For the uninitiated, these lithe-bodied runners can seem underweight. But nothing could be further from the truth.
If modern dogs were required to have resumés, most would list their job description as “companion.” But even if a dog’s main activity is warming the couch, his body – not to mention his brain – still reflects the original purposes for which he was bred, from the badger-battling Dachshund to the sled-pulling Alaskan Malamute.
Indeed, the world’s breeds display a tremendous variety of not just colors and coats but also sizes and shapes. And that makes comparisons between them problematic. After all, the difference between a Bulldog and an Italian Greyhound is on par with that of a sumo wrestler and a ballerina: Each has a different purpose, with the corresponding body style to perform it.
But for the uninitiated, the wide-ranging physical differences among some breeds can cause super-sized misunderstandings.
Understanding the Size of Sighthounds
Consider, for example, the Sighthounds. From the sleek Saluki of the Arabian peninsula to the plume-tailed Borzoi of the Russian steppes, these breeds have been called “windhounds” for good reason: They needed to be fast enough to overtake very fleet-footed game, such as hare, deer, and even wolf. As a result of this need for speed, Sighthounds have evolved extremely aerodynamic bodies, with relatively slender bone and a very noticeable “tuck-up,” or waist. In addition, Sighthounds are born with comparatively low stores of body fat and unique metabolisms that make many intolerant to certain types or doses of anesthesia.
None of this comes as news to experienced Sighthound owners. But those whose frame of reference is made up mostly of breeds like the sturdy Labrador Retriever often think these skinny-by-nature breeds are underweight (or, worse, starved), when nothing could be further from the truth. Despite knowing nothing about the breed at hand, some self-anointed “experts” become so upset by the natural litheness of Sighthounds that they can become downright threatening – and in turn, some Sighthound owners even carry letters from their veterinarians attesting to their dog’s health.
“Non-Sighthound people routinely think that all dogs should have the same kind of body type and body condition,” says Erika Wyatt, vice president of the American Sloughi Association. Hailing from the North African countries of Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, “the Sloughi is a primitive, utilitarian hunter that is hard, racy and powerful – as well as elegant,” she explains. Hunting in extreme temperatures over equally challenging terrain that includes the rock-strewn Atlas Mountains and the mercilessly arid Sahara Desert, “an overweight Sloughi would never survive in such conditions and would almost certainly suffer from heatstroke.”
Wyatt notes that the American Kennel Club breed standard for the Sloughi describes a dog whose body and legs show “defined bony structure.” A Sloughi in optimal condition, she continues, “should have the rearmost three ribs faintly visible, prominent hipbones, bony croup, and up to three vertebrae showing.”
Ribs and Hipbones
Protruding hipbones, by the way, aren’t unique to Sloughis: They are also important hallmarks for other Sighthounds such as the glamorously coated Afghan Hound as well as the Azawakh, probably the leanest of all the Sighthounds. While in humans – and many other dog breeds – visible hip bones can be a sign of malnutrition, in these eastern Sighthounds, they are a simple matter of geometry: Their pelvises are set quite steeply, creating a croup, or rump, that is very angled, and causing the hipbones to be more evident as a result of their unique placement.
While Wallis Simpson, that famous American divorcee who prompted King Edward to abdicate the British throne, famously maintained that you can never be too rich or too thin, the latter isn’t true: There is such a thing as a Sighthound that is too skinny.
“If the ribs are protruding too much, or there are too many showing, the dog is too thin,” Wyatt explains. “Similarly, if the dog lacks hard, dry muscle, it is probably not being fed enough.”
But even in these cases, it can be unfair to rush to judgment. Sighthounds, in particular youngsters and adolescents, are notoriously picky about food. That point was made quite clear in 2011 by Hickory the Scottish Deerhound, who the morning after winning Westminster turned her nose up at the traditional filet mignon served to her on a silver platter at Sardi’s Restaurant in Manhattan. Keeping weight on such fussy eaters can be a challenge for even the most scrupulously attentive owner, and some expend great effort cajoling their dogs to eat by dousing their food with butter, or feeding calorie-rich peanut-butter sandwiches, hold the jelly.
What’s Wrong With a Little Fat?
What if a Sighthound hasn’t gotten the memo and is an unrepentant chowhound? Is there anything wrong with being pleasantly plump? Actually, quite a bit. Having been bred for centuries to have lithe, rangy bodies, Sighthounds that pack on the pounds put undue stress on their joints and soft tissue. A fat Sighthound – or any dog, for that matter – is simply more prone to injuries.
Kerrie Kuper of Karasar Whippets lives in Florida, a state that for many years had a large number of Greyhound racetracks. As a result, many Floridians are familiar with the lean, spare silhouettes of those hard-bodied racers, and don’t comment too much on the smaller-statured Whippets that Kuper has been breeding for nearly 50 years. But when she does encounter a misinformed critic who thinks her dogs need a ham sandwich, she simply offers an analogy to which they can relate.
“I explain that Whippets are runners, and do you see successful runners who are overweight?” she asks rhetorically. “Once you compare them to people, your average person gets it.”
Some, however, simply won’t accept that every dog doesn’t look like the Golden next door. For her part, Wyatt has given up trying to convince them. Sometimes, she says, she offers this tongue-in-cheek response to passersby who criticize how skinny her dogs are.
“I chose a breed that looks like I wish I still did!” she laughs.
Twiggy has now left the building.