Troubles in the Cocker Spaniel

When I bought my first Cocker, I made all the mistakes. I bought him from a local newspaper ad for a friend. He is an adorable little black we named Buddy. When we took him in for his first visit, our vet said "I love Cocker Spaniels. They keep me in business." I guess that sort of sums it up.

Buddy was 2 months old, so I thought his comment was cynical. He wasn't talking about our little guy. Over the next 3 years, I learned he was probably right. There are shots, worming, health checkups, and visits from his head to his tail, not to mention grooming and training.

As time went on, I picked up some knowledge and a few tools. Since then, the costs have gone down, while enjoyment has gone up.

The eyes have it.

Vets are good for general health advice, but there are eye specialists in most towns and cities. If you suspect your Cocker has serious problems, you might consider a specialist. Eye problems are common enough that most reliable kennels have their breeders' eyes certified.

Blindness, cataracts, and night blindness occur in some Cockers. Treatment of these serious ailments require the services of a specialist. Watchful care can keep minor problems from becoming big problems.

Most Cockers have a discharge from the eyes. In the light colored breeds, this can be seen as a staining down the sides of the nose. In healthy eyes, this is limited to a few 'eye boogers' that can be wiped away with a damp cloth, daily. If this discharge builds up, bacteria begins to grow, which can infect the eye. Bimonthly, a wash rag with anti-bacterial soap, or no-tears shampoo, can be used to wash this area. Cleanliness is the best treatment for this condition.

Facial hair on many Cockers must be trimmed away from the eyes. Short hair is easier to keep clean. When we brought home Breezie, her eyelashes and whiskers had grown until they were constantly rubbing her left eye. She was in constant pain, and there are several spots on the lens of the eye. Monthly grooming of the muzzle not only elevates this problem, but also makes her more attractive.

Occasionally, problems will crop up. Watch for heavy blinking, soreness, redness, excessive rubbing or an odor. Most times this is a simple infection that can easily be cured.

Many Cockers have "droopy" lids. This is part of that mournful, sad eyed look many people associate with the Cocker. The droopy lower lid allows foreign material to be trapped under the lid and encourages infections. Good kennels have had success in breeding this condition out of their lines. This condition can be surgically repaired. In this plastic surgery, a small piece of the lower lid is removed, tightening the lid. Cleanliness helps keep this from being a major problem in most cases.

On your next visit, ask your vet if he/she can examine the eyelids for internal lashes. An odd occurrence, some lashes will turn, or grow, inward. Left untreated, these cause constant irritation and frequent infections, leading to serious eye problems. Your vet will sedate the pet and cauterize the lashes. This is a minor surgery, with only a mild risk.

Eye infections sometimes happen. These can be identified by an increase in discharge, often accompanied by an odor. Other symptoms might be redness, "sleepy" eyes, lethargy, rubbing with the paws, or a "sad" reaction in a normally happy pet. Your vet might prescribe a salve. This is applied to the corner of the eye and rubbed in. Once treatment begins, a noticeable change occurs in the first couple days. Follow the instructions carefully for the full period of treatment. If the infection isn't gone at the end of treatment, or if it returns in the next few weeks, get advice from your vet before resuming treatment. It is likely there is another cause for the problem.

Eye salves often contain steroids, so they must be used sparingly. Excessive use of steroids can cause serious eye problems, including blindness.

Occasionally I'll notice the start of an eye infection. When it first starts, three or 4 applications of the medication will clear it up. The trick is to keep the eyes clean so infections don't start. With 2 dogs in the house, I'm still on the same little tube of medication that was prescribed over 3 years ago.

Now hear this.

Everyone who has had a Cocker knows that ears bear watching. The ear canal is a breeding ground for infection. As ear wax builds up, it gives bacteria a growth medium. Cocker ear flaps are styled with long fur, which weighs them down, keeping air from reaching the ear canals.

Keeping the ears clean will usually prevent infections. Otic cleansing solution can be purchased from most vets and pet care centers, without a prescription. A 4 oz bottle lasts months, and costs around $8. Dribble a few drops of Otic solution in the ear canal. Work it in by gently massaging the base of the ear, and repeat for the other side. It's best if the solution is allowed a few minutes to work, but it can be removed immediately. Wrap a paper towel or cleanex around your finger and gently clean wax out of the ear canal. I check my dogs weekly for signs of wax to prevent infections. It's fairly simple. No wax, no infection.

An infection can be identified by a strong odor in the ear canal. Your vet will prescribe drops, which are usually applied 2 or 3 times a day until the infection is gone. In a few cases, an antibiotic might also be prescribed. In most cases, an infection can be cleared up in a week or two.

An untreated infection can be dangerous. Breezie has a very small ear canal and has had some severe infections in the past. Untreated, these have caused internal scarring. She does not seem to have a hearing loss, but I wonder if she hears a ringing or grating noise. She'll sometimes take off on an unexplained barking spree, as if she's hearing things the rest of us don't. Either that, or she's psychotic. Just in case, I keep her away from sharp objects.

Dem bones.

With all the problems in Cockers, I wasn't surprised to find that they sometimes suffer from hip displatia. What did surprise me was to find that they often suffer from bad backs.

Hip displatia is common to many breeds, so Cockers wouldn't be spared this ailment. As I understand it, this is where the hips (back leg sockets) are weak and begin to deteriorate as the dog grows older. It can begin when the dog is still fairly young and I've seen it cripple a burly German Shepherd. Vets can treat the pain, or even perform an expensive hip transplant, but there's little else to be done outside of diet.

Bad backs aren't necessarily brought on by excessiveness on the part of the dog. They can hurt their backs jumping out of a car... or leaping through the doggy door. Overweight dogs tend to have more back problems than others, so diet is very important.

If your pet has injured its hip or back, there's no mistaking that something is wrong. They might not yip, but they'll begin moping around the house. They might lick or bite at a sore hip, but will usually just find a quiet place to lie down. Suffering in a Cocker is a sad thing to see.

This seems to more prevalent in the "barrel" shaped Cockers. One of the best preventatives is to feed your pet a quality food, and to keep their weight down. Cockers with bellies as large as their chest are carrying too much weight, and placing extra strain on their back and hips. For the same reason, females should not be bred until they are fully mature. (Of course, if you suspect hip or back problems might occur, they should not be bred at all. Poor breeding practices are the major cause of this problem.)

When you take your dog in for this problem, you'll probably be prescribed Prednisone. I am told this is a safe medicine, if the directions are followed. You start by feeding a full dose for a period of time (usually 5 days), then half dose for the same period, then half that dose for a longer period of time. Once on the drug, it has to be decreased slowly, or the dog will suffer withdrawals, and maybe death. In humans it can cause muscle cramps and other symptoms.

I've had 2 dogs on this drug, Breezie for a bad back, Winston for a rash on his feet (circulatory? I don't recall). When weaning Winston, he went into withdrawal. He'd sit and shake. Not usually one for taking pills, he begged for his next "fix". This not common. Breezie was a bit more "normal". While on the drug, she would sometimes begin to shake, as she suffered from muscle cramps. A massage helped calm her back down. When reduced in the second stage of treatment, we had to keep her on a blanket because she'd wet herself.

This is a powerful medicine, but it works. Winston never suffered from the foot problem again. Breezie did have another hip/back problem, but she recovered both times. The second time, small doses of Alieve relieved the pain and reduced swelling, so Prednisone wasn't necessary.

I can't recommend giving any pain killer to your pet. Check with your vet on this one. I've heard Aspirin can kill a dog, but then heard it recommended for a friend's Cocker. Again, check with a vet before giving any medication.

Gettin' under your skin.

Many of us have owned a Cocker with skin problems. Sometimes it's just dry and flaky, other times it's more severe. Buddy had severe "dandruff". Untreated, he would develop large bumps on his back, surrounded by flaky scales, and would develop a strong odor.

These are probably incurable, but can be treated. Your pet probably has a dietary problem. Not all foods are the same. Sometimes a lack or excess of certain vitamins, minerals or amino acids is the problem, or maybe there isn't enough oil the diet. Other times this is a symptom of an internal problem, and your pet can't digest all the nutrients he's given. Your vet might recommend some tests to determine if his glands and organs are functioning properly. In most cases, diet and grooming is the solution.

With Buddy, grooming made a huge difference. I kept his back and belly clipped short, but left some feathering on the side as a compromise between health and "style". I bathed him weekly and used a rubber bristled brush to give him a good brushing and work the shampoo in. All his symptoms went away, and, while he didn't like bathes, he did love the brushing.

Dog foods vary widely in cost, from around $10-30 for a large bag. When shopping on a budget, this seems a reasonable place to cut corners. On the other hand, the additional $100 per year can be a good investment, if it gives you a healthier pet. Shop around until you find a food your pet does well on, and stick with it. Daily, this amounts to about 25 cents.

Healthy eating starts when your dog is a puppy. A healthy puppy will be healthier as an adult. As Purina says, puppies need more nutrition than adult dogs. I've had good luck with Purina Puppy Chow, but my vet recommends Iams or Science Diet for their "better nutrition".

High protein foods can cause skin problems in adult dogs. More is not better. Unless your dog is in heavy field training, he doesn't need all that protein. I tried a number of the different high quality foods on the market. I found Science Diet worked well with Buddy. With another dog, the grocery store brands (Alpo, Purina, etc.) might work better. It's just trial and error. I've never had good luck with canned foods. My the dogs gobble them up too quickly and they didn't sit on the stomach well. Food they don't keep down, won't help them at all.

Lucky had a different problem. His skin was healthy, but his fur was dry. I began trying different combinations of food and shampoo. Eventually, I hit on a good combination when I tried Avo-Derm products. Their flea and tick shampoo keeps his coat and skin healthy. Oddly, their medicated shampoo is formulated for healthy skin, but it seems to irritate, so I exchanged it. Different formulas for different pets. Their foods are made with avocados, and they must provide additional oil, because his coat is much better looking. As he gets older, his skin problems might get worse, so I'll try other products. Dogs go through cycles as they grow older. What works well for a pup, won't work for a teenage, adult or older dog. Through a dog's life, it might be necessary to change foods and grooming products several times.

When experimenting with new foods, buy enough to last at least a month, and gradually switch to the new food. Start by mixing slightly more food into the old, until you switch over about a week later. With proper timing, you'll just run out of the old food.

Solving skin problems will make you and your pet happier, and that's what it's all about.


This is an unfortunate occurrence, and quite embarrassing at times. We had just finished an enjoyable meal, and invited our guests into the living room to watch a movie. Just as everyone was comfortably seated, a noxious methane cloud filled the room, repeated at odd intervals until we made Buddy leave the room.

A joke at times, this is an unfortunate occurrence that has plagued 3 dogs I've known, and I've talked with numerous owners who complain of the same problems. On several occasions, Buddy was required to retire to the other room. Anything that makes your pet unwelcome, must be dealt with. Fortunately, it's quite easily treated with diet.

If your dog has this problem, check his diet carefully. Gas is usually caused by a diet of meat. Eliminating table scraps is the first step. The next step is to read the label on his food. Most store bought dry dog foods contain a portion of "meat byproducts" or have meat fat added. If in doubt, ask your vet for a good food. Chances are, he/she'll recommend Iams or Science Diet, but I've also had good results with Avo's products. I was told there are even special foods for dogs with this anti-social problem.

Oh yes... one last bit of advice... don't feed your dog chili.


James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) made this condition "popular" when he wrote of Tricky Woo's "flop bottom". We've all seen our pets flop their bottom on the floor and scoot along, thus "flop bottom".

Dogs have a gland in their anus, which excretes a scent, similar to a skunk's scent sack. A small tube connects just inside the anus opening. Sometimes this tube gets blocked and the gland impacts, which is uncomfortable for your pet, and must be relieved. In other cases, especially in female dogs, they will develop an unpleasant odor. Most vets and groomers would prefer to avoid this task, so it may be up to you. Your vet will show you how to perform it at home, but might refuse the job themselves.

Beside and just above the anus, there are two depressions, just below the tail. Holding your fingers about 1" apart, press in gently and you'll feel a small "bump" inside. When squeezed gently, it will squirt a straw colored, evil smelling oil. At first there will be a bit of resistance, then a quick squirt. My vet suggests using a small towel or cotton ball to catch the liquid. Personally, I find bath time a good opportunity. It's convenient and can be done in the bathtub, where the junk can be washed down the drain.

One word of advice. Find the gland, then point the dog in the other direction. Trust me, you don't want this stuff in your face!