When Virginia Tech’s newsletter mentioned that the vet school was seeking help from Cavaliers with heart disease, Dennie Ward knew two such animals.

Before William and Colton came to live in Roanoke with Ward and his partner, Teddie Shively, the humans knew that the Cavalier King Charles spaniels could be susceptible to heart murmurs and congestive heart failure.

But the couple wanted that breed of dog anyway.

“Look at them. They are so loving,” Ward said. “They are the perfect dogs, the perfect breed if you live in an apartment or condo. They hardly ever bark. William only barks to get your attention so he can get loved on.”

As if to punctuate Ward’s compliments, the dogs wagged their tails. Colton enthusiastically greeted everyone cramming into an exam room at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. William, the shy one, hung back a minute before pushing his way forward for some affection.

Colton and William are siblings but not litter mates. They have the same parents, but Colton was born in January 2013, and William six months later.

The spaniels are among the 120 healthy dogs that Tech hopes to recruit to figure out why dogs develop mitral valve disease and how it might be treated.

“Many older dogs have mitral valve disease, but most dogs never have symptoms,” said Mindy Quigley, clinical trials coordinator.

Cavaliers are different. They tend to get the disease at earlier ages, and it progresses quickly.

“A normal mitral valve should be shaped like a saddle so it has some curves in it, and that allows it to close firmly in the heart with each beat,” she said. “Cavaliers have a slightly flatter shape of mitral valve, for some reason.”

The valve doesn’t close completely with each beat, which affects blood flow and causes the left side of the heart to work harder, and grow larger.

“At that point you could have fluid leaking from the blood vessel into the chest cavity,” she said. “So that’s where this can progress into congestive heart failure, which is what we are trying to avoid for these dogs.”

Chief resident Giulio Menciotti said they have been using 3D echocardiograms for five or six years to look at dogs’ mitral valves.

“What we found is dogs involved [with the disease] have a different structure compared to healthy dogs. Then we turn to Cavaliers, and found that healthy Cavaliers have a structure that is different from healthy dogs of other breeds,” he said.

That has led to this trial, which will map the hearts of healthy Cavaliers over time to determine whether the structure of the valve can predict which dog will develop the disease. The goal is to have a screening tool that spots which dogs should be treated early and aggressively.

Ward left his dogs at the school on Friday and headed to his job on campus as an operations coordinator for the student center. William and Colton stayed at the school all day, but they don’t have to. Other owners have waited a short time while the tests are done.

Wards’ dogs had to be heart healthy to be enrolled. At 6 years, they are of the age when the disease makes its appearance in Cavaliers.

Menciotti explained that he would first listen to their hearts to grade their murmurs on a 6-point scale. Dogs with murmurs that score 3 and above are excluded.

Both dogs passed this screening. William is still at zero. He has yet to develop a murmur. Older sibling Colton scored a 2.

They then moved onto the next part and underwent 2D and 3D echocardiograms. Menciotti said some dogs needed to have a small area of their chest shaved as ultrasound waves don’t travel very well through fur.

The dogs also must be still for about a half hour without requiring sedation. Menciotti said so far no dog has washed out because of this requirement.

And no wonder. As Menciotti rolled the wand over Colton’s chest, two members of the research team stroked his fur and soothed him with quiet words.

Colton and William will return every four months for the same tests until they develop heart disease or the study ends.

So far, 40 Cavaliers have enrolled; the plan is to have 120 by December. The study initially was to end in 2021, but Menciotti said the American Kennel Association, one of the funders, wants to support it further because of the importance to the breed.

The project is also being supported by the school’s Veterinary Memorial Fund and through Tech’s crowdfunding platform.

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