The Cardiac Service at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is in the business of mending broken hearts, and it breaks our hearts when we see a cardiac case we just can’t fix. Through this clinical trial, we aim to answer one of veterinary medicine’s biggest canine conundrums— why do Cavalier King Charles Spaniels get valvular heart disease at an earlier age than other breeds, and why does their heart disease progress more quickly? We hope to find ways to predict early onset of the disease so we can provide better care for those dogs at higher risk, i.e. extend the quantity and quality of life of dogs with this condition.

Mitral valve disease is the most common form of canine heart disease, affecting up to 75% of older dogs with cardiac disease. It is a major cause of illness and death in all dogs, but hits certain breeds, like Cavaliers, the hardest. The disease shares many features with the human form of mitral valve disease, but there are far fewer good treatment options for the canine form. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels have an unusually high incidence of mitral valve disease. Mitral valve disease symptoms can range from mild to severe, with the most serious cases leading to congestive heart failure and even death. Although this disease is common in many breeds of dog, Cavaliers are predisposed to an earlier and more severe form of mitral valve disease.

Contributions from our dedicated community members are being used to map 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. We are one of the few veterinary institutions with this capability. We will then follow the enrolled dogs over several years to see how the shape of their mitral valve impacts their long-term health outcomes. That will help us predict which of our patients is likely to need more aggressive, early intervention to manage their disease. It will also help us design future studies to target specific therapies for affected dogs.

Our community demonstrated its investment in this study by surpassing the initial startup funding goal, a commitment that ensures a better future for not only Cavaliers, but all dogs suffering from cardiac disease.