An Overview of Cocker Health Problems  

The following is a brief overview of some possible health problems in the Cocker Spaniel. 


Note that while many of these ailments can be genetic in origin, they can be triggered by certain drugs, vaccines, or infections.  With allergies---both ear and skin—these problems can often be resolved by switching either to a raw diet or a natural pet food and supplementation with an Essential Fatty Acid.  In fact, Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) is often resolved when supplementing the Cocker Spaniel with taurine, an amino acid found in raw meat that is lost when it is cooked.


Supporting your dog’s immune system---feeding fresh raw foods, exposure to unfiltered sunlight, plenty of exercise, lack of stress, and eliminating chemicals toxins in your environment---is critical to keeping him healthy. 


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Autoimmune Thyroiditis
Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)
Ear Problems
Eye Problems
Skin Problems



Studies have shown the American Cocker Spaniel is at high risk for developing allergies-–food and/or environmental. The most likely symptoms of an allergy are scratching at their ears and production of exudate in the ears (See Chronic Otitis Externa), and biting or scratching at their feet, muzzle, ears, armpits or groin, often resulting in redness and/or swelling of the skin on the affected areas (See Canine Atopic Dermatitis).


Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA) aka Immune Mediated Hemolytic Anemia (IMHA)

Cocker Spaniels are genetically predisposed to Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia. Of all the breeds affected with this condition, 1/3 are Cocker Spaniels, primarily females. Cocker spaniels are affected with the acute form of AIHA.


With AIHA, the dog's immune system attacks its red blood cells.  In some cases, the cause is known (such as AIHA secondary to systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), which is also an autoimmune disease).  In other cases, the cause is unknown but possibly due to viral or bacterial infections, certain drugs (Sulfonamides, Cephalosporin, Penicillin, Procainamide) or vaccines.  Something as simple as a bee sting can trigger AIHA.


Symptoms include pale mucus membranes, fatigue, sometimes jaundice, and a swollen abdomen (which can be indicative of an enlarged spleen or liver).  Treatment includes the use of steroids which subdue the immune response and chemotherapy drugs.  Most forms of AIHA are treatable but death may occur due to blood loss and related complications.


Autoimmune Thyroiditis

Studies have concluded the American Cocker Spaniel breed has a high prevalence for Autoimmune Thyroiditis in which the immune system forms antibodies that attack the dog’s own T3, T4, and thyroglobulin (a substance necessary for forming thyroid hormones).  Symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment are similar to those for Hypothyroidism except that the diagnosis of Autoimmune Thyroiditis requires a special test to determine the presence of thyroid antibodies in the blood.


“. . .Many environmental factors cause or trigger immune dysfunction leading either to immune deficiency or immune stimulation (reactive response, autoimmunity). One of the most common disorders of increasing prevalence today is autoimmune thyroid disease. Affected individuals have generalized metabolic imbalance and often have associated immunological dysfuncton. An important facet of managing these cases is minimizing exposure to unnecessary drugs, toxins and chemicals, and optimizing nutritional status with healthy balanced diets. Because of the genetic predisposition to autoimmune disorders, the same recommendations apply to family members. Individuals susceptible to these disorders are at increased risk for adverse effects from immunological challenges following exposure to viruses, vaccines, and other infectious agents; a variety of chemicals, drugs and toxins and hormonal imbalances. Related to these events is the susceptibility to and development of cancer, a disruption of cell growth control. . . .”


                Nutritional Approaches for a Healthy Immune System

      W. Jean Dodds, DVM



Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM)

Dilated Cardiomyopathy is an acquired disease in which the heart muscle becomes dysfunctional over time. Defective transport of calcium ions within the heart muscle diminishes the cells' ability to contract. The heart muscle becomes thin and flabby. Over a period of several months, the thinning worsens, the heart chambers become dilated (enlarged), the electrical timing of the heart malfunctions and affected dogs begin to have visible trouble. Before long, the problems cascade into full-blown congestive heart failure and then death. Over the usual one- to two-year course of the disease, the heart deteriorates from a muscular, automated, fine-tuned pump to a bag of overstretched elastic with misfiring electronics.


DCM has been recognized in a number of species, including dogs, cats and human beings. In cats, DCM is due primarily to a dietary deficiency of the amino acid taurine.  In dogs, the cause of the disease is generally unknown but the disease itself is highly breed-specific.  More than 90% of cases of canine DCM are confined to 8 breeds, including Cocker Spaniels. The disease is likely genetic in origin, although this has not yet been proved and the mode of inheritance has yet to be documented. Middle-aged dogs are most often affected.


The signs of DCM often appear suddenly, as if the affected animal has become ill only within the last few days.  By this time, the dog has progressed through the early stages of the disease and is now in severe heart failure. The symptoms include dyspnea, ascites, weakness and exercise intolerance. Arrhythmias may also occur, consequently worsening heart failure and precipitating collapse or sudden death.


“. . . Some American Cocker Spaniels have been reported to develop DCM associated with low taurine levels. Taurine supplementation may result in reversal of the disease and a significantly better prognosis. Although taurine does not appear to be associated with the development of DCM in other commonly affected breeds, it is still occasionally reported in unique presentations of DCM and measurement of levels may be considered in atypical breeds.”


        Canine Dilated Cardiomyopathy-Recognition & Clinical Management

  Kathryn M. Meurs, DVM, PhD, Diplomate ACVIM (Cardiology), The Ohio State University

           Presented at Waltham/OSU Symposium: Small Animal Cardiology, 2002


“Understanding the diet fed to our pets has become more important than ever. Taurine is an essential amino acid naturally produced by the dog. Just like a recipe, taurine is made up of multiple "ingredients." The sulfur amino acids methionine and cystine are critical to the production of taurine. Dogs can only produce adequate amounts of taurine when the correct levels of methionine and cystine are available in their diet.


Taurine deficiencies in cats and foxes have been associated with low plasma taurine concentrations and subsequent heart problems, specifically DCM. Sadly, similar signs have been observed in dogs fed commercial diets low in methionine and cystine, thus inhibiting the body's ability to produce taurine. This might be a good time to consult your veterinarian regarding your dog's diet.


Dr. Quinton Rogers of the University of California-Davis' School of Veterinary Medicine says, "During the past few years, our clinic has seen an increasing number of dogs with low plasma taurine concentrations and clinical signs of cardiomyopathy.  The common factor in all cases was their diet history." “


Dilated Cardiomyopathy (DCM) Treatment for Rapid Heart Beat

New Developments in DCM: Evaluating Nutritional Factors

Morris Animal Foundation "Animal News" 2002

Ear Problems


Chronic Otitis Externa, which can be caused by an allergic response to foods or environmental factors (household cleaners and sprays, chemicals on the grass, outdoor pollens or molds, moisture), is the term that describes long-standing or repeated infections of the external ear canal.  It is associated with anatomical and physiological changes to the external ear.


The anatomy of a dog’s ear makes it susceptible to infection and difficult to treat. The external ear of the dog is shaped like a funnel—the vertical ear canal goes straight up and down, while the horizontal ear canal takes a 90-degree turn from the bottom of the vertical canal and courses to the eardrum. This anatomy makes it difficult for fluid in the ear to drain out and to get medication down to the eardrum.


In the face of long standing infection, the skin and cartilage that line the ear become inflamed and thickened. This makes the horizontal and vertical canals even smaller, making it more difficult for infectious fluid to drain. The inflammation triggers ear wax (the body’s natural protectant) and inflammatory fluid production, creating a substance in which bacteria thrive. The normally pliable cartilage that helps form the ear becomes calcified which also can interfere with drainage. Finally, the infection in the external ear can erode through the eardrum, spreading the infection to the middle ear.


Treatment of ear infections depends on the severity of the problem. Simple infections can usually be treated successfully medically.  However, if the dog has allergies, the infections are still likely to recur.  In cases where the infection does not respond to medical management, or in cases where the infection recurs, surgery might be necessary.  There are two techniques commonly used to benefit the patient with chronic otitis—the Lateral Ear Resection and the Total Ear Canal Ablation (TECA). The Lateral Ear Resection is the more conservative approach meant for ears not yet at their ““end-stage”” where it is thought that more efficient cleaning and better canal ventilation will help.


It should be noted that the underlying cause of the ear infection (allergies, hormonal issues, or problems beyond ear conformation as the predisposing factors to chronic ear infections) is not addressed by this procedure and infections are still likely to recur. This surgery simply makes cleaning the ear easier.


One well-known study reviewed 60 dogs receiving lateral ear resections. The procedure was considered a failure in 86.5% of Cocker Spaniels in which it was used. In other breeds, 63% were found to have acceptable results.  For Cocker Spaniels, the Total Ear Canal Ablation is likely more appropriate.



Canine epilepsy is characterized by "fits" or seizures. Seizures are not always hereditary. Secondary Seizures are the result of exposure to toxins, some are the indication of another underlying disease, and some are the result of injury. In most cases, if there is no permanent brain damage, after the dog is treated, the seizures can be controlled. When a thorough veterinary examination and testing cannot establish why the dog is having seizures, the seizures are classified as Idiopathic or Primary Epilepsy which can be genetic.


Seizures basically are the body's reaction to a sudden, uncontrolled burst of neurologic activity in the brain. All dogs have a seizure threshold at which the neurologic activity in the brain is in a sort of balance. When the neurologic activity increases beyond the threshold, due to injury, toxins, disease or genetic predisposition, a seizure occurs. Occasionally this activity can be localized in a small area, such as the face or one leg, but usually affects the entire body.


Several breeds, including Cocker Spaniels, have a problem with epilepsy, some of which epilepsy is felt to have a genetic basis.


“The following tests are advised before a diagnosis of Idiopathic Epilepsy is made.


*Glucose tolerance test, to check for hypoglycemia.


*Thyroid panel, 6 tests, to check for low thyroid function/hypothyroidism (see Hypothyroidism).


*EEG, to see if there are findings suggestive of a lesion (an abnormal EEG is standard with epilepsy, but a vet or a physician will also be able to tell if there is a lesion).


*Cerebrospinal fluid analysis, to look for encephalitis, distemper and other infection.


*Blood test to check for lead poisoning;


*CT scan or MRI, again to look for a brain lesion.”


A Brief Overview of Seizures, Their Causes and Treatment

       Marion Mitchell


It is important to keep your epileptic dog free from chemical toxins.  These can include chemicals on the lawn, many cleaning products or air sprays, certain drugs used to prevent flea and ticks, flea collars containing organophosphates, and certain heartworm preventatives.  Accordingly, many veterinarians recommend the use of Frontline for fleas and Interceptor as a monthly heartworm preventative.


There are many things that can lower a dog's seizure threshold. Keep a diary of your dog's seizures. Note down anything you have done or that the dog could have come in contact with that day which could have contributed to a seizure. It is also a known phenomenon that some dogs may seizure around the full moon.


See Seizures in Dogs and Cats: An Integrated Approach With Natural Options, Allan M. Schoen, DVM, MS


Eye Problems


Cataracts are the opacity to the lens of the eye.  The opacity can be very small (incipient cataract) and not interfere with vision. It can involve more of the lens (immature cataract) and cause blurred vision. Eventually, the entire lens can become cloudy, and all functional vision lost. This is called a mature cataract.  Most cataracts in dogs are inherited, if not age-related. The cataract may develop rapidly over weeks, or slowly over years, in one or both eyes.  After a lens has developed a cataract, there is no known method to make the lens clear again. Immature and mature cataracts can be treated by surgically removing them.  Glaucoma occurs in 30% of all dogs who have cataract surgery.


Cherry Eye is the term used to refer to canine nictitans gland prolapse, a common eye condition in various dog breeds, including Cocker Spaniels, where the gland of the third eyelid known as the nictitating membrane prolapses and becomes visible. Cherry eye may be caused by a hereditary weakness in the connective tissue surrounding the gland.  It is most common in puppies.


Normally the gland of the third eyelid (nictitans gland) is located behind the third eyelid in the inner corner of the eye. This gland is attached to the fascial covering of the eye and eye socket by a fibrous band of tissue. Structural weakness of this attachment can lead to prolapse of the gland. The result is "cherry eye," so called because the prolapsed gland is exposed on the surface of the eye and becomes red, inflamed and swollen. 

Surgery is the usual treatment. Older methods of cherry eye correction (before the gland's importance was known) involved simply removing the gland. Because the gland is responsible for about 30% of the eye's tear production, the eye can eventually suffer from dryness, a condition known as “dry eye” or keratoconjunctivitis sicca, and necessitates the use of eye drops for the rest of the animal's life. Modern methods of cherry eye correction involve repositioning of the gland to its normal location. The success rate of this type of surgery is around 80% in most breeds.  Dry eye may eventually occur in 30 to 40 percent of dogs that have the gland removed, yet it may affect about 20 percent of dogs that have the gland surgically replaced.


Dry Eye 

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS) or "dry eye" describes the changes in the eye which result from lack of tear production.


A breakdown in the tear film and a loss of the aqueous layer causes dry eye. This loss results in dryness to areas of the corneal surface or in more advanced cases, drying to the entire corneal surface. When the cornea is deprived of oxygen and nutrients through the tear film, it rapidly undergoes destructive changes. These changes result in brown pigmentation, ulcer development, scar tissue growth, and blood vessel growth across the cornea leading to partial vision loss.  Repeated eye infections and irritation to the cornea can cause severe damage. Ulceration and scarring of the cornea can eventually lead to blindness. The long-term prognosis for vision is greatly improved if the disease is diagnosed in the early stages.


A number of causes have been reported for dry eye. The majority of cases are caused by immune-mediated destruction of the tear glands. Other sources of dry eye include drug toxicity (antibiotics such as sulphadiazine and sulphasalazine can cause temporary or permanent dry eye in some animals), drug-induced reaction (atropine and topical anesthetics temporarily reduce tear production), neurological impairment (damage to the nerves leading to the lacrimal glands), removal of the third eyelid (see Cherry Eye), systemic disease (e.g. distemper), chronic conjunctivitis, trauma to the tear glands, hypothyroidism, congenital disease (some dogs are born without lacrimal glands), breed predisposition.  Loss of nerve impulses to the gland due to long-standing ear infections and other nerve disorders will cause a unilateral (one sided) dry eye often combined with a dry nose in some cases.


In many cases of KCS, the cause of the condition is never found. However, this does not prevent the problem from being treated.


The recognized treatment for dry eye can be the immune-suppressing drugs, Cyclosporine or Tacrolimus. This medication has provided relief of symptoms in some patients while other patients have had a marked increase in tear production.


Glaucoma is defined as an elevation of intraocular pressure (IOP) that is incompatible with the health and normal function of the optic nerve.  Glaucoma not only can cause complete vision loss, but also may require the need for medication or surgery.  It can be painful and cause loss of the eye if uncontrolled.


Clinically, the glaucomas are divided into the three categories of primary, secondary, and congenital glaucoma. The primary glaucomas are breed-related and consist of a group of diseases characterized by an abnormal elevation in IOP due to decreased aqueous outflow without overt ocular disease. These primary glaucomas are categorized further into open-angle, narrow-angle, and closed-angle glaucoma by gonioscopic examination of the iridocorneal angle, and are breed specific.


Specific therapy of patients with the glaucomas depends on the type and cause of the elevated IOP; but unfortunately most glaucomas in dogs are presented late in the disease when medical therapy is not very effective. Therapy is directed toward reducing intraocular pressure. This may be accomplished by either reducing the formation and secretion of aqueous humor and/or by increasing the aqueous humor outflow from the eye.


Medical therapy is usually successful for only short periods of time as the iridocorneal angle progressively narrow or closes. When primary glaucoma is diagnosed and therapy initiated in one eye, prophylactic therapy should be started in the other eye to maintain the IOP within a normal range. Frequently, this consists of topical miotic therapy or beta blocker given once daily prior to darkness to prevent dilation of the pupil. One clinical study suggests that prophylactic therapy delays the onset of breed-specific glaucomas about 30 months, where as the medical control of glaucoma and preservation of vision (once the disease has been diagnosed) is only 6 months.


There are alternatives for cosmetic preservation of an eye which is otherwise blind and painful. First and foremost, it is essential to establish that vision has indeed been irreversibly lost. Secondly, the underlying cause (i.e. intraocular tumor, systemic disease leading to retinal detachment or uveitis) must be identified. Thirdly, an assessment of discomfort should be made. Usually this requires measurement of intraocular pressure and an evaluation of ocular inflammation.





Canine Hypothyroidism is the most commonly diagnosed hormonal disease found in dogs. Hypothyroidism is the underproduction of thyroxin, the hormone produced by the thyroid gland and usually occurs between the ages of two to six years. The most common symptoms of hypothyroidism include weight gain, lethargy, slow metabolism, chronic skin disease (i.e., thin coat, loss of hair, dandruff, oily skin, increased scratching), seizures, and behavioral changes (aggression, hyperactivity, poor concentration, passivity, phobias, anxiety).  A recent study of 634 dogs showed that 77% of the dogs who were hypothyroid also had seizures.


The treatment is thyroid hormone supplementation given orally once or twice a day. Usually thyroid supplementation improves the clinical signs associated with the disease within four to six weeks. All the clinical signs of hypothyroidism are reversible, after treatment has begun.


“ . . . In dogs with aberrant aggression, a large collaborative study at Tufts University has shown a favorable response to thyroid replacement therapy within the first week of treatment, whereas it took about three weeks to correct their metabolic deficit. Dramatic reversal of behavior with resumption of previous problems has occurred in some cases if only a single dose is missed. A similar pattern of aggression responsive to thyroid replacement has been reported in a horse.


Tables 1 and 2 summarize results of complete thyroid diagnostic profiling on 634 canine cases of aberrant behavior, compiled by the authors in collaboration with Drs. Nicholas Dodman, and Jean DeNapoli of Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, North Grafton, MA.


*Ninety percent (568 dogs) were purebreds and 10% were mixed breeds.


*There was no sex predilection found in this case cohort, whether or not the animals were intact or neutered.


*63% had thyroid dysfunction as judged by finding 3 or more abnormal results on the comprehensive thyroid profile.


*The major categories of aberrant behavior were: aggression (40% of cases), seizures (30%), fearfulness (9%), and hyperactivity (7%); some dogs exhibited more than 1 of these behaviors.


*Thyroid dysfunction was found in 62% of the aggressive dogs, 77% of seizuring dogs, 47% of fearful dogs, and 31% of hyperactive dogs.


              Behavioral Changes Associated with Thyroid Dysfunction in Dogs

      W. Jean Dodds, DVM and Linda P. Aronson, DVM

Skin Problems


Canine Atopic Dermatitis is an inherited predisposition to develop allergic symptoms following repeated exposure to an allergen.  Most dogs begin to show their allergic signs between the age of 1 and 3 years.


Atopic animals will usually rub, lick, chew, bite or scratch at their feet, muzzle, ears, armpits or groin, causing hair loss, and reddening and thickening of the skin. In some cases several skin problems can "add" together to cause an animal to itch where just the allergy alone would not be enough to cause itching. These problems include air borne-allergens (such pollens), allergens in food, and allergens from parasites (fleas) and also bacterial or yeast infections of the skin. Eliminating some but not all of the problems may allow a patient's itchiness to go away. Therefore it is important to treat any other problems that could be making your pet itch while dealing with the allergy. It is not uncommon for extremely itchy dogs with hair loss to be misdiagnosed as having skin allergies when the actual culprit may be due to mange mites which often cannot be found when a skin scraping is performed.  However, when treated for mange, the skin condition will correct.


Essential fatty acids are now widely used for skin conditions. They are known to have few side effects and will help about 25% of allergic dogs significantly. Antihistamines potentiate the action of essential fatty acids (synergy) and so combination therapy would appear to be valuable.


Seborrhea.  There are two types of seborrhea—oily (oleosa) and dry (sicca). Most dogs suffer from a combination of the two forms. The skin is usually dry and scaly and the scales form clusters around the hair. The overactive sebaceous glands in the skin secrete a greasy, waxy substance that collects on the belly, under the armpits, and in the ears, elbows, and ankle area. However, any part of the coat can be involved. It's this fat-laden greasy accumulation that causes the distinctive "doggy odor." Secondary ear and skin infections are very common with seborrhea. Most dogs are also very itchy. 


There are many causes of seborrhea including metabolic disorders (hypothyroidism, Cushings disease or hyperadrenocorticism, dietary deficiencies, malabsorption, maldigestion, pancreatic diseases), internal parasites, external parasites (fleas, ticks, lice), hypersensitivities (food allergy, inhaled allergies, flea allergies), ringworm infections, and some autoimmune diseases. To determine the cause, tests may be skin scrapings for mange, ringworm tests such as a Wood's Light exam and dermatophyte cultures, bacterial skin cultures, fecal exams for internal parasites. Certain blood tests to rule out digestive, hormonal, endocrine, and other systemic problems may also be recommended.


Some breeds, including Cocker Spaniels, have seborrhea without an underlying cause. This is called idiopathic seborrhea and usually begins to appear before 2 years of age.  If an underlying cause cannot be found, controlling the seborrhea with shampoos containing various combinations of ingredients (the most common being benzoyle peroxide, salicyclic acid, refined coal tar, sulfur, urea compounds, and various emollients to add moisture) are the mainstay of treatment.  Most of these ingredients work to rid the skin of dying cells, reduce the rate at which these cells regenerate, cut down on grease production, and moisturize the skin.  These shampoos can help with the odor and also stop the itching.


Nutritional support is extremely important. A premium diet should be fed and supplemented with an Essential Fatty Acid.

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Illinois Cocker Rescue
P.O. Box 384
Harvard, IL 60033