King Charles Spaniel

Pippa Elliott
Dr Pippa Elliott (BVMS MRCVS, University of Glasgow)
Photo of adult King Charles Spaniel

The King Charles Spaniel is the diminutive cousin of the larger, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. Although the King Charles Spaniel is equally as charming, for some reason, he’s only a fraction as popular. Indeed, in terms of numbers, according to the UK Kennel Club, the King Charles Spaniel is classed as a 'vulnerable native breed'.

Perhaps the fight back for the King Charles Spaniel popularity should start here, because he’s a delightful, gently, patient, and fun character in pint-sized packaging. Anyone who loves the doe-eyed softness of his larger and better-known cousin the Cavalier should seriously consider a King Charles Spaniel, although his one weakness is his health.

About & History

It is indeed fitting that a breed so beloved by the Stuart monarchs should be named after their biggest fan, King Charles. Indeed, King Charles II was particularly renowned for his love of spaniels, which accompanied him wherever he went… even into parliament!

An illustration of Charles II’s love of spaniels is that on the door to his bedchamber was a sign saying 'Beware of the Dogs'. Only, in this instance, it was simply warning the visitor to take care and avoid treading on the living carpet of canines.

The spaniels that played around Charles II’s ankles share a common heritage as toy spaniel breeds. It wasn’t until Victorian times that this line diverged to produce two breeds: the King Charles Spaniel and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

The King Charles Spaniel is said to have arisen by crossing the common ancestor with pugs and Japanese Chin dogs. This produced a miniaturised spaniel with a less pronounced muzzle and smaller body size than the original stock. Their distant ancestors, the 'King’s dogs' had longer noses and more canine faces. As the 20th century arrived and progressed, spaniels with flatter faces grew in popularity.

Eventually, in 1945, the UK Kennel Club recognised the King Charles Spaniel and Cavalier King Charles as separate breeds. But where the Cavalier climbed in popularity, the King Charles declined. Currently, the breed is considered vulnerable to extinction and if the current trend continues may become a dog of the past.


King Charles Spaniel Large Photo

The King Charles Spaniel is a toy breed with medium length, soft silky fur, which is especially luxuriant on those long heavy ears. They have a small domed faced with a fore-shortened snout. In keeping with their cute appearance, they also tend to have large eyes, compared to the size of their head.

As a small dog they are lighter in the bone than some breeds, which can give them an air of fragility. They have a long straight tail that is adorned with flag-like feathering. Similar to the Cavalier, their coat colouration can be ruby, black & tan, Blenheim, or tricolour.

Character & Temperament

The King Charles Spaniel loves to be loved. Not only does he lap up affection, but he also expects to be treated like a king… fair enough though, since he’s named after one. These are clever little dogs with a surprisingly strong personality. Their antics will delight and amuse owners, and are perhaps one of the reasons they were so beloved by those at court, back in the 17th century.

One of the outstanding things about the temperament of the King Charles Spaniel, is their lack of aggression. They are gentle in the extreme and never given to fits of bad temper or displays of intolerance. Arguably their small size does make them physically vulnerable, but otherwise, they make for the perfect family dog that is reliable and trustworthy around children.


The King Charles Spaniel is exceptionally gifted at training his owner to bend to their will. Those large brown eyes and teddy-bear cute looks are sure to turn any owner’s resolve to mush, so that the dog gets anything they want. Seriously, these little fellows are so easy-going that many owners overlook training them. However, like any dog, it’s crucial to instil basic commands in the dog, such as 'Sit', 'Stay', and 'Come', so that you have control over the dog in a range of tricky situations.

They are intelligent, so don’t be deceived by those puppy dog eyes and instead, stick to your resolve and expect the dog to obey. He will… once he realises there’s no wriggling out of the situation using the power of 'cute'. Of course, reward-based training methods should always be used for a happy but obedient dog.


Sadly, the King Charles Spaniel does have an Achilles heel, which is his health. This delightful character has a high incidence of breed-related health problems. And, neither are these insignificant issues but conditions that are extremely painful (syringomyelia) and shorten life expectancy (mitral valve disease.)

At present, any breeding schemes aimed at improving breed health are purely voluntary on the part of the breeder. A prospective owner would do well to seek out that most elusive of breeders, one who voluntarily screens the parent dogs and only breeds from those proven to be healthy.


This condition results in intense pain and discomfort around the head and neck. Symptoms also include bizarre behaviours, such as phantom fly-catching and scratching at the air with a back leg.

The problem is caused by the anatomy of the skull. The bony casing of the skull is too small to comfortably house the entire brain. This results in part of the hind brain being forced out through the back of the skull. In turn, this impedes the natural circulation of the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the brain and spinal cord.

Ultimately, the changed anatomy and increased pressure caused cysts of fluid to build-up within the spinal cord. This condition is diagnosed with an MRI scan. Sadly, there is no cure and the best to be hoped for is that steroids can reduce brain inflammation, and painkillers relieve the acute discomfort. Dogs with syringomyelia should not be bred from.

Degenerative Mitral Valve Disease MVD

Disease of the heart valves is common in the King Charles Spaniel. Whilst there are no statistics for this breed, in their close relative the Cavalier, around 75% of dogs can expect to develop MVD at some point in their life.

MVD occurs when the valves governing the one-way flow of blood through the heart become diseased. Typically, the valves become thickened and no longer close properly. This allows blood to leak back in the wrong direction through the heart. This turbulent blood flow is what the vet hears as a murmur.

Early detection of MVD is crucial. A particular heart medication (pimobendan) can extend life expectancy for months and years, over what would happen without medication. But this is a progressive condition, so ultimately, there is a strong possibility of MVD prematurely ending the dog’s life.

Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS) or Dry Eye

This condition with a hereditary basis is unfortunately common in King Charles Spaniels. The symptoms are caused by a lack of production of the natural tear film that moisturises the surface of the eye (cornea). Without adequate tear production, the cornea becomes irritated and inflamed, leading to marked discomfort.

Over time, in addition to the discomfort of having constantly itchy eyes, the cornea lays down scar tissue which impedes vision. Dry eye is not fatal but it is extremely uncomfortable and impacts on quality of life. There are medications that will ease the symptoms. But these are expensive, must be applied several times a day, and are needed for the entirety of the dog’s life.

Exercise and Activity Levels

The King Charles Spaniel needs around 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day to keep him trim. Whilst not needing a huge amount of walks, he will get bored and overeat if he doesn’t get out and about.


That luxurious silky hair is prone to matting together. Knots are especially likely in areas where fur rubs against fur, such as behind the ears, in the armpits, and groin. Prevent this simply by combing the dog through, once a day, after walks. Pay particular attention to the fur between his toes and around the ears, as these can vacuum up grass awns and sticks that lodge and can then damage the skin.

King Charles Spaniels with white faces can be prone to tear staining. Use a piece of cotton wool soaked in previously boiled water, to wipe the face clean. Do this at least twice a day and the tears will be removed before they can dye the fur brown.

Famous King Charles Spaniels

There is a well of classical art ranging from the 17th to 20th centuries that feature the spaniel relatives of the King Charles Spaniel. This is down to his popularity at the Stuart court, where pet dogs were likely to be featured in the portraits of their august owners.

Perhaps the most high profile owners were King Charles II and Queen Victoria, both of whom had a passion for dogs. Indeed, it was under Victoria’s stewardship that outbreeding to Pugs and Japanese Chins took place, to refine the look of the King Charles Spaniel.


As a breed, the King Charles Spaniel is in a fight for survival. Given the low numbers of dogs, breeding efforts are better employed to bolster the amount of purebred dogs rather than dilute the gene pool by out-breeding to create hybrids.

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