Basenji

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

The Basenji is a unique breed of dog, and has been an indispensable hunting companion in its native Africa for thousands of years. It is probably best-known for its lack of a bark due to the distinctive shape of its larynx, but this does not prevent it from being quite vocal, producing a range of other sounds that can be very expressive. They are renowned for being extremely clean and odourless dogs, and so are suitable for indoor living. However, they have high energy levels, and require access to a very secure garden and regular, long walks.

Basenjis are not ideal for all owners. While affectionate with their family, they tend to be suspicious of strangers, and will vigorously defend their owners if they feel they are under threat. The breed has a very strong prey drive, and can be difficult to contain and control. The (in)famous book The Intelligence of Dogs by Stanley Coren ranks the breed as the second most difficult to train, behind only the Afghan Hound.

The breed is also unique in terms of appearance. Having developed on the continent of Africa, and away from many of the selective breeding efforts of Europe and Asia which produced most of our modern breeds, the Basenji has retained features seen in dogs depicted on the tombs of the pharaohs. In a similar vein, their metabolism and propensity to certain health disorders are somewhat unusual, presenting challenges for owners and even veterinary surgeons unfamiliar with the breed. The average life expectancy of this small but sturdy breed is 12–14 years.

About & History

While the Basenji only became known to Westerners in 1895, when the breed was encountered in the Congo by explorers, its origins trail back into antiquity. The tombs of Egyptian pharaohs feature many representations of companion animals, including several ‘types’ of dog. One of these – the Tesem – has features still seen in the modern Basenji, with pricked ears, tightly curled tails, and being curiously long-legged. It is believed the Tesem probably also shared features with today’s Greyhound, but it is the Basenji that can most confidently claim to be the descendent of these regal dogs of Ancient Egypt.

Basenjis were highly prized by native Africans, bred to drive small prey into strategically positioned nets. It is thought that the breed’s reluctance to bark, in common with the wolf, may have been a trait that was actively selected and promoted, in order to prevent alarming prey. They were also able guard dogs who, despite their small stature, would be alert to their environment and quick to warn their masters of approaching danger.

The development of the breed in relative isolation from other domesticated dogs endowed it with some metabolic idiosyncrasies, as well as rendering its immune system naive to certain serious canine disease. Thus, the first dogs imported to Europe and the United States in the early 20th century all died of infectious disease, either acquired naturally or through inoculation with primitive vaccines developed for other breeds.

The first surviving Basenjis were imported into England in the late 1930s, while it was 1941 before the first successful American importation, with the arrival of a single bitch in Boston, Massachusetts. While they become quite widely bred and owned for a period of time during the later 20th century, growing awareness of their sometimes challenging behaviour and difficulties in training have resulted in a decrease in their popularity in the last two decades.

Appearance

Basenji Large Photo

The Basenji has been compared by some to an antelope, because of its athleticism, upright bearing, and slender appearance. The breed has a very short and fine hair coat, and sheds relatively little. Colours commonly seen are:

  • Black and white
  • Red and white
  • Black, tan, and white
  • Black
  • Tan and white

Basenjis have a look of perpetual puzzlement, with raised eyebrows and slight wrinkling of the forehead. This wrinkling should not be excessive so as to prevent fold dermatitis. They have a flat skull, and a long, conical snout, with a stop that is not strongly pronounced. The lips are reasonably tight, and the teeth meet in a tidy scissor bite. The ears are relatively small, and should be held erect and facing forward to give the impression of constant watchfulness. The eyes are dark and almond-shaped, sitting somewhat obliquely in their sockets.

The body should not be angular, but rather has a broad chest, which is not overly deep, and a gently tucked abdomen. The neck is strong without being thick, and the tail is carried curled over to one side. The limbs are quite upright, and appear like loaded springs, with visible energy rippling beneath the skin. It is these which are responsible for the breed’s ability to leap straight into the air from a stationary position, a manoeuvre believed to help them when attempting to sight their prey. When in motion, Basenjis are natural athletes, with an easy, long stride that covers ground at an astonishing pace.

Male Basenjis stand around 43 cm (17 in) tall at the withers, or top of the shoulder, with bitches averaging 40 cm (16 in) in height. Males are usually more sturdy, weighing around 11 kg (24 lb), compared with 9.5 kg (21 lb) for bitches.

Character & Temperament

In terms of temperament, Basenjis make good family pets, although they are particularly intolerant of being surprised from behind, and so may not be suitable for young children. They tend to become particularly devoted to one individual, but will bond well with the entire family. Although small, they are brave, and will defend their home and owners ferociously if called into action. In social settings, they are usually aloof and distant with strangers, and do not especially enjoy attention from those they do not know well. For this reason, it is important to socialise Basenji puppies well from a young age to avoid difficulties in adulthood.

Despite an independent nature, Basenjis are prone to boredom and separation disorders if left alone for prolonged periods, and can be quite destructive, sometimes even in the owner’s presence! Patience, combined with a reasonable knowledge of the breed’s expected patterns of behaviour, are important to truly enjoy owning one of these dogs.

Trainability

Photo of Basenji puppy

Basenjis are notoriously difficult to train. Although they are fussy and clean dogs, and therefore easy to house train, obedience training is another matter entirely. They have been rated second-to-last in Stanley Coren’s Intelligence of Dogs, a reference work which examined the responsiveness of 79 breeds of dogs to verbal commands. While this reflects accurately on most owners’ experiences of attempting to train their Basenji, it is perhaps not a true reflection of the actual intellectual capabilities of the breed. Having been developed and maintained as bush-hunting animals, Basenjis were required to work independently for periods, and to make decisions about routes and prey to pursue. As such, they were never intended to be hyper-obedient dogs, always waiting for the master’s instruction.

On getting to know a Basenji, one certainly gets the impression that they are indeed quite clever, but it seems that they are more likely to weigh up the pros and cons of any given command, rather than following orders blindly.

Most individuals can never be trusted off-lead in an open space, as their strong drive to hunt will likely lead them astray, and they can cover great distances in a small space of time. In addition, they should not be left alone with cats or other small pets, for obvious reasons.

Health

Surprisingly, given how recently the breed was a pure working strain, there are quite a few common health problems recognised in the Basenji.

  • Behaviour Problems – Behavioural problems, such as aggression, destructive tendencies, or wandering from home are common complaints in the breed, and are the reason for a significant number of euthanasias on an annual basis.
  • Coliform Enteritis – An overgrowth of colonic bacteria, which can lead to severe bloody diarrhoea and symptoms of shock. Affected dogs may become acutely ill, but prompt veterinary treatment with fluid restoration and intravenous antibiotics are usually curative.
  • Coloboma – A congenital disorder causing malformation of the retina, leading to visual impairment. Puppies should be screened for coloboma at their first veterinary check.
  • Corneal Luekoma – A harmless accumulation of white-coloured material at the front of the eye (cornea). If sizeable, may slightly affect vision.
  • Factor IX Deficiency – Also known as Haemophilia B, this deficiency in an essential clotting factor predisposes to heavy bleeding after accidents or minor surgery. An uncommon condition, but much more prevalent in Basenjis than in the general population.
  • Haemolytic Anaemia – Immune-mediated destruction of red blood cells by a dog’s own immune system. In Basenjis, this may be secondary to pyruvate kinase deficiency (see below), but also may arise as an idiopathic disorder, meaning that no underlying reason is obvious. Symptoms will depend on the severity of the anaemia, from mild exercise intolerance to collapse, and even sudden death.
  • Inguinal Hernia – The inguinal canal is a structure just inside the hindlimb. It allows blood vessels and other structures to pass from the abdomen to supply the hindlimbs and abdominal skin. However, this canal is excessively wide in some individuals, allowing abdominal fat or even intestine to slip beneath the skin. Such hernias are usually palpable as soft lumps in the groin, which often can be ‘reduced’ with gentle pressure. Most will require surgical correction.
  • Immunoproliferative Intestinal Malabsorption – Basenjis develop a unique form of intestinal disease, in which infiltration by white blood cells into the intestinal walls prevents the normal absorption of nutrients and fluids from the gut. This usually results in severe diarrhoea and weight loss. The incidence of the condition has thankfully decreased. Affected dogs require lifelong management with hypoallergenic diets and immunosuppressive therapies.
  • Hypothyroidism – Common in many pedigree breeds, the Basenji being no exception. Following autoimmune attack of the thyroid gland (lymphocytic thyroiditis), circulating levels of thyroid hormone fall, causing signs such as lethargy, weight gain, and dermatopathies (skin disorders). Hair loss, which tends to be symmetrical and focussed on the flanks, is another common symptom.
  • Persistent Pupillary Membrane – Abnormal development of structures within the eye, which leaves attachments between the pupil and other intraocular bodies. Often results in an odd, angular-shaped pupil.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy – Degeneration of the neural tissues of the retina in adult dogs over a variable period, but leading inevitably to loss of sight. There is a strong genetic basis to the condition, and affected animals should not be used for breeding.
  • Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency – One possible cause of haemolytic anaemia (see above) in Basenjis. Pyruvate kinase is an essential enzyme located in the cell membrane of red blood cells. Deficiency results in fragility of the red blood cells, which then become damaged during their normal transport around the body. Damaged red cells are removed from the circulation, potentially leading to signs of anaemia, exercise intolerance, and breathlessness.
  • Renal Tubular Dysfunction (Fanconi Syndrome) – While not exclusively a condition of Basenjis, 75% of dogs diagnosed with this condition are of this breed. Failure of the renal tubules, which are the structures responsible for reabsorption of non-waste products from the early process of urine production, leads to loss of protein, glucose, electrolytes, and acid-base regulators from the body. Signs are variable depending on the predominant pattern of nutrient loss, but weight loss, excessive thirst, lethargy, and loss of appetite are common findings. The problem can be managed, but doing so is extremely challenging, requiring intensive monitoring.
  • Umbilical Hernia – Protrusion of abdominal contents through the umbilicus (belly button). Usually first detected in young puppies. As with inguinal hernias, may need to be repaired if the deficit is large.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Basenjis need a moderate amount of exercise, and as they can only rarely be allowed off the lead, this translates to at least one hour of brisk lead walking every day, preferably broken into two sessions. Of course, a healthy Basenji will be perfectly happy to exercise for far longer than this, and the more active the dog, the less likely it is to become bored or frustrated if being kept indoors for large parts of the day.

Grooming

As the coat is so fine and short, shedding is not a huge issue for owners of Basenjis to deal with. They are cat-like in their cleanliness, and self-grooming will occupy much of a Basenji’s free time. Because of the this, the breed is remarkable for their lack of body odour – all of which makes them very easy dogs with whom to share a house. Weekly brushing should be adequate, as much for the social aspect to the activity as to remove loose hair.

In order to avoid halitosis, tartar accumulation, and periodontal disease, young dogs should be taught to tolerate having their teeth brushed, ideally on a daily basis. This should be done with a soft-bristled brush and a toothpaste suitable for use in dogs. Occasional clipping of the dog’s nails is also a good idea to prevent them snagging in carpets or rough ground.

Famous Basenjis

The Basenji has travelled far from the African plains, with several well-known individuals having enjoyed celebrity status:

  • My Lady of the Congo Star of ‘Goodbye My Lady’, a 1955 Warner Brother Movie
  • Little Red & Prince Bakuma Zen Koj Two Basenjis owned by Kelsey Grammer
  • Fula Nzara of the Congo Favourite pet of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands
  • Additionally, famous actors, Janet Jackson and Mario Balotelli own the breed

Cross-Breeds

There are some well-recognised Basenji mixes, or ‘designer dogs’, which have combined some of the unique Basenji features with those of some better-known breeds.

  • Baseagle – Cross between a Basenji and a Beagle
  • Border Basseagle – Cross between a Baseagle and a Border Collie
  • Corsengi – Cross between a Basenji and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi
  • Eskenji – Cross between a Basenji and an American Eskimo Dog
  • Great Dasenji – Cross between a Basenji and a Great Dane
  • Labrasenji – Cross between a Labrador and a Basenji

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