common disorder within the breed, with most dogs having an audible murmur by 7–8 years of age.

This murmur, which should be easily detected by a veterinarian, represents turbulent blood flow because of this leak, and the abnormal fluid dynamics eventually leads to cardiac chamber enlargement and overt signs of heart disease, including abdominal fluid retention, coughing, and exercise intolerance.

Patellar Luxation

Cavies with slightly bowed hindlimbs may suffer from slippage of the kneecap during exercise in one or both hindlimbs. Normal function of the kneecap depends on rather precise movement of this small bone in a groove at the end of the thigh bone, and dogs with patellar luxation may require one of several types of corrective surgery.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

A common ocular disorder in pedigree dogs, with progressive loss of vision due to death of sensory cells at the back of the eye. Unfortunately, this is an untreatable condition. Due to its genetic basis, affected dogs should not be used as breeding animals.


This condition is caused by the formation of cystic pockets of fluid accumulation within the central nervous system, most commonly in the spinal cord of the neck or in the hindbrain. Signs vary depending on location, but most commonly are seen as spinal pain or persistent scratching of the ears or head-shaking from around 6 months of age.


Although this may be of dubious clinical significance, many Cavaliers have very low platelet numbers when blood-sampled. Platelets are the tiny white blood cells partly responsible for normal clot formation and prevention of blood loss. Though numbers may be reduced, the size of platelets in the breed is generally large, and they may therefore have enhanced functionality.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is an energetic breed. However, its small stature means that it does not require the same volume of exercise as some of the larger spaniels and other gundogs. Around one hour of lead-walking per day is optimal for most Cavies, and originating from sporting lines, most will enjoy chasing a ball or other energetic pursuits. Once receiving adequate exercise, the breed will be generally quite docile around the house, although their need for human contact means that they will happily ‘plod’ around after their owners for most of the day.


Although Cavies have an impressively abundant coat, their grooming requirements are not excessive. Brushing is needed around twice a week to remove burrs and knots, and bathing may be required every 6 weeks on average. In addition, professional grooming will be necessary several times per year to clip the hair around the ears and paws. Many Cavaliers will also require their anal glands (two scent glands located under the tail) to be emptied on a regular basis – an unpleasant job which is usually best left to a groomer or veterinary nurse.

Due to their biddable nature, most Cavies will be very compliant with routine chores, such as having their nails clipped and teeth brushed. The frequency of nail clipping depends largely on how much walking the dog does on hard, abrasive surfaces, while their teeth should ideally be brushed on a daily basis.

Famous Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

Cavaliers do not like to hog the limelight, preferring instead to play second fiddle to their famous owners, some of whom have included:

  • Ronald Reagan
  • Frank Sinatra
  • Courteney Cox
  • Liv Tyler
  • Kristin Davis


The sweet disposition of the Cavalier King Charles means that it is an ideal cross-breeding candidate, and many well-known crosses are available.

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