Afghan Hound

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Afghan Hound

The spectacular coat of the Afghan Hound, which developed as protection against the harsh temperatures in the mountains of Afghanistan, ensures that it cannot be confused with any other breed. Its regal bearing belies its origin as a hunting and herding dog over many centuries, being one of the earliest domesticated breeds, although detailed historical accounts of its development are limited.

Afghans are aloof by nature, and rarely seek or crave attention from their owners. They do attach more strongly to one individual, but enjoy simply being in the company of people rather than necessarily being the centre of attention. The detached facial expression, so characteristic of the breed, is very reflectively of their predominant behavioural patterns. They are sensitive by nature, and generally prefer not to live with children or many other animals.

The breed’s long and silky coat, which in many ways resembles human hair, requires a huge amount of work to maintain. Daily brushing and combing, as well as frequent bathing, are required to keep it in peak condition and to prevent knots and tangles from developing. In addition, Afghans require lots of exercise, up to several hours per day, meaning that ownership entails devoting large chunks of each day to caring for this striking pet.

While the breed is generally healthy, they are also very sensitive to pain, and likely to experience more than their fair share of visits to the veterinary surgery for bumps and bruises. The average life expectancy of the Afghan Hound is 11–14 years.

About & History

Nothing is definitively known about the earliest history of the breed, with many authorities speculating that it may have originated in the Middle East. Genetic studies have proven that the Afghan is one of the basal breeds, having been developed from ancestors of the modern wolf thousands of years ago. Only some of the oriental breeds, such as the Shiba Inu, Shar Pei, and Chow Chow, as well as the Basenji, can claim similarly long histories. The Saluki is believed to be the breed most closely related to the Afghan Hound, having developed from the same branch of the canine family tree.

Wherever it was first developed, the breed became an invaluable working companion for the people of Afghanistan, where it was refined into many different ‘types’, depending on the region and the use to which it was put. The unique coat developed to allow it to survive the cruel weather conditions of the Afghan mountains, where it was used for purposes as diverse as herding livestock to hunting leopards. The Afghan’s long jaws and forward-facing eyes place it firmly in the sighthound group, meaning that it relied on excellent binocular vision to sight and pursue prey.

It was, for many years, illegal to export the breed from Afghanistan; however, it was in the United Kingdom where modern efforts eventually led to the standardisation of the Afghan as we know it today. The earliest dogs to be imported to the UK may have been smuggled from the Raj by British servicemen, although this remains a point of contention amongst the breed’s historians. In any case, two main families where developed along separate lines – the Bell-Murray and Ghazni strains. It was the Ghazni line that were subsequently exported to the USA. The breed was officially recognised by both the UK and American Kennel Clubs in 1926.

Appearance

Afghan Hound Large Photo

The Afghan Hound is an elegant and aristocratic sighthound with a glossy, flowing coat. The hair should be long and dense, hanging closely on the ears and flanks, although it is shorter along the shoulders and back in adult dogs. There are very long fringes on the backs of the legs and ears, while the crown of the head has a ‘top-knot’ which is enhanced by grooming. All coat colours are permitted by the Kennel Clubs, although white markings around the face are less favoured than the typical dark mask.

The head of the Afghan is long and slender with powerful jaws reflecting its ability to hunt. The ears are long and broad, sitting back and lying flat against the head. The almond-shaped, dark or golden eyes usually convey an expression of detached indifference.

The breed has a long slender neck and back, leading to a tail which is thin, set low on the back, and carried in a distinct ‘loop’ at its tip. The dog’s hindlimbs are noticeably more muscular than the fore, with large feet and pads designed to cushion against trauma while walking over rough ground. The chest is narrow and very deep, with the abdomen tucking up rapidly to the brim.

This is a large breed, with males standing 69–74 cm (27–29 in) tall, and females 63–69 cm (25–27 in). Average weights range from 23–27 kg (50–60 lb).

Character & Temperament

The Afghan is not a breed for someone that wants an affectionate and needy pet. While pups will be playful and enthusiastic, over time the breed matures into a rather reserved and aloof dog. The typical Afghan is more likely to be found curled up in the corner of a room, as opposed to lying across its owner’s feet. However, that it is not to say that they can thrive without companionship. As with any dog of working origin, the Afghan Hound bonds most strongly with one individual to whom it will be more responsive. When called into action, for example, when going for a walk, it becomes clear that rather than resenting the company of humans, the Afghan simply prefers to remain detached until such time as there is something to pique his interest.

Afghans are sensitive to rough treatment and even harsh words can make them become very withdrawn and even defensive when badly treated. For this reason, they are not ideal dogs for children, as persistent hair pulling or pinching from a young child is likely to end badly, with the breed’s low tolerance for pain and sensitive nature likely to result in defensive biting.

As with any sighthound, Afghans are not always dependable with smaller pets, and if a cat or other small animal is seen to run away, it will be seen as fair game for chasing. If reared with a cat from puppyhood, the dog will likely respect that individual animal, but this does not extend to others. They often resent the company of other dogs, as most are likely to be too exuberant and enthusiastic for the refined Afghan.

Trainability

Photo of Afghan Hound puppy

Afghans are intelligent dogs, known to be mischievous, and capable of applying themselves to problem-solving in order to get something they want. However, they are equally known to be one of the more difficult-to-train breeds, scoring poorly in terms of learning new commands and speed of response to verbal commands. Training an Afghan requires time and patience, and as elaborated on above, the breed does not respond well to a frustrated or critical owner. Professional obedience training, incorporating socialisation, is advisable from a young age. Without this early socialisation, the breed can be inclined to be distrustful of strangers, although this is unlikely to ever manifest as aggression.

The breed is equally slow to understand the importance of house-training, with many Afghans still occasionally soiling indoors as young adults. Again, this is something that must be understood and expected by the owner, and with time and a patient approach, the problem will pass.

Health

Most Afghans are very healthy dogs, with most of the following conditions occurring rarely.

  • Afghan Myelopathy – A rare genetic condition in which young dogs, from 6–9 months of age, exhibit loss of function in the hindlimbs in a progressive manner. It is caused by necrosis (or death) of nerve tissue in the spinal cord, and can progress to cause respiratory paralysis and death.
  • Anaesthetic Intolerance – While not a health problem per se, Afghans, along with other sighthounds, require special care when undergoing general anaesthesia. Their extremely low body fat reserves mean that drugs are metabolised quite differently to most breeds, and veterinary surgeons dealing with the breed must be cognisant of this fact.
  • Chylothorax – Seen much more commonly in Afghans than in other breeds, this condition is caused by leakage of fat-rich chlye (fluid transporting immune cells) into the space around the lungs and heart. Affected animals may show signs of weight loss and malaise, or may first present with breathing difficulties. Medical and surgical treatments may be attempted, with varying success.
  • Corneal Dystrophy – Small defects may be visible on the cornea (the clear surface of the eye) in some dogs, but are rarely of significance.
  • Dilated Cardiomyopathy – Affecting less than 2% of Afghan Hounds, this condition is due to progressive stretching and weakening of the heart’s muscular walls.
  • Eversion of the Nictitating Membrane – This is commonly known as “cherry eye”, as it manifests as a pink or red sphere of tissue which appears at the medial angle of one or both eyes. This tissue is one of the tear glands of the eye, normally tucked under the dog’s third eyelid. Surgery should be performed to replace the gland in its normal position.
  • Factor VIII Deficiency – Factor VIII is a protein produced by the liver, which is instrumental in the clotting cascade, which is responsible for halting blood loss from wounds. This is an inherited condition, also known as Haemophilia A.
  • Glaucoma – Increased pressure within the eye due to either excess fluid production or inadequate drainage. More common in older dogs, often requires removal of the affected eye.
  • Hypothyroidism – A common endocrine condition in pedigree dogs, in which low levels of circulating thyroid hormone cause signs of lethargy and skin changes, such as pigmentation and hair loss. Weight gain, typically seen in other breeds, may not be a prominent feature in Afghans.
  • Osteochondritis Dissecans – This is a condition in which joint cartilage does not develop in the normal manner, with areas of weakness and detachment developing between cartilage and bone. This usually manifests as lameness in puppies or young adults. Good nutrition goes someway towards reducing the risk of this problem developing.
  • Pemphigus Foliaceous – An auto-immune disease, wherein skin tissues are attacked inappropriately by white blood cells. This is most commonly seen as blisters and scabs on the feet and mucocutaneous junctions (around the eyes, lips, and genitals). Responds well to medical treatment in most cases.
  • Retinal Detachment – The retina is the thin layer of nerve cells which lines the back of the eye and is largely responsible for vision. It is a delicate structure, and bleeding or fluid accumulation due to trauma or high blood pressure can lead to it separating from its attachments. This results in loss of vision, which is usually permanent.
  • Retinal Dysplasia – Congenital defects in the structure of the retina may occasionally be observed in Afghan Hound puppies.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – Along with Haemophilia A (above), this is another inherited defect in the clotting system. Signs of excess bleeding may be absent until, for example, the animal undergoes routine surgery for neutering.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Afghans, in their original role, were required to roam mountainsides for days at a time. As a result, the breed has great stamina, and requires a considerable amount of exercise to fulfil their needs. They are also graced with incredible speed, and benefit from spells of vigorous activity, although any off-the-lead exercise needs to be in a controlled environment, free from the sight of any small animals which might be mistaken for prey. At a minimum, prospective owners should allow for two-hours of structured exercise per day. In addition, being large dogs, Afghan Hounds prefer to have outdoor space at home, and a securely fenced garden should also be considered a prerequisite of ownership.

Grooming

Possibly more so than any other breed, the Afghan Hound requires a great deal of effort to maintain its coat in good, or even acceptable, condition. The long, fine hair tangles very easily with tangles quickly progressing to matts, which may become impossible to ‘tease’ out. The breed needs daily brushing and combing, with bathing as needed, and employing the services of a professional groomer on a regular basis is a necessity for most owners.

Nails should be clipped as needed to prevent them dragging or clicking when walking, but extreme care must be taken not to cut them too short, as this will be extremely painful, and an Afghan is unlikely to allow the process to be repeated after a bad experience. The breed generally enjoys good dental health, but brushing the teeth several times per week is a good practice nonetheless. This should ideally be started when the dog is young, when it is easier to introduce novel experiences.

Famous Afghan Hounds

The breed’s characteristic coat has made it a favourite of cartoonists, and animated Afghans have appeared in some blockbusters:

  • Sylvie, the star of Disney’s Balto
  • Prissy, from One Hundred and One Dalmations
  • Rita, from Oliver and Company

Cross-Breeds

Few Afghan breeders have chosen to dilute the breed’s refined features by cross-breeding. However, the more commonly seen crosses include:

  • Afghan Retriever – Cross between an Afghan Hound and a Golden Retriever
  • Afghan Spaniel – Cross between an Afghan Hound and a Cocker Spaniel
  • Doberghan – Cross between an Afghan Hound and a Doberman Pinscher
  • Pooghan – Cross between an Afghan Hound and a Poodle
  • Rottaf – Cross between an Afghan Hound and a Rottweiler

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