* Update March 6th (+1 month after surgery): It's been about a month and Bambino is doing amazingly well. The first couple of weeks were very shaky, but in the last week, we've seen him remarkably improve. He's gained back his interest in playing with toys, he's regained his energy running around the house and he even jumped on the couch for the first time since before the surgery. The difficulty here is that while he may have his energy back, we still need to watch him and keep him confined for at least another four weeks. Still, the improvement in the last two weeks has been nothing short of amazing :)
My wife and I have a "son", his name is Bambino, he's 3 years old, has 34 friends on Dogster, has travelled to Austin, DC, Vegas, New York, Whistler, South Beach (he was even in the VIP section of Nikki Beach Club, but that’s a different story), and he's the light of our lives. On Wednesday of last week, we got the official confirmation from an MRI scan that he has Syringomyelia (SM), a serious genetic condition where pockets of fluid develop in the brain and spinal cord that, if left untreated, could cause paralysis. It is also known as "neck scratcher's disease", because one of its common signs is scratching in the air near the neck.
Before his diagnosis, we assumed that his constant scratching was due to allergies. We saw a veterinarian dermatologist and did skin allergy tests. We found that he was, in fact, allergic to cedar and fleas, so it seemed to make sense that allergies were causing his problems since the itching was worse when we took him outside for walks. The reality is that the itching (or tingling) would get worse when going on walks because it caused him to get excited, and he has a leash around his neck which can exacerbate the pain. This also explained why he was itchy after a bath and why he seemed to love lying on a chillow (but then again, so do I) as the coolness relieved his pain.
This condition is very hard to diagnose because most of the symptoms are normal dog behavior (itching, scratching, panting), and it seems that most veterinarians aren’t really aware of the problem. This is especially true if you have an English Toy Spaniel because they don’t get nearly as much attention as the Cavaliers when it comes to the medical problems that these breeds have in common.
SM symptoms include itching or air scratching, sensitivity around the neck, yelping in pain for no apparent reason, and even heavy panting. You can see videos of affected dogs here - http://sm.cavaliertalk.com/video.html.
The only way to actually treat this condition is through surgery, which is a bit invasive, but frankly appears to be the only option. The surgery isn't uncommon, but any surgery has a level of risk and this is brain/spinal surgery so it's relatively complex. We’ve been told that there is an 80% success rate. About half of those dogs experience a complete recovery (limb strength restored and air scratching stops), the other half show moderate improvement (usually means that limb strength is restored, but the air scratching persists). The other 20% develop scar tissue which causes a relapse, but the dog is no worse off than before. We’re grateful we caught this before it progressed to become completely debilitating, but it’s been an emotional roller coaster. He’s scheduled for surgery this Thursday and Angie and I will split time working from home after the surgery to make sure his recovery goes smoothly.
I wanted to blog about this to raise the awareness of SM since we’ve seen many veterinarians that weren’t aware of SM and missed all of his symptoms, allowing him to go undiagnosed for years as we kept giving him Benadryl in an attempt to stop his itching. SM can be found in several breeds, most commonly in the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, but also Pugs and even Yorkshire Terriers.
This whole experience has been eye opening, and we hope that this information may help others whose pets may be undiagnosed and suffering. If you’re purchasing any variety of King Charles Spaniel, make sure to ask the breeder if they are doing MRI screening for SM on their breeding animals since that is the only way to detect this condition. The reason MRI screening is important is because some dogs don’t exhibit all or any SM symptoms and the condition tends to get worse with each generation. It’s a red flag if your breeder has no idea about SM, or claims that their line doesn’t have that problem and cannot provide documentation that they are doing MRI screening for SM.
- Dan and Angie