Jonathan and I are blessed with two very sweet pups who are beyond loved. Samson, our lap dog, is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (aka angel sent down from heaven).
When we were on a forest walk last weekend, a lady stopped us to tell us she used to have one that looked just like Sam. ‘He lived to be 12.” she said. “12? That’s really great!”, we responded.
It’s a similar conversation every time we come across Cav (or previous Cav) owners. We all know that the one and only drawback to this otherwise perfect breed, is that they don’t live very long. In fact, the average lifespan is only 9 years.
Most Cavaliers die from a genetic condition, called MVD, which causes heart failure. It begins with an asymptomatic heart murmur which gradually (over the span of 2-5 years) develops into heart failure. It’s recommended that Cav owners have their dogs screened once a year for any heart murmurs, and we’ve been diligent about having Sam’s heart routinely checked.
50% of all Cavaliers have developed a Stage 1 murmur by the time they are 5, and virtually all have it by the time they are 10, if they are fortunate to live until then. We couldn’t believe our good luck when Sam turned 5, 6, and 7 without any indication of a heart issue. He just celebrated his 8th birthday and seemed to be going strong.
So when I scheduled him for his yearly check-up this week, I didn’t think much of it. Of course I knew that it was possible, but he seemed the same as always, so I kept hoping that he would be the only Cavalier in history to live until age 18 without any signs of this degenerative disorder.
I started to get nervous when the Vet spent way more time with a stethoscope to Sam’s chest than she did with Bailey. Luckily, she was very tactful and broke the news to me in a way that didn’t send this emotional pregnant lady into instant hysterics.
Basically, Sam has a low grade heart murmur that she suspects is in the 1st or 2nd stage of the disease. It’s not until Stage 3 that symptoms really start to show. The first indications are coughing and wheezing, difficulty breathing, and intolerance for exercise.
I guess that’s what makes me the most sad. Samson loves walks more than anything. He’s been having a blast on all of our hiking adventures and always bounds full speed ahead over every hill we come across. If we leave him behind on a particularly challenging trek, he will sit in the front bay window of our house and howl and cry, making us shrink away with shame and guilt over not taking him with us.
Anytime we grab our trail shoes or his leash, he goes spastic with excitement. Before we leave the house for a walk, we make him sit and stay before we open the door, and sometimes this little routine can take 5 minutes because he is just too excited to control himself. So to be told to pull back on his activity level is just a crushing blow to both of us.
Our vet said that as of now, he seems fit and totally healthy. She said we can proceed with his usual exercise level, but may want to skip ‘hill walking’ (aka mountain climbing) with him. We’re supposed to keep an eye out for any developing symptoms, at which point we can start him on medication to hopefully slow down the progression of the disease. We’re hopeful that he’ll stay in the asymptomatic phase for a good long while, and there is no reason to think that he won’t.
I still had myself a good hormonal ugly cry for about an hour on Tuesday night. Jonathan didn’t help at all by remarking, “You knew this day was coming.” Yes, I knew it was coming, but I didn’t know it was coming TODAY. I didn’t know that I’d be faced with this love bug’s mortality while in the heightened emotional state that pregnancy brings on.
But Jonathan did give me some good advice. He said that as far as Sam knows, nothing has changed. He feels the same today as he always has. But he’ll be able to tell if I start treating him differently. If I treat him like he’s fragile or frail, he’ll pick up on that and may react accordingly.
So for now, we’re continuing with our daily walks. He still has to sit and stay before he can walk out the front door. He still has to sleep on the floor. He has to eat in his kennel. Life will go on as normal, and we're looking forward to a long and active summer.
We will have his heart rechecked in 3-6 months just to get a baseline on how quickly it’s progressing. Until then, I’m trying not to be too paranoid about every little noise that comes out of our little guy. I hardly slept last night because I was trying to detect if there was a rattle in his snoring. I’m going to be a totally crazy mom…
I just keep thinking about how ironic it is that so many Cavaliers die from heart ‘failure’, when they are probably one of the most loving animals on God’s great earth. They play hard, sleep hard, love hard. They are naively fearless, obliviously happy, obnoxiously friendly, and charmingly gentle.
Samson is a great ambassador for his breed, and has a way of making everyone fall in love with him. Even those who proclaim to be not be ‘dog people’ can’t resist his big brown eyes and sweet cuddles. He brings me joy every single day and all I can do is be grateful for every moment that I have left with him.
And isn’t that true with every blessing in our lives? It’s much easier to take the things I love for granted, but every once in a while, something happens to make me stop and take stock of how incredibly blessed I am. That makes me fully appreciate how fragile life is and how lucky I am to have been given this life; this family; this adventure.
We love you Sam, and promise that your life will continue to be filled with walks, naps, snuggles, popcorn, and chomping chews.