Irish Setter

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

The Irish Setter, Red Setter, or Madra Rua in Irish, is a stunningly handsome dog, but the breed was originally developed along working lines for utility, rather than good looks. They are very affectionate and cheerful dogs, and make great family pets, being very dependable with children and other pets. They are highly energetic, and require daily exercise of between one and two hours, and are not suited to apartment or city living.

This and other setter breeds, including the English Setter and Gordon Setter, were selected for their ability to perform a variety of tasks while on a hunt. The term “setter” refers to their reaction to locating game, whereby after initially “pointing” to the prey’s location, they will lie immobile to avoid entering the huntsman’s line of fire. In addition to this function, setters will also retrieve game after it has been shot, potentially doing the job of a Labrador or Golden Retriever.

Certain health problems are more common in, or even unique to, the Irish Setter. However, many of these conditions manifest in puppies and young dogs, and healthy adults have a life expectancy of 12–15 years.

About & History

As the name suggests, the breed originated in Ireland, with the first records of hunting dogs displaying setter-type characteristics dating back to the late 1500s. However, it is likely that these very early accounts refer to spaniels rather than truly the progenitors of the modern Irish Setter. While uncertain, it is believed that they were originally developed from the Irish Water Spaniel, possibly with contributions from the Irish Terrier and Gordon Setter in the 18th century. Irish Setters were not always a solid red colour; indeed, from early descriptions, it appears they were largely white, with red patches. The solid red form emerged in the mid-19th century, although red-and-white and lemon remained common variants until much later.

Irish Setters became very popular in the United States from the 1800s, where they were employed in hunting a great variety of wildfowl, including teal, duck, partridge, and quail. However, the breed’s attractive features led to it becoming hugely successful in the show ring, and breeding efforts in the early part of the 20th century focused mainly on aesthetics, rather than on hunting abilities. As a result, the Irish Setter became a heavier, larger dog, leading hunting purists in the US to develop a separate working line. This required outbreeding with red-and-white English Setters in order to strengthen the breed’s hunting instincts. This line is now more commonly referred to as the Red Setter, and genealogical records are maintained by the Field Dog Stud Book.


Irish Setter Large Photo

Irish Setters are striking-looking, athletic dogs. The characteristic coat may be slightly wavy and is moderately long over most of the body, with pronounced feathering behind the legs and under the chest and tail. They are red or chestnut in colour – although the Kennel Club standards permit a small streak of white on the head, chest, throat, or paws. A setter’s face should convey affection and attentiveness, and the mouth is usually held slightly open in a smile when at rest. The skull is long, and equally divided between crown and muzzle, with a moderately pronounced stop in between. The teeth should neatly overlap, hidden beneath lips which should be neither tight nor drooping. The ears are medium in size, wedge-shaped, and hanging down towards the corners of the mouth. The breed usually has dark hazel or brown, almond-shaped eyes.

A well-proportioned Irish Setter should be long and muscular in the neck and back, without being ‘bulky’ or heavy. Being an athletic breed, the chest should be large enough to accommodate capacious lungs, and will be very deep and reasonably broad. The limbs, again, should be muscular and lean, with the rump being broad and strong. Setters’ feet tend to be quite small, and have marked hairgrowth between the toes. The tail exhibits feathering which tapers in length towards the tip, and should be carried as level as possible. In motion, the breed personifies elegance and grace, trotting smoothly and effortlessly.

Irish Setters can vary in proportions quite considerably, depending on the purpose for which the particular strain was bred. Males generally weigh between 26 and 32 kg (57–70 lb), and stand 63–71 cm (25–28 in) at the shoulder, with females weighing 24–28 kg (53–62 lb) and measuring 55–62 cm (22–24 in) tall.

Character & Temperament

The breed is known for being playful, energetic, and mischievous. Given half a chance, they will inevitably get up to no good. In company, however, they are wonderful pets, being responsive and cheerful. Without adequate exercise, they do have a tendency to giddiness, and can be destructive. Setters can be skittish around strangers if not well-socialised when young, and make good guard dogs, being quick to raise the alarm, without being aggressive.

Irish Setters are affectionate dogs, who become extremely devoted to their family. The breed is very well-suited to family life, being sociable and gentle with children. However, such is their attachment to their humans that many Setters suffer from quite severe separation anxiety if left alone for long periods. A secure garden is an absolute requirement if the owner wants to be able to leave home alone on a regular basis. They are also usually very dependable with other pets, but should be socialised as early as possible with cats and other smaller animals.


Photo of Irish Setter puppy

Even as adults, Irish Setters can be very high-energy and excitable dogs. As puppies, they can be frenetic! Again, exercise is key at every stage to contain their almost boundless enthusiasm. Training sessions should be scheduled for after a walk or run, as they are less likely to be distracted after exercise.

This is an intelligent breed, and owners can rightly expect to be able to achieve high standards of training and obedience. However, as with any dog, the best results will be obtained with early, regular, and consistent training, rewarding good behaviour and ignoring the bad as much as possible.


In spite of their aristocratic bearing, Irish Setters are quite a resilient breed, and most individuals are healthy. However, there are a number of recognised health problems within certain lines of the breed.

Acral Lick Dermatitis

In common with other gundog breeds, setters are prone to self-mutilation on the lower limbs. This problem is more likely to manifest in dogs which are under-stimulated or exercised insufficiently.

Cranial Cruciate Ligament Rupture

A very common cause of hindlimb lameness in many breeds of dog. A tear in this ligament, which is responsible for preventing instability in the knee joints, will require surgery to prevent long-term problems.

Atopic Dermatitis

Allergic skin disease caused by excessive immune responses to inhaled particles of environmental allergens. Most likely to affect the ears, paws, and under the tail. Treatment ideally involves removal of the allergen, but this is often not possible. In these cases, seasonal or life-long medications and washes may be needed.

Corneal Dystrophy

Abnormal development of the clear tissue on the surface of the eye, resulting in the presence of small “pits” on the cornea.

Behavioural Disorders

Being a working breed, Irish Setters need to be kept stimulated and active, and if bored or confined without adequate exercise, may be prone to developing destructive or nuisance behaviours.

Gastric Dilatation-Volvulus (GDV)

Deep-chested dogs are prone to developing GDV, where the stomach rotates around its abdominal attachments, causing acute, severe distress as the stomach fills with gas and fluid. Emergency treatment is required. More likely to occur in dogs exercising soon after being fed.

Canine Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency

Congenital disorder in which white blood cell function is reduced. The resulting immune deficiency makes affected dogs more prone to developing serious bacterial and viral infections.

Carpal Subluxation

Weakness of the ligaments and tendons in the lower forelimbs can cause instability of the carpus(wrist) joint. May be seen from a young age as a cause of lameness.


The growth of hairs on normally hairless areas of the eyelids, causing irritation and recurrent ocular infections.


Excessive immune reaction in the cornea (the clear surface of the eye), resulting in the development of a pink/red tissue film.


Seizures and other neurological signs, such as ‘tics’ or ‘fly-catching’, can be caused by idiopathic epilepsy, which may occur in any animal purely by chance, but is more common in certain familial lines.

Haemophilia A

A condition involving increased bleeding tendencies after minor trauma. Caused by deficiency of Factor VIII, a protein involved in clotting.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

This condition, which can cause total blindness, is an issue in Irish Setters. The Kennel Club promotes a DNA screening programme to prevent genetic carriers being used as breeding stock.

Gluten-sensitive Enteropathy

Recognised as being a common problem in Irish Setters, gluten intolerance, as in people, can result in chronic diarrhoea, weight loss, and other allergic manifestations. Introducing a gluten-free diet should eliminate signs.

Sebaceous Adenitis

Immune-mediated inflammation in the hair follicles, causing itch, hair loss, and scaly skin.

Haemolytic Anaemia

Another clinical condition caused by abnormal immune function, in which red blood cells are attacked and broken down, resulting in anaemia. Platelets, white blood cells involved in clotting, may also be subject to attack, causing prolonged bleeding times.

Hip Dysplasia

Strongly influenced by genetics, developmental hip disorders are a common cause of lameness in young, growing dogs.


Reduced function of the thyroid gland following immune-mediated destruction can cause weight gain and lethargy. Irish Setters also tend to develop a characteristic dull, woolly coat.

Lens Luxation

Degeneration of the ligaments holding the lens of the eye in position can allow the lens to slip out of position after minor trauma. Depending on whether the lens slips forward or behind its normal position, variable degrees of blindness and other intraocular complications will be seen.

Optic Nerve Hypoplasia

Under-development of the nerves responsible for normal vision. Manifests as blindness in young pups.


A cancer of the long bones of the limbs. Seen in older animals as lameness and bone pain. Common sites are close to the shoulder, wrist, and knee joints.

Persistent Right Aortic Arch

Failure of a foetal blood vessel to regress as it normally should. Results in the formation of a vascular ring around the oesophagus, which can cause regurgitation and ill-thrift in Irish Setter pups.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Irish Setters are extremely energetic, and need a minimum of one to two hours exercise each day. They are not suited to a sedentary lifestyle, having been bred as a working dog, and benefit from more vigorous off-the-lead exercise, such as chasing a ball or swimming. In addition, most Setters become agitated by being confined to the house for long periods, and a large, fenced garden or yard is essential to prevent destructive behaviour within the house.


The fine, moderately long coat requires daily brushing to prevent knots and tangles becoming matts. Irish Setters are moderate shedders, and will certainly leave evidence of their presence in the home. Occasional bathing with a suitable dog shampoo will help keep the hair at its glossy best, but once every 6–8 weeks should suffice. The hairy paws may need regular trimming, as knots tend to form between the toes and pads and can become painful.

While Setters do not generally develop problems with ingrowing nails, it is still advisable to begin routine nail-clipping in puppies, so that they will be accustomed to the procedure when they are adults. As a retrieving breed, and thus having a ‘soft’ mouth, Irish Setters may be prone to tartar build-up and should have their teeth brushed regularly – at least three to four times per week. Again, this is an easier routine to introduce to a pup than to an adult.

Famous Irish Setters

Being such an attractive breed, the Irish Setter has often made its way into the public eye. However, these dogs are clearly not just eye-candy, as they often walk the corridors of power:

  • King Timahoe who belonged to Richard Nixon during his tenure as US president
  • Mike was another presidential pooch, belonging to Harry Truman
  • Seamus, Mitt Romney’s dog
  • Milord, owned by Tsar Alexander II


Irish Setters can introduce beautiful features to their pups when crossed with other pedigrees. The following are some of the better-known crosses:

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