Researchers study heart disease in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels using high-tech 3-D imaging

7 Cavaliers in the hospital lobby
Ann and Walter Baldwin of Marion, Virginia, brought seven Cavaliers to participate in the study.

On most weekends, an empty lobby at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is a good sign. It means there are no emergency cases coming in and no dogs are being taken in or discharged from the Intensive Care Unit. For once, though, a full lobby meant positive news for lovers of the Cavalier Kings Charles Spaniel during a special weekend clinic to assess the hearts of 30 Cavaliers.

three study researchers
From left, researchers Paula Camacho-Sierra, Giulio Menciotti, and Michele Borgarelli prepare to examine one of the Baldwin’s spaniels using a sophisticated 3-D echocardiogram. Their ability to visualize and analyze the results is aided by a unique software that allows them to process and analyze the image data.

The breed has an unusually high incidence of mitral valve disease, a heart disease characterized by a malfunction in one of the heart’s valves, that leads to a backflow of blood. Symptoms can range from mild to severe, with the most serious cases leading to congestive heart failure and ultimately death.

Cardiology Ph.D. candidate Giulio Menciotti, along with fellow Ph.D. student Paula Camacho-Sierra and their advisor Michele Borgarelli, associate professor of cardiology in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, set up the clinic to assess the hearts of the Cavaliers using specialized software and 3-D echocardiogram — a noninvasive type of ultrasound that uses sound waves to assess heart function.

Ann and Walter Baldwin of Marion, Virginia, brought seven Cavaliers to participate in the study. Their herd of adorable pups has the run of their 40-acre property, but their favorite spot is in their owners’ laps.

“They just have the sweetest temperament,” said owner Walter Baldwin. “You couldn’t ask for a nicer, quieter breed.”

As a former nurse, owner Ann Baldwin said she was excited to be able to contribute to the breed’s long-term survival and health. “These dogs were almost bred to extinction,” she said. “As breeders, we want to do our part to keep them healthy and free of heart defects.”

In one of the few documented cases of a Cavalier wearing maroon and orange, this Baldwin pup proudly sports a Virginia Tech bandana and coordinating leash.

Ultimately, the researchers hope the preliminary studies they are conducting will lead to a larger research project to investigate what specific structures within Cavalier hearts predispose them to an earlier and more severe onset of mitral valve disease. Menciotti explained that so far, their research has shown that, compared to healthy dogs from other breeds, healthy Cavaliers had significant differences in the shape of the mitral valve.

“We believe these differences may result in increased stress on Cavalier’s heart valves compared with other breeds,” Menciotti said.

The next step in their work is a project to follow healthy Cavaliers over a long span of time to track changes in their hearts.

Learn more about the teaching hospital's current clinical study on minimally invasive mitral valve repair in dogs with chronic mitral valve disease and Borgarelli’s mitral valve disease research and efforts to create a database for dogs with the ailment.