New research highlights high risk of ear and eye disease in English Cocker Spaniels

January 18, 2024

New research from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) VetCompass™ programme has found that English Cockers Spaniels have an increased risk of disorders such as ear discharge, dry eye and musculoskeletal pain, but have reduced risk of allergies, alopecia (hair loss) and osteoarthritis. This research will help vets, breeders and dog owners to predict what problems English Cocker Spaniels might develop, better monitor their health and promote earlier diagnosis.

The English Cocker Spaniel is a popular dog breed in the UK and has been generally considered to have reasonably robust health. However, the UK Kennel Club still recommends that breeders should screen English Cocker Spaniels for a number of health conditions including eye disorders, hip dysplasia and some additional hereditary conditions. The RVC’s VetCompass™ programme has previously published research describing the most common disorders in English Cocker Spaniels but this new study goes much further by comparing the risk of a range of common disorders in the breed against the risk in all remaining other types of dogs in the UK. This will help the sector to understand the welfare costs and gains from breeding and owning English Cocker Spaniels.

The study compared the risks of a range of common disorders between random samples of 2,510 English Cocker Spaniels against 7,813 dogs of all other types from a study population of 336,865 dogs under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2016.

Overall, the English Cocker Spaniel had 1.12 times the risk of having at least one disorder diagnosed annually compared to other dogs. From the 43 most common disorders across both groups of dogs, the English Cocker Spaniel had a higher risk of 21 conditions compared with a lower risk of just 11. Taken together, these suggest different and somewhat poorer overall health in the English Cocker Spaniel compared to other dogs overall.

Ear discharge was the disorder with highest risk in English Cocker Spaniels, with the breed almost 15 times more likely to have the condition. This may be linked to the pendulous ear flaps which are typical of the breed and favoured by the general public but may predispose these dogs to ear infections.

Other disorders with high risk in English Cocker Spaniels included keratoconjunctivitis sicca (x7.6 times risk; dry eye, not producing enough tears in the eyes), musculoskeletal pain (x7.1) and subcutaneous mass (x4.9; tumour).

Allergy and atopic dermatitis (itchy, dry, inflamed skin) were the conditions with the lowest risk in English Cocker Spaniels, with the breed being seven times less likely to develop these conditions. Other disorders that English Cocker Spaniels were protected from were alopecia (x-2.9), pododermatitis (x-2.9; inflammation of the paw) and retained deciduous tooth (x-2.9; baby tooth not shed). This shows the complexity of trying to understand breed health.

It is hoped that these results can support breeding organisations to establish key priorities and outline the health-based reforms needed to protect the welfare of the English Cocker Spaniel. They may also help owners when deciding which breed to get and how to look after breeds that are already owned.

Dr Karolina Engdahl, Epidemiologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences and lead author of the paper, said: “This study helps to increase the awareness of health issues in the English Cocker Spaniel by reporting conditions that the breed is especially prone to develop. Based on the results, we recommend the owners to keep an extra eye out for ear and eye disorders and masses in or just under the skin and in the mammary glands.”

Dr Dan O’Neill, Associate Professor in Companion Animal Epidemiology at the RVC and co-author of the paper, said: “The Cockapoo is now the UK’s second most popular dog breed acquired as a puppy. Given that the Cockapoo was invented by crossing the English Cocker Spaniel and the Poodle, prospective Cockapoo owners should be aware of potentially higher risks of ear and eye problems that may be carried over from the English Cocker Spaniel to this new Cockapoo breed. This may be a particular problem for those Cockapoos that retain the pendulous ears and loose facial skin typical of their English Cocker Spaniel parent.”

Bill Lambert, Health, Welfare and Breeding Services Executive at The Kennel Club, said: “This research, supported by The Kennel Club Charitable Trust, enables us and all those who care about the health of this much-loved breed to know and understand more about their health. We’re pleased this study indicates that Cocker Spaniels don’t appear to suffer from a high prevalence of specific diseases, other than those which appear to be fairly common for all dogs.

“It does however remain crucial that puppy buyers do thorough research regarding health and go to a responsible breeder; this plays an important part in improving the health and welfare of all breeds, now and in generations to come. We also continue to urge breeders to make use of the resources and tools available to them to improve and protect dog health.”

1 comment

Jan 22, 2024
Lynda Ward

I’m surprised at this new research and the statements related to ear and eye disorders, since it was common knowledge as far back as the 1970’s, that Cocker Spaniels were prone to eye and ear issues.

Incidentally Bill Lambert correctly referred to the breed as Cocker Spaniels.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.