MRI screening breeding animals


Why MRI screen?
To determine if the dog has syringomyelia. Early estimates of the heritability of syringomyelia suggest that it is high and consequently it should be possible to select against dogs with syringomyelia - i.e. removing dogs with syringomyelia from the breeding program will lessen the chance of syringomyelia in the offspring.


But I have heard that it is not that simple?
There are 3 main problems 1) the precise manner in which syringomyelia is inherited and whether that inheritance is modified or influenced by other factors has not been elucidated 2) syringomyelia can be a late onset disorder meaning that breeders can be not be truly confident that the dog is truly clear of the disease until the dog is middle aged. 3) Eliminating all dogs with syringomyelia from the breeding program may reduce the available gene pool and make other diseases more likely.
Work continues on the first problem and second and third issue will be addressed by the proposed (EBV) computer modelling system.


Does a MRI give conclusive results?
Yes a MRI is conclusive for syringomyelia (assuming that the images are correctly acquired).


I have been told that “syrinxes can develop a day after an what good is the MRI except at the moment it is taken?”
Syrinxes cannot develop the day after MRI. It is not known how quickly they do develop in the Cavalier however it is likely to be over weeks. Most laboratory animal models of syringomyelia take at least 2 months for the pathology to develop.


I have heard that there is no point in MRI screening because neurologists cannot agree on the interpretation
A group of key UK neurologists and radiologists met, discussed and agreed on a protocol and interpretation of MRI for syringomyelia (for summary click here for PDF or click here for Word document). The consequence of this meeting was a report with guidelines which was then circulated to all remaining European and key North American neurologists with an invitation to comment or make suggestions. The final report is forming the basis of a proposed official scheme hopefully to be endorsed by the Kennel Club and British Veterinary Associations.



So what are the breeding guidelines?
The current breeding guidelines can be downloaded here.

For a real life example of how a breeder used the guidelines over 3 generations click here

It is hoped that they can be replaced by the more accurate EBV system in the near future. The essence of the current guidelines was/is
1) removal of all dogs with early (less than 2.5 years of age) clinical or asymptomatic symptomatic syringomyelia from breeding programs.
2) young dogs (less than 2.5 years) MRI clear of syringomyelia should only be mated with older dogs MRI clear of syringomyelia (where older is defined as over 2.5 years). 
3) If asymptomatic syringomyelia affected older dogs must be used (e.g. to maintain genetic diversity), then they should be mated with older dogs MRI clear of syringomyelia (where older is defined as over 2.5 years).
4) If a dog had not been MRI scanned then ideally it should not be used particularly if less than 2.5 years.  If it must be used (e.g. to maintain genetic diversity) and is older than 2.5 years and not displaying signs of syringomyelia then it safer to assume that it is syringomyelia affected and mated to a older dogs MRI clear of syringomyelia.


What is the Estimated Breeding Value (EBV) computer model?
This system is designed to facilitate selection against disease while controlling inbreeding and loss of diversity.  The great advantage of the system is that is can simultaneously take account of several inherited diseases problematic for that breed (e.g. syringomyelia and mitral valve disease). Based on statistical likelihood the computer program generates an Estimated Breeding Values (EBV) for each dog.


The system does depend on the input of accurate data. 


Why bother MRI screening - why not wait until the EBVs are available?
The EBVs are dependant on MRI information.


Why bother MRI screening - why not wait until a genetic test is available?
Action should be taken now – the condition could be more prevalent by the time a genetic test is available. For more information about the genome studies click here 


What age is it recommended to screen dogs? 
The minimum screening age is 12 months. It is also recommended that breeders determine the MRI status of their breeding dogs at 2-3 years and again when 6 years of age. This will provide further information about that individual dog’s estimated breeding value EBV (and therefore the EBV of that individual dog’s offspring).


I have heard that the dogs must have permanent identification for MRI screening?
Dogs presented for scanning must have permanent identification in the form of microchip / tattoo and Kennel Club Registration number
The microchip / tattoo number and the pedigree name, sex, breed and date of birth should be incorporated onto the MRI images.

What is a mini versus a full MRI scan?
A “mini” MRI is a limited MRI study of the back of the brain and upper neck provided at low cost by veterinary practices and intended as an economical screening test for breeders.

Example of a good quality mini MRI scan.  The minimum required images are
1) Sagittal T1W from intra thalamic adhesion to as far caudal as possible – The images must include a mid sagittal section of spinal cord visible in one section from the cisterna magna to the C4/C5 intervertebral disc space.  If this cannot be achieved because the dog has scoliosis secondary to syringomyelia then a dorsal image of the spinal cord must be included.
2) Sagittal T2W as above 3) T1W Transverse images though the maximum width of the syrinx if there is syringomyelia or as a block centred on C2/C3 and extending from at least mid point of the vertebral body of C2 and reaching the mid point of the vertebral body of C3

For details of MRI screening at Fitzpatrick Referrals and Online screening application here



Is a mini MRI scan sufficient – I have been told that syringomyelia cannot be diagnosed without a full scale MRI?
A mini MRI scan has a high sensitivity (i.e. negligible false positive rate) but a lower specificity (i.e. higher false negative rate) – in other words there is a possibility that some dogs that have syringomyelia might be missed becasue the entire neuraxis is not imaged. Syringomyelia tends to develop first in the upper cervical spinal cord so screening of this area will detect early signs of disease in the majority of dogs. In ideal circumstances every dog would have a full MRI scan however breeders are limited by cost. A full MRI scan costs upwards of £1000 compared to £200 – 300 for a mini MRI scan and in reality the number of dogs that would be additionally identified by the full scan is not worth the economic outlay for most breeders. However for a dog with clinical signs of syringomyelia a full MRI is important to ascertain the true extent of the disease and rule out/in other spinal cord problems.


I have a dog that was determined to have syringomyelia on screening when young (less than 2 years old). He is now 5 years old and he still doesn’t seem to have signs of the disease. Surely he is OK to use at stud?
No at the current time it is not advisable to use dogs with early onset syringomyelia at stud – it is possible that in the future the EBV system might be able to help identity a safe mate.

What exactly is the problem using a dog with asymptomatic syringomyelia at stud? The dog appears happy and healthy!
Hopefully he will remain happy and healthy; the real significance of asymptomatic dogs is that their offspring appear to have a higher chance of being affected and more chance of being symptomatic



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