Alaskan Malamute

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Alaskan Malamute

The largest of the Arctic breeds, the Alaskan Malamute is a powerful dog, bred for hauling heavy loads over great distances in the most extreme of environments. Despite their similarity in appearance to wolves, Malamutes were amongst the earliest domesticated dogs, and have remained genetically distinct, without significant crossbreeding for thousands of years.

Malamutes are renowned for their sweet and gentle natures. Despite this, they have evolved to be the quintessential pack dog, and require their owners to be firm and confident so as to avoid any issues with dominance behaviours. One of their primary functions in the Arctic was to aid their owners’ survival through hunting, and so they may be unreliable with smaller pets, including dogs, unless very well socialised from an early age.

The breed sheds very heavily, and although the thick coat is usually almost odourless, Alaskan Malamutes require daily brushing to remove loose hair and distribute oils. In addition, they have very high energy levels, and need plenty of vigorous exercise. For owners able to provide the necessary environment, Malamutes make wonderful, devoted companions, but they are not a low-maintenance dog.

There are some significant inherited health disorders in the breed, and prospective owners should carefully research the breeder from whom they are buying a pup. Pups should be screened by veterinary examination and DNA testing, and breeders must be able to produce certificates to this effect. Although a survey by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association in 2004 reported an average life expectancy of only 10 years, the sample size was very small, and experience and anecdotal evidence suggest that one can expect Malamutes to live between 10 and 14 years.

About & History

The Alaskan Malamute, like the Shiba Inu of Japan and the Basenji of the Congo, is one of the basal breeds, meaning it can trace its origin to long before the modern selective breeding efforts which produced most of our recognised modern breeds. Genetic studies suggest that the Malamute may share some common ancestry with the Siberian Husky and Alaskan Husky. It is believed that the natives of Siberia or East Asia may first have begun selecting for Malamute traits several thousand years ago, before the breed would have arrived in Alaska with the Thule people around one thousand years ago.

Malamutes were used as multipurpose utility dogs, being expected to haul freight (and later sleds) over the snow and ice, as well as being able hunting dogs, locating seals’ low holes in the ice. Individual dogs have been recorded as capable of pulling loads of almost 1.5 metric tonnes over ice for extended distances. They were also much-prized as companion dogs, and would protect their owners from attack by bears. The breed remained almost untainted by external breeding efforts, when the Klondike Gold Rush created great demand for these canine ‘beasts of burden’, and due to lack of available dogs, some were interbred with other breeds. While not as fast as a Husky, the Malamute exhibits incredible strength and stamina, and so would have been much sought-after to aid prospectors and their equipment.

A great number of Alaskan Malamutes were called into service during World War II, and in spite of their service, most survivors of the conflict were euthanised after the war. All modern Malamutes can now trace their lineage to around 30 surviving dogs from the M’Loot and Kotzebue families, which were brought together for breeding by Robert J. Zoller, a US Naval officer.

The American Kennel Club officially recognised the Alaskan Malamute in 1935 with the UK Kennel Club following suit soon after.

Appearance

Alaskan Malamute Large Photo

The overall appearance of an Alaskan Malamute is strikingly similar to that of a wolf. Large and powerful, but not heavy or thickset, Malamutes are athletes first and foremost with a strong but not bulky frame. The thick double coat consists of a very dense undercoat which is up to 5 cm in length, and coarse outer hairs, which are much longer on the neck and tail than on the trunk. The coat may be any colour over a broad spectrum, including:

  • Light grey
  • Dark grey
  • Black
  • Gold
  • Red
  • Liver

In addition, Malamutes usually have ‘mask’ or ‘cap’ markings around the head.

The head itself is broad and muscular, with a broad, long snout leading to a black or brown nose, which may have pale flecks through its pigmented surface. The eyes are expressive, dark brown in colour, and sitting slightly obliquely. Blue eyes are considered a major fault by both the UK and US Kennel Clubs. The ears are relatively small, furry, and held upright and pointing forwards.

The neck, back and loin are all very muscular, progressively more so as one moves from front to back. Malamutes should not appear squat or overly compact, and the well-boned limbs should be long enough to give the dog a free-moving and flowing gait when in motion.

There is considerable sexual dimorphism in the breed, with males being far heavier and taller than females. Admirably, in a move which should be mirrored for many other breeds, the breed standards specifically state that considerations of size should not outweigh the overall quality and bearing of the dog. Average measurements for males are 64 cm (25 in) in height, and 39 kg (85 lb) body weight, with females standing 58 cm (23 in) tall, and weighing 34 kg (75 lb).

Character & Temperament

Alaskan Malamutes are very affectionate dogs, and bond strongly with not just one individual, but rather with the whole ‘pack’. They are most happy in the midst of the family and receiving attention and physical contact from their owners. They are very gentle and loving with those they know, and are famously friendly towards strangers, and therefore not useful as a guard dog. The breed rarely barks, but makes a characteristic ‘woo-woo’ sound, which can be very expressive.

Almost all Malamutes have a natural instinct to attempt to attain an ‘alpha’ position in a family, and these positive traits described above are very much dependent on the owner being able to assert his or her dominance, as well as that of the other family members, over the dog. Left unchecked, this attempted dominance can result in a wilful, disobedient dog. Although it is exceptionally unusual for a Malamute to become aggressive, they can be very difficult to handle given their enormous strength.

As a basal breed created for hunting, they should not be trusted with smaller pets, and can be particularly intolerant of other dogs. Smaller breeds such as West Highland White Terriers are not suitable companions for Malamutes, as a typical snarl of displeasure from the smaller dog may elicit a violent reaction from the Malamute. They are known as compulsive diggers, and should be allowed an area of garden as their own to destroy in order to express this natural behaviour.

Most individuals make very good family pets, but as described above, it is necessary that even the youngest member of the family is capable of expressing dominance over the dog. For this reason, Alaskan Malamutes may not be ideal for very young children. When choosing a puppy, it is always good advice to take some time to observe the behaviour of the litter, and to avoid both the very dominant and very withdrawn pups. By choosing a middle-of-the-road puppy, one is far less likely to experience serious dominance issues or difficulties in socialisation.

Trainability

Photo of Alaskan Malamute puppy

Alaskan Malamutes are intelligent dogs, and are biddable, understanding their owners’ emotions and intentions. Despite this, they would not be considered good obedience dogs, and are usually rated in the lower half of all pedigrees in terms of response to verbal commands. As puppies, they are generally easy to house-train, and will enjoy lead-walking. However, the breed has a natural need to pull, and use of a ‘Halti’ or other restraining device may be necessary for all but the strongest of owners when walking their Malamute. Use of a weighted backpack may also help in this regard.

Early formal training is a must for any Malamute puppy, both for the benefits in socialisation, but also to aid the owner in controlling the dog through instruction rather than force.

Health

There are several genetic disorders of concern in the breed. All reputable Malamute breeders should be participating in screening programmes for Hip Dysplasia and ocular disorders, schemes which are implemented by the Kennel Club, and for which certificates of health can be obtained. In addition, genetic testing for polyneuropathy and retinal atrophy are advisable.

  • Alaskan Malamute Polyneuropathy – A progressive loss of nerve function, which usually first manifests as abnormal gait or weakness. Can develop from a young age. DNA testing for this condition is now available, which should reduce its occurrence.
  • Anaemia with Chondrodysplasia – Also known as stomatocytosis, this is an uncommon genetic disorder seen in Malamutes that affects red blood cell health, as well as cartilage development.
  • Cataract – Congenital cataracts are quite common in the breed, and are usually observed as lens opacities in dogs below 2 years of age.
  • Coloboma – A congenital malformation of the sensory tissues of the eye, which can affect vision to a greater or lesser extent. Early examination by a veterinarian should detect this in puppies.
  • Corneal Dystrophy – Small “pits” on the cornea, which is the clear surface of the eye.
  • Demodecosis – An overgrowth of Demodex mites, which are normal residents on the skin, due to an impaired immune response.
  • Diabetes Mellitus – Occurs in many breeds of dogs in an insulin-dependent form after damage to the secretory cells of the pancreas due to attack by the immune system.
  • Dwarfism – More common in the Malamute than many other breeds and manifests as poor growth in puppies, often with developmental limb deformities.
  • Epilepsy – The breed is one of several in which epileptic seizures are commonly observed. While dramatic, these may not always require treatment, depending on the frequency and severity.
  • Haemophilia A & B – Clotting factors, which are produced by the liver, are essential to prevent excess blood loss after minor scrapes and bruises. Malamutes are predisposed to deficiencies in Factors VIII and IX.
  • Hemeralopia – Daytime blindness, due to subnormal development of the retinal cones, is a condition which may be seen in Alaskan Malamutes from around 8 weeks of age.
  • Hip Dysplasia – A developmental disorder of the hip joints which is strongly influenced by genetics, and may cause lameness in both young and older dogs. Screening of breeding animals will reduce its frequency.
  • Hypothyroidism – Weight gain, hair loss, and lack of energy are common findings in dogs with underactive thyroid glands. Hypothyroidism is the result of immune-mediated thyroiditis, and usually occurs in middle-aged dogs.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – One of the genetic conditions for which screening is available. Results in sight loss. A progressive and irreversible condition.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – Another condition which causes bleeding tendencies. However, this is a disorder of white blood cells, rather than blood proteins. Also common in Dobermanns.
  • Zinc-responsive Dermatosis – Malamutes and other Arctic breeds have particularly high requirements for dietary zinc. A relative zinc deficiency results in development of scaly, ulcerated skin, often around the nose, mouth and genitalia.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Malamutes require a great deal of exercise, and benefit from activities involving huge energy expenditure. One-hour of lead walking daily is a minimum requirement, but this should really be augmented by the use of a weighted backpack or with running rather than walking.

In the United States, many people take part in adventure sports, such as skijoring with their Malamutes, but in milder climates roller-blading is one alternative option. In addition to this structured exercise, Malamutes need an enclosed garden in which to play, and should also be allowed to dig – a pursuit which they particularly enjoy. If unable to pursue these activities, a bored Malamute is likely to become destructive.

Grooming

The thick, heavy coat of the Alaskan Malamute sheds heavily all year round, but the breed also has spectacular moults over the course of several weeks, in which great clumps of hair are lost. Brushing is required on a daily basis in order to keep the coat in top condition, but bathing is very rarely necessary as it tends to strip essential oils from the hair and skin.

Malamutes have thick, strong nails which need to be clipped monthly. This should be done from puppyhood, when they will be more willing to cooperate, but care must be taken not to cut the nails too short in young dogs, as this will lead to aversion behaviour in later life. Brushing teeth is another very good habit to introduce to young dogs, and should be done a minimum of four times per week.

Famous Alaskan Malamutes

The Alaskan Malamute has often been an unsung hero, for example, in its wartime service to the United States, however, it has sometimes risen to prominence:

  • Buck, the main canine character in Jack London’s ‘Call of the Wild’, is widely believed to have been a Malamute
  • Rudyard Kipling featured the Malamute in his tales of hardship and adventure
  • Admiral Byrd relied heavily on the breed for his Antarctic exploration

Cross-Breeds

Some of the more common ‘designer’ Alaskan Malamutes are:

  • Alaskan Goldenmute – Cross between an Alaskan Malamute and a Golden Retriever
  • Alaskan Malador – Cross between an Alaskan Malamute and a Labrador Retriever
  • Alaskan Shepherd – Cross between an Alaskan Malamute and a Poodle
  • Alusky – Cross between an Alaskan Malamute and a Siberian Husky
  • Malamoodle – Cross between an Alaskan Malamute and a Poodle

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