I've just reviewed a complaint made to the BBC after Pedigree Dogs Exposed aired in 2008 from a well-known Cavalier breeder - a complaint that over the next two years slowly climbed through the various levels of complaint possible at the BBC. At every level, it was found that there was no case to answer. The complainant, however, decided to take it higher and higher until, eventually, his complaint was heard by the fully-independent BBC Trust. The Trust ruled that the programme had not breached impartiality or accuracy in the way we had reported the brain condition, syringomyelia.
The complainant felt - in common with a lot of Cavalier breeders at the time - that the film had sensationalised syringomyelia and that we had overstated the number of dogs that were affected. He also insisted that there was no proof that SM was genetic (ie inherited) and that the research on which Dr Clare Rusbridge based her "up to 30 per cent" estimate of the number of affected Cavaliers was "seriously flawed" and "badly biased".
He was also very irate about Dr Rusbridge describing the mismatch between brain and skull size in the Cavalier as being like trying to fit a "size 10 foot inside a size 6 shoe." He thought this "sensationalist", too.
Well, we now know that Pedigree Dogs Exposed underestimated how serious syringomyelia is in Cavaliers. Recent findings suggest that up to 70 per cent of the breed may show signs of the condition on MRI - and almost every Cavalier has the related chiari-like malformation (CM) which can be painful in its own right.
It is also now accepted by all but a curmudgeonly few that Dr Rusbridge's imagery about the mismatch between skull and brain size in the breed was justified - the dog's brain is, indeed, too big for its skull.
And, while there is still much to understand about the CM/SM, it has been absolutely confirmed by geneticists that SM has a high enough heritability to offer the hope that careful selection could reduce the number of affected dogs born.
Yesterday came a joint announcement from the British Veterinary Association and the Kennel Club that a new MRI screening scheme for syringomyelia in Cavaliers (and other affected breeds) will launch in January 2012. Despite residual opposition from some quarters in the breed, the results of every scan submitted throught the scheme will be published. From spring 2012, buyers (and of course others) will be able to find out if a puppy's dam and sire have been tested and, if so, what the results were.
This is a great result given that, as I reported a few weeks ago, the Scheme looked dead and buried. Well done to the British Veterinary Association for its persistence in insisting that results of scans submitted through the Scheme must be made public (one of the sticking points). The Kennel Club, too, also deserves praise for eventually standing firm against a lobby (of diminishing power) within the breed that did not want full disclosure. Here's hoping both organisations will be as proactive on the very long-overdue official heart-screening scheme for Cavaliers, reportedly currently on hold.
Importantly, the results of scans submitted through the new SM Scheme will be sent to the Animal Health Trust where they are working on Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) for Cavaliers. EBVs juggle pedigree and health info to produce mate-choice guidance for breeders.
Elsewhere, there are several other initiatives aimed at helping to further elucidate CM/SM. They include the Foetal Tissue Research Project, the Cavalier Collection Scheme, and Rupert's Fund which funds MRI scans of older Cavaliers (6+). Rupert's Fund has so far met the cost of MRI scans for 50 dogs vital to SM research. If you have a Cavalier, and haven't already done so, please do check out how your dogs could help future Cavaliers by participating in the research.
It is encouraging, then, that the dark days of widespread denial are (almost) gone, and good news that the KC is no longer accusing campaigners like Carol Fowler of "pet-owner over-reaction" in trying to raise awareness of the problem. Hopefully few breeders today would accuse Carol and others (as they used to) of suffering from "Munchausen's Syndrome by Proxy". And that is because Carol Fowler, along with an ever-increasinging number of Cavalier owners and breeders, have refused to be intimidated by those in the breed who have sought to de-rail attempts to do the right thing by their dogs.
Whether the breed really can be saved remains to be seen. It is burdened with many other health problems besides CM/SM, notably mitral valve disease. But let's not spoil a good day for Cavaliers. And let's try not to worry too much that the person who complained to the BBC that Pedigree Dogs Exposed and the researchers featured in it were wrong about syringomyelia is now Chairman of the Cavalier Health Liaison Committee.