Physical Characteristics of Australian Shepherds
Temperament: active, intelligent, protective, work-oriented
Bred for: livestock herding
Weight Range: M: 50-65 lbs / F: 40-55 lbs
Height at Withers: M: 22 inches / F: 20 inches
Average Lifespan: 12-14 years
Need for attention: high
Energy level: very energetic
Exercise requirements: >40 minutes/day
Tendency to drool: low
Tendency to bark: moderate to high
Tendency to dig: low
Coat type: waterproof, medium length, double coat
Coat color: black, red, blue merle, red merle, with or without tan, and with or without white
Overall grooming needs: moderate
Conformation: medium-sized, solid build, feathering on back of legs, floppy ears and a naturally short tail
Personality Traits of Australian Shepherds
Australian Shepherds are working dogs, bred for herding livestock. They are extremely task-oriented and are able to adapt to a wide variety of jobs, including herding, police work and competing in competitions. They excel in canine competition events such as obedience, herding and agility trials because of their above average intelligence, agility and stamina. These days, Australian Shepherds often serve as companion dogs, but still exhibit herding instincts. They are a high energy and playful breed who require a lot of mental stimulation and physical exercise. Australian Shepherds will likely develop destructive habits if they are frequently left alone or confined to small spaces. They would benefit from living in the countryside or having a large fenced backyard to run around and release energy. They require a lot of attention and would benefit being with a family that has an active lifestyle, enjoys outdoor activities and has the time to meet their demanding exercise requirements. Despite their high energy, they are easy-going, open to new experiences and able to adapt quickly to new environments. They would make a perfect companion for someone who enjoys hiking, camping, running, trips to the beach, etc.
Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent, easy to train and eager to please their family. Since they were bred to control a group of animals, they may attempt to exert dominance without firm and confident leadership. For this reason, they are not an ideal choice of breed for first time dog owners. They tend to be weary of strangers, but are not considered an aggressive breed in nature. They also tend to be territorial and may exhibit guarding behaviors. Like most breeds, early training and socialization aids in their development of becoming well-rounded dogs. Australian Shepherds make great family dogs because of their love for children and other animals. Keep in mind that they are known to nip at children’s ankles because of their instinct to herd. They are very protective of their family and are known to bark around strangers which makes them a good watchdog.
History of the Australian Shepherd
Britannica states that the Australian Shepherd was developed in the United States in the late 1800s, however, there are less reputable sources that believe this to be untrue. Of course the breed’s name is quite misleading and some naturally assume they originated in Australia. In fact, Australian Shepherds were developed from dogs that had accompanied Basque shepherds to the United States. The Basques traveled from the borderlands of France and Spain to Australia with their Pyrenean Shepherds (berger de Pyrenees) in search of rich pastureland. While there, their Pyrenean Shepherds were bred with imported Collies from England. The Basques eventually ended up leaving Australia and traveling to California where the breed was further refined and developed.
Australian Shepherds were used in the western United States by farmers and ranchers for the purpose of herding livestock. The breed’s popularity really took off in the mid 1900s and was particularly admired by those who participated in or were fans of rodeos, horseback riding, horse shows and western movies. Despite their popularity early on, the breed wasn’t officially recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) until 1993.
Fun Facts About Australian Shepherds
Australian Shepherds commonly have different colored eyes, a condition called heterochromia. In general, heterochromia is rare. Melanin is a naturally-occurring dark pigment that is present in the hair, skin and iris. It’s concentration and distribution within the tissue of the iris determine eye color. If the affected eye is hyperchromic or hyperpigmented, it appears darker due to higher concentrations of melanin. If the affected eye is hypochromic or hypopigmented, it appears lighter due to lower concentrations of melanin. Eye color combinations include: brown, blue, hazel, amber and green. One eye can also consist of several colors.
American actress Amanda Seyfried, who you may know from her role as Karen in Mean Girls or Sophie Sheridan in Mamma Mia, has an Australian Shepherd rescue dog named Finn. At the time of adoption, Seyfried was experiencing a lot of anxiety due to the constant changes that come from the lifestyle of being an actress. She has expressed that Finn has helped her through the rough times and provided her with support and stability. Seyfried and Finn are attached at the hip. She has expressed that she always makes sure she is allowed to bring him to movie sets before signing a film contract. Seyfried is also an animal activist and has joined the Best Friends Animal Society’s campaign called Save Them All, expressing, “When you adopt, you not only save a life, but you end up with an amazing friend. Please adopt your next pet from a shelter or a rescue group. By working together we can Save Them All.”
Australian Shepherds have moderate grooming needs. They are considered average shedders. For most of the year, weekly brushing sessions is all that is needed to maintain a pristine, well-groomed coat. However, during seasonal shedding it’s recommended to brush them with a deshedding rake every couple of days to remove excess hair and reduce matting. In addition, they should receive occasional hair trimming around their ears, tail and paw pads. They commonly develop mats behind their ears so trimming helps reduce and remove mats. If needed, a stripping comb can be used to brush out small mats. Take this time to briefly scan their body for signs of inflammation and infection. Examine their skin for redness, dryness, lesions, etc. Look inside their ears for discharge, excessive wax, redness, scabs, etc.
Australian Shepherds do not require regular bathing. On average, bathing a couple times a year is sufficient in maintaining good coat condition and healthy skin. Over bathing will strip the skin and coat of its beneficial natural oils. Nails should be trimmed as needed. If you hear a clicking sound on the floor, it’s a sign that it’s time to cut their nails. Ears should be cleaned with an ear cleaning solution once a month or as recommended by your veterinarian. Also, their teeth should be brushed regularly, at minimum three times per week.
Common Health Conditions in Australian Shepherds
Australian Shepherds, like all dog breeds, are predisposed to certain health conditions. Before breeding, they should be screened by veterinary professionals for known hereditary health conditions. Mandatory screening tests include: hip & elbow evaluation by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals and an eye evaluation by a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist through the Canine Eye Registration Foundation. Optional screening tests include: autoimmune thyroiditis, collie eye anomaly and multiple drug sensitivity.
Hip dysplasia is a common multifactorial joint disease that results in an abnormal development of the hip joint resulting in a loose fit between the head of the femur and the pelvic socket, known as joint laxity. This developmental abnormality causes progressive degenerative changes to the joint. Clinical symptoms range from mild to severe with some dogs exhibiting little to no signs and others being severely affected from a young age. Symptoms include: reduced range of motion, stiffness, pain, lameness, limping or “bunny-hopping”, difficulty or reluctance to rise, jump, walk, run or climb up stairs.
Hip dysplasia is diagnosed based on x-rays, clinical symptoms and history. There are medical and surgical treatment options available. Early treatment of hip dysplasia involves dietary changes and supplements for joint health, weight management and physical therapy. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications are often prescribed to help control chronic pain. Surgery is often recommended in moderate to severe cases of hip dysplasia. There are a couple different types of surgeries performed to correct hip dysplasia, however, the two most common are hip replacement surgery and a femoral head osteotomy (FHO). A total hip replacement surgery involves removing and replacing the ball and socket with implants. A femoral head osteotomy is an effective salvage surgery that removes the head of the femur and the socket remains empty. With time, scar tissue forms between the socket and the femur which provides cushioning.
The American Kennel Club (AKC) requires screening tests for genetic diseases common to a breed. Screening for both hip and elbow dysplasia are mandatory for Australian Shepherds. Responsible breeders not registered with the AKC will still perform health screening tests. If choosing to buy from a breeder, I would highly recommend asking them whether or not the parents of the litter were screened for hereditary diseases. Hip dysplasia screening tests are evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and the University of Pennsylvania Hip Improvement Program (PennHIP). A veterinarian will perform radiographs in-house which will then be sent out for evaluation. PennHIPP is currently not recognized by the AKC. I have provided specific details regarding each test below for you to compare and contrast.
Verification certification required? Yes
Anesthesia required? Yes
Cost to client: $200-$400
Earliest age of evaluation (for certified results): 16 weeks
Radiographs required? 3
Scoring system: Quantitative (Calculated Distraction Index 0-1 – 0 is the best, evaluated by trained radiologists
Recognized the AKC: No
Year founded: 1993
Verification certification required? No
Anesthesia required? No
Cost to client: $35 + radiograph, veterinarian fees
Earliest age of evaluation (for certified results): 2 years
Radiographs required? 1
Scoring system: 7 point system from excellent to severe, based on evaluation of three independent radiologists
Recognized the AKC: Yes
Year founded: 1966
Elbow dysplasia is a hereditary joint disease that occurs almost as frequently in Australian Shepherds as hip dysplasia. The incidence of elbow dysplasia in Australian Shepherds had gone unrecognized prior to breeding programs mandating elbow screening examinations. Around 4% of Australian Shepherds evaluated by the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals are affected. The Australian Shepherd Health and Genetics Institute states, “But testing results from Europe, where elbow exams are as standard as those for hips, makes it clear that this disease is much more frequent in Aussies than most breeders in North America are aware.” Dogs with elbow dysplasia should not be bred because it’s a severe and genetically linked disease.
Elbow dysplasia is not a specific disease, but rather a term that refers to many different elbow pathologies, the most common include: fragmented medial coronoid process (FCP), ununited anconeal process (UAP) and osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). A fragmented medial coronoid process results from a developmental defect in which the two small bony projections at the end of the ulna, known as the coronoid processes crack and separate from the bone. This is the most common elbow defect seen in dogs and approximately 60% of those affected also have osteochondritis dissecans. OCD results from an abnormal growth of cartilage at the end of the bone that ends up fully or partially separating from the underlying tissue. It most commonly occurs in the shoulder, elbow, and knee. An ununited anconeal process results in a complete or partial detachment of the anconeal process from the ulna, a small bony projection located on the back surface of the elbow.
The severity of symptoms of elbow dysplasia range from mild to severe and can cause stiffness, lameness, muscle atrophy, pain and a labored gait. Elbow dysplasia often affects both elbows (bilateral) and having it increases the risk of developing hip dysplasia. It can be detected as early as 4 to 7 months and is most often diagnosed with radiographs (x-rays). Surgery is the treatment of choice. If left untreated, joint degeneration will occur resulting in chronic pain and a decreased range of motion. Weight management, exercise restriction and anti-inflammatories may be recommended on top of surgery or as a method of management, but alone will not be nearly as effective.
Hypothyroidism is an endocrine disorder that results in a decreased production of thyroid hormones, which regulate metabolism. It’s most commonly caused in dogs from an immune mediated process that causes the immune system to attack the thyroid gland. Hypothyroidism is most often diagnosed in middle-aged dogs. It cannot be cured, but can be controlled with daily medication, specifically levothyroxine.
Symptoms include: weight gain without a change in appetite, lethargy, poor coat condition, excessive shedding, darkening of the skin, cold intolerance/heat seeking behavior (sitting near fire-place, wanting under the blankets, etc.)
Australian Shepherds are at an increased risk of developing idiopathic epilepsy, a disorder that causes seizures. The exact cause of this disorder is unknown, but certain breeds are genetically predisposed. A seizure results when a sudden change of electrical activity occurs in the brain. It’s most likely to occur at times of excitement or while falling asleep and waking up. It cannot be cured but is managed with anticonvulsant medication. Symptoms or signs of the onset of a seizure include: uncontrollable repetitive jerky movements, stiffening, muscle twitching, loss of consciousness, drooling, tongue chewing/bleeding from trauma, foaming at the mouth, involuntary urinating and defecating. Cluster seizures or acute repetitive seizures may occur. It’s important to seek immediate medical treatment if your dog has never had a seizure before or is experiencing clusters of seizures with regaining consciousness. A veterinarian will rule out other medical conditions that can cause seizures, such as toxicities, organ failure and brain tumors.
Multi-Drug Resistance 1
Multi-drug resistance 1 is a genetic mutation of the MDR1 gene. This specific gene codes for the production of p-glycoprotein. The p-glycoprotein pump is an efflux pump that transports substrate drugs across the cell membrane. The blood brain barrier is a protective mechanism that prevents specific drugs from entering the brain tissue. This protective mechanism is less effective in dogs who have the MDR1 mutation. Therefore, higher concentrations of blood borne substances enter into the brain tissue and are not filtered out appropriately. This results in neurologic side effects from drug toxicity, such as seizures and death. The MDR1 gene mutation causes dogs to be sensitive to certain drugs, including the antiparasitics ivermectin, selamectin, milbemycin, the antidiarrheal loperamide (Imodium®), the sedative acepromazine and many drugs used to treat cancer. Ivermectin, selamectin and milbemycin are commonly used in heart worm preventatives, however, the low concentrations do not cause adverse effects in dogs with the gene mutation and are safe to use. A DNA test is available to identify whether a dog has the MDR1 gene mutation. It is recommended that Collies and Australian Shepherds are screened for the gene mutation prior to breeding. An estimated 75% of purebred Collies and 50% of purebred Australian Shepherds are affected.
Australian Shepherds have an increased risk of developing an aggressive form of cancer called lymphoma. Lymphoma is caused by the abnormal development of the white blood cells called lymphocytes, specifically the B or T cells. It most commonly develops in the lymphoid tissue within the lymph nodes, thymus, bone marrow and spleen. There are three different forms of lymphoma, but approximately 85% of dogs diagnosed are diagnosed with multicentric, which is a systemic form. Lymphoma is typically diagnosed with a fine needle aspirate of the lymph nodes. An early symptom of lymphoma is rapid enlargement of lymph nodes, however most other clinical symptoms appear once the cancer has spread to other organs. Symptoms include: lethargy, weight loss, decreased appetite, fever, dehydration and vomiting. Chemotherapy is effective at slowing down the progression of lymphoma, but it is not curative. The average survival time of dogs treated with chemotherapy is 6 months to 1 year compared to less than 3 months without treatment.
Hemangiosarcoma is an incurable, aggressive cancer of the blood vessels. Cancer cells line blood vessels forming large tumors over time. It most often forms in the spleen, heart or skin, but can develop anywhere in the body. Hemangiosarcoma accounts for 5-7% of tumors in dogs and is almost exclusively a disease seen in dogs. The disease does not cause any pain in the early stages and a dog tends to not show any clinical signs of the disease until a bleeding episode occurs, making it more difficult to diagnose. The cause of this heartbreaking disease is relatively unknown. Evidence suggests that heritable factors are involved because certain breeds are more prone to developing Hemangiosarcoma. Tumors in general arise as the result of mutations in the cells ability to control growth.
Tumor cells try to behave like normal cells by forming blood vessels but they are severely malformed. When blood runs through the vessel, the blood cells get trapped in the defective vessel and clots. This causes the tumor to rupture in certain areas which allows blood to get into the abdomen, chest and subcutaneous space. The dog will become lethargic and weak, however, the blood components are reabsorbed. Eventually a large tumor will rupture which leads to acute severe hemorrhage, collapse, shock and death. The tumor can metastasize to the lungs, liver, intestines, and mesentery tissue.
Hemangiosarcoma is diagnosed using analysis of blood samples, imaging techniques (radiographs, ultrasound, etc.) and biopsy. Biopsy is the only technique that confirms the diagnosis. The disease is not diagnosed until late stages because there are no clinical signs at early stages. Hemangiosarcoma is treated with surgery to remove the tumor along with chemotherapy.
Hereditary Eye Conditions
There are several hereditary eye conditions that are known to affect Australian Shepherds including: ocular and iris coloboma, juvenile and senior cataracts, detached retina, persistent pupillary membrane, progressive retinal atrophy and distichiasis. The American Kennel Club (AKC) requires Australian Shepherds to be screened by a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist for signs of eye conditions. Listed below is a brief description of each condition I mentioned above. I’ve provided a link for you to read more if interested.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
Progressive retinal atrophy is a hereditary eye condition that causes progressive vision loss due to destruction of the photoreceptor cells, rods and cones, within the retina. While there is currently no cure or treatment for PRA, it is a non-painful eye condition. Signs of PRA are all related to vision loss, including bumping into objects, walking slower than usual, hesitating to jump on furniture, etc. Complete vision loss typically occurs over a period of a couple years. Animals rely on their other senses much more than humans do and are typically able to adapt much quicker to being blind.
Cataracts are a hereditary eye condition that causes the lens of the eye to change from clear to opaque resulting in impaired vision. The endocrine disorder, diabetes mellitus, increases the risk of developing cataracts. There are four classifications of cataracts based on maturation or “severity”, which include: incipient, immature, mature and hypermature. Development and progression of cataracts varies with some occurring early on or later in life. Cataract surgery is often recommended, especially in young dogs to restore vision, however, it is an expensive surgery that can only be performed by a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist. The surgery is performed with delicate instruments under an operating microscope. A tiny incision is made in the eye and the lens is emulsified with ultrasonic frequency and aspirated from the eye. An artificial lens may or may not be used depending on the condition of the lens capsule. It’s important to know and be prepared that the aftercare protocol is very demanding. Frequent application of several different medicated eye drops is required for months following surgery. Following the exact protocol is extremely important as it aids in proper healing and ultimately affects the overall success of the procedure.
Distichiasis is one of the most common occurring hereditary eye diseases seen in dogs, therefore, affected dogs should not be used for breeding. Distichiasis causes an excessive growth of eyelashes from an abnormal area of the eyelid margin. These hairs often cause eye irritation and may result in secondary corneal ulcers. Clinical symptoms include: increased tearing or blinking, rubbing, redness and squinting. For immediate relief, an ophthalmologist may be able to pluck some of the hairs, but surgical intervention is often necessary if a dog is symptomatic. There are a couple different types of surgical procedures that can be performed. Cryosurgery is one type that involves freezing the hair follicles to prevent regrowth. In some cases, the first procedure is not effective and may require additional treatment.
Coloboma refers to a thinning of or a hole in an eye structure. Iris coloboma is a congenital eye defect in which part of the iris does not develop. It can range in severity from the absence of small notches to massive holes. Vision is often unaffected. In severe cases, light sensitivity may occur. Iris coloboma most commonly occurs in merle Australian Shepherds.
Collie Eye Anomaly
Collie eye anomaly is an inherited eye condition seen in Collies, Shetland Sheepdogs, Australian Shepherds, Border Collies and Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers. The condition can result in an underdeveloped choroid, optic nerve coloboma, thinning of the sclera and retinal detachment. The severity of symptoms range from asymptomatic to complete blindness. It’s an autosomal recessive disease, which means two carriers can produce an affected offspring. An ophthalmologist can not detect a carrier of the disease, so it’s recommended that Australian Shepherds be genetically tested prior to breeding.
Persistent Pupillary Membrane
Persistent Pupillary Membranes (PPM) are strands of tissue in the eye. They are leftover blood vessels that supplied the developing lens prior to birth. These strands are usually harmless, however, if they are attached to the lens or the cornea they can interfere with vision. PPM can cause cataracts depending on where they are attached. There is no necessary treatment for the condition unless it causes cataracts, which require surgical removal. Hyperosmotic eye drops are used when there is severe edema which may appear as a “bluing” of the cornea.
Australian Shepherd Rescues in the United States
- Aussie Rescue and Placement Helpline
- Australian Shepherd Rescues (by state)
- Aussie and Me Animal Rescue
- New Spirit 4 Aussie Rescue, Inc. (U.S. & Canada)
- Aussie Rescue SoCal
- Aussie Rescue San Diego
- Australian Shepherds Furever
- Lone Star Aussie Rescue
- Aussie Rescue of Minnesota
- Speak St. Louis
- Western Australian Shepherd Rescue
- Coastal Sheltie Rescue