Cocker Spaniels

Before the Golden Retriever and Labrador set the modern bar for the "great with kids" family companion, no breed was more beloved or popular than the Cocker Spaniel. Beautiful, sweet-natured and moderately sized, the Cocker's popularity bounded happily forward after the Second World War with the two-time Westminster dog show winner named Ch. My Own Brucie. At his best, the Cocker is a gentle, affectionate and healthy dog with soft, dark eyes.

Traits, Personality and Behavior

Weighing less than 30 pounds (albeit with a tendency to gain more) with a soft, wavy coat in many colors and patterns, long ears and the most expressive eyes in the dogdom, the Cocker is an excellent family pet – lively, affectionate, sweet and trainable. But at his worst, he's a nightmare. Popularity has truly been a curse to the Cocker Spaniel, and he's one of the favorite breeds of puppy millers, Internet retailers, and pet stores, who sell sad-eyed, floppy-eared, adorable puppies which too often grow up to be unstable, noisy, nervous dogs who are difficult to housebreak and have a tendency to snap and even bite.

If you're lucky enough to find a puppy from a good breeder, get him off on the right foot with gentle and consistent training right from the start. A well-bred Cocker should be easy to housebreak, happy to be with you, and eager to experience new things even if it means walking on a leash, riding in the car or going to puppy training classes.

Because Cocker Spaniels are extremely people-oriented, even the best-bred and socialized dogs tend to be a bit unhappy when left alone. For some, this takes the form of full-blown separation anxiety, with the barking, crying, and destructive behavior that usually accompanies it. Accustom your dog from puppyhood to being left alone from time to time. However, if you expect long hours left on his own to be part of your dog's usual routine, this is probably not the breed for you.

Cocker Spaniels are typically friendly with other dogs and with cats. They are moderate shedders, and their coats require brushing several times a week. They can also be kept clipped, in which case they'll need to be professionally or home-groomed every 4-6 weeks.

Cocker Spaniels are first and foremost companion dogs, and cannot live outdoors. They need to live in the house with you and your family.

Variations of the Cocker Spaniel

Although it will no doubt inspire the rage of dyed-in-the-wool Cocker fans to even consider it, take a look at an English Cocker Spaniel instead. (In the U.K., the English Cocker is known simply as the "Cocker Spaniel" -- and our version as the "American Cocker Spaniel.") In the United States, the breed split into two types decades ago, leaving the English Cocker relatively untouched by the problems of popularity and the nothing-exceeds-like-excess choices of the show ring, which has given the American Cocker a profuse coat that's simply born to mat and collect filth.

Health Issues Common to Cocker Spaniels

Cocker Spaniels are susceptible to a number of health problems that are at least partly genetic. These include many different eye disorders including cataracts and glaucoma, as well as painful defects of the hips and knees. Disc disease can make movement painful for the Cocker Spaniel, who is by nature an active dog who loves to run and play. Heart disease, liver disease, epilepsy -- the Cocker is at risk for all of them.

The Cocker Spaniel's ears need to be kept clean and dry -- of particular importance if your dog goes swimming. Not only do their long, hanging ears trap moisture in the ear canal which can lead to bacterial and fungal infections, but repeated infections can cause so much damage to the ear canal that the dog will lose his hearing. Severely affected ears may require surgery to control the infections. (Follow-up care is especially important in matters of the ear to prevent new flare-ups of old problems.)

The variety of eye problems that can afflict the Cocker Spaniel ranges from the cosmetic -- a condition called "cherry eye" that can be corrected by surgery -- and the sight-threatening, including cataracts and glaucoma. Many Cockers lose their vision entirely in old age. Surgical treatment for most of sight-threatening conditions is extremely expensive.

Make sure to have your Cocker Spaniel's eyes examined once a year by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, and seek veterinary care immediately at any signs of cloudiness, redness, itching or irritation of the eyes or if the dog is squinting or pawing at them.

Cockers have more auto-immune diseases than many other breeds, for reasons that aren't clear. They can also have hypothyroidism, which is the under-production of thyroid hormone. This can cause weight gain, hair loss, itching, shivering and skin infections. Cockers should have their thyroids checked with a simple blood test every two years or any time thyroid disease is suspected. Skin problems may also indicate allergies, which are common in the breed.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Cocker Spaniel before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Entropion High $300-$1,500
Cardiomyopathy Medium $500-$1,500
Mitral Valve Disease High $500-$2,000
Patellar Luxation High $1,500-$3,000
Chronic Inflammatory Hepatic Disease High $500-$5,000
Cataracts High $1,500-$5,000
Corneal Dystrophy High $300-$3,000
Cushing's Disease High $3,000-$10,000
Follicular Dysplasia High $200-$500

8 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Cocker Spaniel Puppy

Don't ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store or Internet site that offers all breeds and popular mixes, shipped with no questions asked. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you'll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.

Start with a breeder who is a member in good standing of the American Spaniel Club and has agreed to abide by the Code of Ethics of the ASC.

Ask to see documentation from either the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) or the University of Pennsylvania (PennHip) that your puppy's parents are free of hip dysplasia, a crippling genetic defect of the hip socket that requires expensive surgery to repair and usually results in painful arthritis in the dog's later years. Your breeder should also have test results from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) that her dogs are clear of genetic eye disorders known to occur in the Cocker Spaniel. Ideally, the breeder should have OFA clearances on her dogs' hearts, thyroid glands, and knees as well. The American Spaniel Club also maintains its own health registry, which can provide documentation about those same conditions as well as certify that the parents are free of Von Willebrand's disease (vWD) and Factor X, which are bleeding disorders.

Make sure you spend time with the breeder's dogs, and if possible, with your puppy's mother or father, since temperament is a particular concern in the breed. Very often the father won't be on the premises -- good breeders look for the best possible male for their females, not just the best one they happen to own -- so don't view that as any kind of red flag. But if the breeder won't let you meet the mother of the puppies, and won't let you meet any of her dogs, consider that the worst of all signs and look elsewhere.

If the breeder has all the required genetic test documentation and her dogs seem gentle and well-mannered, ask about her involvement with the breed and dogs in general. Good breeders show their dogs or compete in canine sports such as obedience and agility -- two events that Cocker Spaniels are very good at. Good breeders don't just sit home churning out pets; they get out there with their dogs and make sure they're happy and stable in the kinds of real world situations every family pet needs to take in stride.

Consider adopting an adult Cocker from a shelter or rescue group. Most Cocker puppies are very sweet, and any temperament problems don't manifest themselves until adulthood. By adopting a dog who is already grown, you can use the expertise of the rescue group to evaluate his temperament as it already is, and avoid dogs which are too sharp or snappy for you and your family. What you see is mostly what you get with adult dogs.

Puppy or adult, take your Cocker Spaniel to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues, particularly ear infections and eye problems.

Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with "puppy lemon laws," be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Pet Insurance for Cocker Spaniels

Pet insurance for Cocker Spaniels costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Cocker Spaniels are much more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace dog insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Cocker Spaniels are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Cocker Spaniel is when he's a healthy puppy. You can't predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can't get when you need it the most.