Domestic dogs have been selectively bred for millennia for various behaviors, sensory capabilities, and physical attributes. Modern dog breeds show more variation in size, appearance, and behavior than any other domestic animal. Nevertheless, their morphology is based on that of their wild ancestors, gray wolves. Dogs are predators and scavengers, and like many other predatory mammals, the dog has powerful muscles, fused wrist bones, a cardiovascular system that supports both sprinting and endurance, and teeth for catching and tearing. Dogs are highly variable in height and weight. The smallest known adult dog was a Yorkshire Terrier, that stood only 6.3 centimetres (2.5 in) at the shoulder, 9.5 cm (3.7 in) in length along the head-and-body, and weighed only 113 grams (4.0 oz). The largest known dog was an English Mastiff which weighed 155.6 kilograms (343 lb) and was 250 cm (98 in) from the snout to the tail. The tallest dog is a Great Dane that stands 106.7 cm (42.0 in) at the shoulder.
Like most mammals, dogs are dichromats and have color vision equivalent to red-green color blindness in humans (deuteranopia). Dogs are less sensitive to differences in grey shades than humans and also can detect brightness at about half the accuracy of humans.
The dog’s visual system has evolved to aid proficient hunting. While a dog’s visual acuity is poor (that of a poodle‘s has been estimated to translate to a Snellen rating of 20/75), their visual discrimination for moving objects is very high; dogs have been shown to be able to discriminate between humans (e.g., identifying their owner) at a range of between 800 and 900 m, however this range decreases to 500-600 m if the object is stationary. Dogs have a temporal resolution of between 60 and 70 Hz, which explains why many dogs struggle to watch television, as most such modern screens are optimized for humans at 50–60 Hz. Dogs can detect a change in movement that exists in a single diopter of space within their eye. Humans, by comparison, require a change of between 10 and 20 diopters to detect movement.
As crepuscular hunters, dogs often rely on their vision in low light situations: They have very large pupils, a high density of rods in the fovea, an increased flicker rate, and a tapetum lucidum. The tapetum is a reflective surface behind the retina that reflects light to give the photoreceptors a second chance to catch the photons. There is also a relationship between body size and overall diameter of the eye. A range of 9.5 and 11.6 mm can be found between various breeds of dogs. This 20% variance can be substantial and is associated as an adaptation toward superior night vision.
The eyes of different breeds of dogs have different shapes, dimensions, and retina configurations. Many long-nosed breeds have a “visual streak” – a wide foveal region that runs across the width of the retina and gives them a very wide field of excellent vision. Some long-muzzled breeds, in particular, the sighthounds, have a field of vision up to 270° (compared to 180° for humans). Short-nosed breeds, on the other hand, have an “area centralis”: a central patch with up to three times the density of nerve endings as the visual streak, giving them detailed sight much more like a human’s. Some broad-headed breeds with short noses have a field of vision similar to that of humans. Most breeds have good vision, but some show a genetic predisposition for myopia – such as Rottweilers, with which one out of every two has been found to be myopic. Dogs also have a greater divergence of the eye axis than humans, enabling them to rotate their pupils farther in any direction. The divergence of the eye axis of dogs ranges from 12-25° depending on the breed.
Experimentation has proven that dogs can distinguish between complex visual images such as that of a cube or a prism. Dogs also show attraction to static visual images such as the silhouette of a dog on a screen, their own reflections, or videos of dogs; however, their interest declines sharply once they are unable to make social contact with the image.
The frequency range of dog hearing is approximately 40 Hz to 60,000 Hz, which means that dogs can detect sounds far beyond the upper limit of the human auditory spectrum. In addition, dogs have ear mobility, which allows them to rapidly pinpoint the exact location of a sound. Eighteen or more muscles can tilt, rotate, raise, or lower a dog’s ear. A dog can identify a sound’s location much faster than a human can, as well as hear sounds at four times the distance.
While the human brain is dominated by a large visual cortex, the dog brain is dominated by an olfactory cortex. The olfactory bulb in dogs is roughly forty times bigger than the olfactory bulb in humans, relative to total brain size, with 125 to 220 million smell-sensitive receptors. The bloodhound exceeds this standard with nearly 300 million receptors. Dogs can discriminate odors at concentrations nearly 100 million times lower than humans can. The wet nose is essential for determining the direction of the air current containing the smell. Cold receptors in the skin are sensitive to the cooling of the skin by evaporation of the moisture by air currents.
The coats of domestic dogs are of two varieties: “double” being common with dogs (as well as wolves) originating from colder climates, made up of a coarse guard hair and a soft down hair, or “single”, with the topcoat only.
Domestic dogs often display the remnants of countershading, a common natural camouflage pattern. A countershaded animal will have dark coloring on its upper surfaces and light coloring below, which reduces its general visibility. Thus, many breeds will have an occasional “blaze”, stripe, or “star” of white fur on their chest or underside.
There are many different shapes for dog tails: straight, straight up, sickle, curled, or cork-screw. As with many canids, one of the primary functions of a dog’s tail is to communicate their emotional state, which can be important in getting along with others. In some hunting dogs, however, the tail is traditionally docked to avoid injuries. In some breeds, puppies can be born with a short tail or no tail at all.
Types and breeds
While all dogs are genetically very similar, natural selection and selective breeding have reinforced certain characteristics in certain populations of dogs, giving rise to dog types and dog breeds. Dog types are broad categories based on function, genetics, or characteristics. Dog breeds are groups of animals that possess a set of inherited characteristics that distinguishes them from other animals within the same species. Modern dog breeds are non-scientific classifications of dogs kept by modern kennel clubs. Purebred dogs of one breed are genetically distinguishable from purebred dogs of other breeds, but the means by which kennel clubs classify dogs is unsystematic. Systematic analyses of the dog genome has revealed only four major types of dogs that can be said to be statistically distinct. These include the “old world dogs” (e.g., Malamute and Shar Pei), “Mastiff”-type (e.g., English Mastiff), “herding”-type (e.g., Border Collie), and “all others” (also called “modern”- or “hunting”-type).
Some breeds of dogs are prone to certain genetic ailments such as elbow or hip dysplasia, blindness, deafness, pulmonic stenosis, cleft palate, and trick knees. Two serious medical conditions particularly affecting dogs are pyometra, affecting unspayed females of all types and ages, and bloat, which affects the larger breeds or deep-chested dogs. Both of these are acute conditions, and can kill rapidly. Dogs are also susceptible to parasites such as fleas, ticks, and mites, as well as hookworm, tapeworm, roundworm, and heartworm.
Dogs are highly susceptible to theobromine poisoning, typically from ingestion of chocolate. Theobromine is toxic to dogs because, although the dog’s metabolism is capable of breaking down the chemical, the process is so slow that even small amounts of chocolate can be fatal, especially dark chocolate.
The typical lifespan of dogs varies widely among breeds, but for most the median longevity, the age at which half the dogs in a population have died and half are still alive, ranges from 10 to 13 years. Individual dogs may live well beyond the median of their breed.
The breed with the shortest lifespan (among breeds for which there is a questionnaire survey with a reasonable sample size) is the Dogue de Bordeaux, with a median longevity of about 5.2 years, but several breeds, including Miniature Bull Terriers, Bloodhounds, and Irish Wolfhounds are nearly as short-lived, with median longevities of 6 to 7 years.
The longest-lived breeds, including Toy Poodles, Japanese Spitz, Border Terriers, and Tibetan Spaniels, have median longevities of 14 to 15 years. The median longevity of Mixed-breed dogs, taken as an average of all sizes, is one or more years longer than that of purebred dogs when all breeds are averaged. The dog widely reported to be the longest-lived is “Bluey,” who died in 1939 and was claimed to be 29.5 years old at the time of his death; however, the Bluey record is anecdotal and unverified. The longest verified records are of dogs living for 24 years.
Although wild dogs, like wolves, are apex predators, they can be killed in territory disputes with wild animals. Furthermore, in areas where both dogs and other large predators live, dogs can be a major food source for big cats or canines. Reports from Croatia indicate that dogs are killed by wolves more frequently than sheep. Wolves in Russia apparently limit feral dog populations. In Wisconsin, more compensation has been paid for dog losses than livestock. Some wolf pairs have been reported to prey on dogs by having one wolf lure the dog out into heavy brush where the second animal waits in ambush. In some instances, wolves have displayed an uncharacteristic fearlessness of humans and buildings when attacking dogs, to the extent that they have to be beaten off or killed. Coyotes and big cats have also been known to attack dogs. Leopards in particular are known to have a predilection for dogs, and have been recorded to kill and consume them regardless of the dog’s size or ferocity. Tigers in Manchuria, Indochina, Indonesia, and Malaysia, are reputed to kill dogs with the same vigor as leopards. Striped Hyenas are major predators of village dogs in Turkmenistan, India, and the Caucasus. Reptiles such as alligators and pythons have been known to kill and eat dogs.
Despite their descent from wolves and classification as Carnivora, dogs are variously described in scholarly and other writings as carnivores or omnivores. Unlike obligate carnivores, such as the cat family with its shorter small intestine, dogs can adapt to a wide-ranging diet, and are not dependent on meat-specific protein nor a very high level of protein in order to fulfill their basic dietary requirements. Dogs will healthily digest a variety of foods, including vegetables and grains, and can consume a large proportion of these in their diet.
A number of common human foods and household ingestibles are toxic to dogs, including chocolate solids (theobromine poisoning), onion and garlic (thiosulphate, sulfoxide or disulfide poisoning), grapes and raisins, macadamia nuts, as well as various plants and other potentially ingested materials.
In domestic dogs, sexual maturity begins to happen around age six to twelve months for both males and females, although this can be delayed until up to two years old for some large breeds. This is the time at which female dogs will have their first estrous cycle. They will experience subsequent estrous cycles biannually, during which the body prepares for pregnancy. At the peak of the cycle, females will come into estrus, being mentally and physically receptive to copulation. Because the ova survive and are capable of being fertilized for a week after ovulation, it is possible for a female to mate with more than one male.
Dogs bear their litters roughly 56 to 72 days after fertilization, with an average of 63 days, although the length of gestation can vary. An average litter consists of about six puppies, though this number may vary widely based on the breed of dog. In general, toy dogs produce from one to four puppies in each litter, while much larger breeds may average as many as twelve.
Some dog breeds have acquired traits through selective breeding that interfere with reproduction. Male French Bulldogs, for instance, are incapable of mounting the female. For many dogs of this breed, the female must be artificially inseminated in order to reproduce.
Neutering refers to the sterilization of animals, usually by removal of the male’s testicles or the female’s ovaries and uterus, in order to eliminate the ability to procreate and reduce sex drive. Because of the overpopulation of dogs in some countries, many animal control agencies, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), advise that dogs not intended for further breeding should be neutered, so that they do not have undesired puppies that may have to later be euthanized.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, 3–4 million dogs and cats are put down each year in the United States and many more are confined to cages in shelters because there are many more animals than there are homes. Spaying or castrating dogs helps keep overpopulation down. Local humane societies, SPCAs, and other animal protection organizations urge people to neuter their pets and to adopt animals from shelters instead of purchasing them.
Neutering reduces problems caused by hypersexuality, especially in male dogs. Spayed female dogs are less likely to develop some forms of cancer, affecting mammary glands, ovaries, and other reproductive organs. However, neutering increases the risk of urinary incontinence in female dogs, and prostate cancer in males, as well as osteosarcoma, hemangiosarcoma, cruciate ligament rupture, obesity, and diabetes mellitus in either gender.