There are many different diseases that canines and humans can both suffer from and syringomyelia is one such condition. It is believed that in one breed, namely the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, this condition is inherited and can be caused by a Chiari malformation at the base of the spine and the skull. The condition is named after Arnold Chiari, the first human diagnosed with the condition.
The cause of syringomyelia in Cavalier King Charles Spaniels is always from the development of fluid filled compartments or sacs along the spinal column. These fluid sacs prevent the normal movement of fluids through the spinal column resulting in extreme pain in movement below where the fluid sac, more correctly known as the syrinx, is located. It can also occur when the brain is simply too large for the skull cavity and pushes out though the opening at the back of the skull by the base of the neck (Chiari malformation). This will produce an obstruction to the normal fluid movement resulting in syringomyelia. Several of the toy and teacup breeds may also have this condition.
The symptoms of syringomyelia may start gradually or may become very serious relatively quickly, depending on the size of the syrinx and the location of the cavity. This condition is often referred to as "neck scratcher's syndrome" as dogs will appear to constantly be scratching at the air around their necks with their hind legs. In dogs with mild syringomyelia there will be some intermittent pain that will seem to wax and wane depending on the age of the dog and the location of the sac on the spine. In severe cases the pain will be so intense that the dog will not move his or her neck and cannot tolerate any touch to the neck, face, ears, shoulders or chest. As the condition becomes worse the dog may become weak, have seizures and develop a twisting of the spine known as scoliosis. In some cases the dog will sleep only with the head elevated above the shoulders. Usually the scratching and pain will be most obvious on one side of the body, not both. In these severe cases the dog will not eat or drink and will often not move voluntarily. Typically most dogs with the condition will start showing signs between six months and two to three years of age, but occasionally adult dogs start to show the condition in later life.
There is mixed reports as to the progression of the disease. In severe cases the condition may become debilitating within six months to a year while in mild cases the dog may lead a relatively normal life without the need for specific medical interventions. The only way to absolutely confirm syringomyelia is through an MRI test that may not be available at all vet offices.
Treatments can range from corticosteriods treatments to pain medication therapies and even surgery in extreme cases. Anti-inflammatory drugs can be used to control both the pain and the possibility of progression of the condition. In surgical procedures the cavities are closed to prevent the build up of fluids in these areas. Some researchers report good success rates with surgical procedures although the condition can reoccur elsewhere on the spine at a later point.