Cirneco dell’Etna

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Cirneco dell’Etna

As its name suggests, this small, versatile sighthound has traditionally been found hunting around the slopes of Mount Etna on the island of Sicily. Although it has been living in isolation here for millennia, its appearance is strikingly similar to that of other Mediterranean breeds, such as the Ibizan Hound, that also originated in Ancient Egypt. When not hunting rabbits and birds, this is an alert and playful dog with a strong independent streak. Left off the lead, its keen eyesight and strong hunting instinct can quickly lead it into trouble, and it is a capable climber that needs a garden with a tall fence. However, it is also said to be more trainable than many sighthounds, and it does aim to please its owners whenever possible.

The Cirneco dell’Etna has a steady temperament, and is a sociable animal, so it is suitable for most families. Like all dogs, it does need daily exercise, but with as little as half an hour a day it is also capable of adapting to indoor living, and it may be a good choice for such a lifestyle, as its coat sheds only very lightly. Fans of the breed proudly claim that it is free from inherited disease – whether or not this is entirely true, the Cirneco dell’Etna is certainly a healthy dog, with an average life expectancy of 12 to 14 years.

About & History

Like the Pharaoh Hound and the Ibizan Hound, the Cirneco dell’Etna’s ancestors travelled outwards from the Middle East with Phoenician traders around 1000 BC. Its long residency on the isle of Sicily is documented in sculptures, writings, and on coins, and the breed holds a special place in Sicilian history, being used as a hunter, but also valued as a companion. While it relies mainly on its eyesight to first spot prey, it is unusual as a sighthound in that it is its nose that is its strongest asset, allowing it to follow its victims through the rough ground and vegetation of its homeland. The Cirneco dell’Etna is also sometimes trained to work in combination with a ferret, the smaller animal being able to pursue rabbits after they have gone to ground, without the necessity for the dog to expend a lot of energy in digging.

The breed was unknown in most of the world until the twentieth century, when an Italian veterinarian by the name of Maurizio Migneco wrote of its endangered status in a national journal in 1932. He, along with Baroness Donna Agata Paternó Castello, was instrumental in popularising the Cirneco dell’Etna over the following thirty years, becoming the first president of the official breed club when it was incorporated in 1939. While it is still rare, the Cirneco dell’Etna may now be found all around the world, with most of the major international kennel clubs having granted it full recognition as an ancient pure breed.

Appearance

Cirneco dell’Etna Large Photo

The overall appearance of the Cirneco dell’Etna is one of an elegant, athletic dog. It is lean and muscular, with a square body shape in side profile. It has an ovoid crown, with the head generally tapering from the ears to nose, and its keen sense of smell is reflected in the length of the muzzle, which must be greater than that of the skull. This is a refined breed, with well-formed but fine boning of the cheeks and jaw, and the lips are similarly tight and thin. The relatively small eyes are set obliquely, and are usually ochre, amber, or hazel in colour, while the large ears are set high on the head, with strong cartilaginous bases that hold the canals open and forward-facing. When the dog’s attention is aroused, the ears are held erect, almost touching along the midline.

The arched, muscular neck is the same length as the head, and it merges smoothly into a strong back that slopes gently from the withers to the croup, where the relatively thick tail is set on low. Although the front of the chest is quite narrow, the ribs spring towards the rear, and it has good depth. The abdomen is tight and tucked. The Cirneco dell’Etna has noticeably upright limbs, with an invisible vertical line passing from their tops to bottoms when viewed from both the side and rear. Powerful and light, the breed has a springing, energetic gait.

Character & Temperament

The Cirneco dell’Etna is an outgoing, friendly dog with an inquisitive nature. It is also quite an independent character, and will happily embark on an unaccompanied adventure if left unsupervised, especially if a suspicious movement should catch its eye. It is a very playful breed, and has no shortage of energy, so it makes a great companion for children who are old enough to play fetch or other games in an enclosed garden.

Off lead in an open space, the Cirneco dell’Etna’s long-honed hunting instincts mean it is likely to disappear into the undergrowth, and it should not be trusted with cats or other small pets. Because of the intense heat of its natural environment, the Cirneco dell’Etna dislikes cold weather, and it is especially fond of cuddling up to humans or other dogs for warmth.

Trainability

Photo of Cirneco dell’Etna puppy

Hounds generally have a reputation for being stubborn, heedless, and difficult to train, but the Cirneco dell’Etna is an exception. Although it is easily distracted by sights and smells, it is a dog that is eager to please, and generally makes a willing and able pupil.

It is often not highly motivated by food, so it responds better to effusive praise than treats during training sessions. A natural athlete, it can make an excellent agility or flyball competitor, and will enjoy the sociability of getting involved in training sessions for these activities.

Health

This primitive breed has been forced to eke out a harsh existence in the arid Sicilian landscape for much of the past 3000 years, and it is likely that whatever genetic weaknesses arose in the Cirneco dell’Etna were quickly wiped out through natural selection. The fact that these dogs were often required to work long periods in intense heat without food or water likely accelerated this process. For this reason, there are not currently any illnesses to which the breed is known to be susceptible, making it one of the few truly healthy pure breeds.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Like every dog, the Cirneco dell’Etna needs regular exercise to keep in good health, but it can make do with surprisingly little. Around half an hour of daily walking is usually enough to satisfy the dog’s minimum requirement, but it does benefit greatly from having further opportunities to play. As mentioned above, competitive sports provide one potential outlet, but simply chasing a ball in an enclosed garden for ten-minutes gives the Cirneco dell’Etna a much-needed opportunity to blow off some steam and a chance to have fun.

However, be aware that these dogs are not only excellent climbers, but also enthusiastic diggers, so any fencing needs to be both tall and buried a considerable depth in order to prevent escape.

Grooming

The flat coat does not shed heavily, and it needs little work to keep it looking its best. It should be brushed once weekly to remove loose hair, then wiped down with a damp cloth. This helps to remove dust and dirt that has been loosened by brushing. As a naturally clean dog, the Cirneco dell’Etna seldom needs to be washed. Like other fine-boned sighthounds, it does not put a lot of effort into chewing its food, meaning that plaque and tartar readily accumulates on its teeth, potentially leading to dental disease

This may be prevented by daily tooth brushing with a suitable brush and paste, both of which can be provided by a good pet store or veterinary clinic. The dog’s nails should be clipped as needed, which is when they can be heard to click on the ground as the animal walks. For indoor-only dogs, this may be as often as once a month, while those with regular outdoor access are likely to wear their nails down through walking and digging.

Famous Cirnecos dell’Etna

The Cirneco dell’Etna is a low-profile breed, scarcely known outside Italy, and has not yet achieved celebrity status.

Cross-Breeds

Those few examples of the Cirneco dell’Etna kept in the United Kingdom at the moment are used solely for pedigree breeding, and the breed has no recognised hybrid offshoots at the present time.

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