The Dark Cloud Of Syringomyelia: Fight For Ella

by Annie Mac

Syringomyelia is one of mankind's “great gifts” to dogs--Cavalier King Charles Spaniels to be specific, although it can affect other breeds as well.

The Dark Cloud Of Syringomyelia: Fight For Ella

As we selectively breed for our own specific purposes, it is our dogs that end up on the short end of the stick. I believe that we should, for once,  put our interests aside, and start doing what is right for our best friends. Let's breed responsibly with the welfare of our dogs in mind!

In the meantime, it is very important to make yourself familiar with any hereditary diseases that might affect the breed of your choice.

It is estimated that over 50% of Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are affected by syringomyelia!

What Is Syringomyelia?

Syringomyelia (SM) is a disease that is just as nasty as it is trying to pronounce it. However, phonics aside, if you are considering getting a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, or already have one, I urge you to learn about this condition.

Technically speaking, syringomyelia is caused by a partial blockage of the flow of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). As a result, pressure builds and the fluid is pushed into the spinal cord where it forms fluid pockets called “syrinxes”, damaging the spinal cord. Affected dogs can suffer significant pain, weakness, incoordination, and even paralysis.

Syringomyelia can occur as a complication of trauma, inflammation or a tumor. The most common cause in dogs, however, is a hereditary malformation.

In Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, syringomyelia is caused by a skull malformation that compresses and often herniates, the back part of the brain near where it attaches to the spinal cord. In other words, the skull is too small for the brain.

Not all affected dogs will show symptoms, or their symptoms can be overlooked or misinterpreted. That's why owner awareness is so important! It can save your dog's life.

One of the typical symptoms is scratching the air near the neck, often only on one side of the body. That's why syringomyelia is often referred to as the 'neck-scratcher's disease. Some of the other symptoms can be
  • sensitivity around the head, neck or shoulders
  • restlessness
  • lethargy
  • reluctance to exercise
  • difficulty moving or incoordination
  • limb weakness
  • symptoms associated with pain
The only way to conclusively diagnose syringomyelia is with a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Your vet will likely want to exclude other causes of scratching and discomfort first.
For more detailed information about the condition and available treatments please visit these websites
The CKCS Syringomyelia (SM) Infosite
Cavalier Matters
Veterinary Partner: Syringomyelia

Ella's Story

When I received the call in January 2010 from Ella's neurologist with her MRI results telling me she had a severe case of Syringomyelia with a large syrinx, my world stopped. I thought I did not hear it right. I was the one who read about Syringomyelia and knew all the symptoms and demanded she is seen by a neurologist. I started to notice something was off with Ella probably when she was about 2 years old.

She was almost 4 when she was diagnosed. It was nothing major, it just seemed like she scratched more than usually.  I tend to notice everything about her. Her vet said that it was probably food allergies so we changed her food and I didn't really think anything about it.

Then several months later she just looked funny walking up the stairs. I can't describe it but no one else could see what I saw. I even took her to see her vet watch her go up the stairs.

I felt like someone taking their car to the shop and it works only when you are there. People thought I was crazy. She would put one paw in front of the other and she always seemed to walk on one side. She always seemed to scratch at her ears, which was diagnosed as an ear infection.  All of these things may sound like typical dog behavior and some of it could be but looking back on it, they were pieces of a puzzle.

It was probably in April 2009, I noticed the lack of energy. I would think she was just tired from daycare. I would laugh and say what is wrong with you? In April a Cavalier Meet-Up group began in Charlotte and I said I would write a newsletter and I included some health information.  It was there that I read about Syringomyelia.

My heart stopped. I immediately bought the book For the Love of Ollie and donated to SM research. I don't know, maybe deep inside I knew that something was wrong with Ella.  All of my friends could not see it and the only way to really diagnose it was with an MRI which for me cost $1700.
The other things I noticed was the restless nights. She seemed to never get comfortable. Always making a bed or rubbing her face on the covers.  I heard about the "phantom scratching" and I didn't really see that. I started to look to see if she was scratching on one side.  She was always scratching on one side.  I paid close attention to all the things she was doing.

It then went downhill real fast.  In about two weeks she was hiding under the bed, under the table, laying on the floor, shaking her head constantly, hardly able to walk up the stairs, dullness in the eyes. Again I went to my vet and he said not to jump to any conclusions it's probably an ear infection and allergies and we still want to rule those out before I recommend her go to a neurologist.

I knew she had Syringomyelia.  That weekend I took her to my cousin's house and the thing Ella likes to do more than anything is run after the ball.  I threw the ball and she did not move.  I started to sob. I called and demanded them to let me see a neurologist.  She went that following Monday.  I thought I caught it before anyone.  My friends did not even think she needed to see a neurologist so when I found out her condition was severe I was shocked.  I think it was because of the rate of her progression.

Now that I knew she had it, the hardest part for anyone that finds out their dog has Syringomyelia is deciding what treatment option to take.  I can not recommend which is the best option because it is different for each dog.  Her neurologist said he could not tell me she would be around in 3 months and I couldn't live with that. She had a severe case and it was progressing fast. She was first put on medication but she had surgery a couple of weeks later.

She continues to be on several different medications and I am blessed to have her with me each day. I am constantly reminded of how lucky I was to know about this condition because if I didn't I do not know how much damage to her spinal cord would have been done.

Related articles:

Fight For Ella Continues
Ella's MRI Results And Update


  1. It was so touching to read this story... I plan to pass this information along to friends who have Cavaliers. Sending lots of love and thoughts to Ella!

  2. Thank you for sending good vibes to Ella!

    Yes, it is important to be aware of this condition, particularly since the symptoms can be misleading.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! Thanks for reading and thinking of ella!

  4. Greetings! We have a gorgeous cavalier. I am looking for information on lifetime costs associated with caring for cavalier with SM? Any suggestions?

    1. Hi,

      well, that depends on how bad the SM would be and what treatments you decide to pursue.

  5. My sweet Parker passed away November 3, 2014. It happened so quickly. He was playing the week before. The following week he made some yelping sounds so we took him to the veterinarian who diagnosed him with a herniated disc as he was showing no other symptoms. They did laser therapy and sent him home with medication. The following day he was fine but the day after he yelped from the pain. This was on Sunday morning. I called the veterinarian and by that afternoon he was lethargic, he wouldn't move. As someone who was uneducated about this disease I assumed he just overdid it. That evening the dr called and said that his eyes were twitching and his breathing was labored. So they were going to run bloodwork.By that morning his symptoms did not change so we were making arrangements to take him to a specialist. Once I had everything situated. I got the dreaded call that he had passed away in his crate. This was a matter of 4 days and how quickly it progressed. He was not even a year old. I am having a hard time wrapping my head around this.

    1. So sorry about sweet Parker. So sad. This can happen as a result of an injury as well, was there the possibility of an injury?

      Sending loving thoughts. So sorry for your loss.

  6. Hello everyone. Thank you for share Ella story. As I was reading the similarities was so evident. From watching her having the first symptoms which the vet will call ( ear infections, allergy . The first time I notice something was not right way when she was 1 and half year. May 2013 she had an episode, she was scratching, run her head and bite her back legs, took her to the and he said "Might be a fox flea bite."
    She was sent home with creams and anti fleas.
    She was fine till Next October sane year when she had another episode, this time the vet said it might be an alergy. Again was sent home with creams.
    She was slowly loosing the spark. She was my first pet. What I always say fur many kiara is a dog, for me , my daughter, my baby. She came to give my life so much more tgen I could ever give her back, the love the glances from that black eyes are so precious.
    In May 2014 she had another episode... this time was in mile if the night and she was jumping in the air... I screamed I knew she was not alright. Took her back to bed and I was just waiting the vet to open to take her in . I didn't sleep any longer deep inside I was feeling my my heart was sinking, my baby was not well.
    Next mirning took her back to the vet and told him something was not right and he had to do something. Suddenly he remembered that there was the possibility of kiara have Syriangomyelia... soon as he said I knew she had it ... he didn't have to say it, I knew. So he sorted everything so Kiara could have the MRI. I just told him asap.
    So one week later she was diagnosed by a Neorologic team. " Kiara has in fact Syriangomyelia" I burst into tears... was the saddest day of my life.
    Kiara turned 4 last July and it seems to getting worst. I found Ella story in my attempt to find aways if treatment..... Im not in denial of Kiara condition, but I still deep inside hope tgat one day something happen , a new treatment, something to help in her and so many little ones lije her.
    Thank you for share your story and I wish all the best to Ella and to all dogs with this sad diseases

  7. Rute, so sorry about your baby. Unfortunately, treatment options are still quite limited; drug treatment or surgery. Acupuncture and ultrasonic treatments might be something to look into.

  8. Our Abbie has this, could not do MRI due to a kidney infection. She will turn 15 on 2017.08.03. She is on the meds that treat SM and has been to the Va. & Md Vet. Teaching Hospital, then home, then to the local Vet Emergency Care, and is now home again. She had/has those symptoms She was having trouble walking and fell down a lot then two weeks ago the first seizure. She is quite wobbly when walking. The Neurologist at the Teaching Hospital told us about the Caudal Occipital problem, but did not call it SM, but described it as SM is described. She goes for a Vet visit this Friday, and still may have to go back to the Va.& Md. Vet. Teaching Hospital for an MRI and possible treatment. BTW her heart is in great condition.

    1. So sorry about Abbie. Many of those signs can have other causes as well, though not neccessarily any better; MRI or CT is indeed needed to determine what it really is and what to potentially do about it.

      Sending loving thoughts and wishing you can get this perhaps sorted out.

  9. Oh my goodness. I never heard of this condition before. I'm glad Ella is doing better since surgery. So does that mean even with surgery there's no cure? Only treatment to make her comfortable?? This is so sad this is a condition passed down the line of this breed. :( I really feel for all the pets and pet parents impacted by this condition. Stay strong Ella.

    1. This breed in particular, and some of other small breeds have this problem. Simply put, their heads were bred too small for their brain which didn't keep up with the downsizing. The surgery did help.


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