Most experts agree that the Cirneco dell’Etna’s ancestors came from the Nile river valleys of ancient Egypt. Prick-eared dogs apparently arrived in Sicily with Phoenician traders, as they travelled between Northern Africa and ports along the Mediterranean coast long ago. Some authorities suggest that the Cirneco may actually be an entirely Sicilian breed without roots in Egypt. Either way, Cirnechi held special spiritual, symbolic and religious importance for ancient Sicilians and were depicted in their art and other artifacts. Towns throughout Sicily used engravings of prick-eared dogs on minted coins between the 5th and 2nd centuries B.C.
Over the centuries, the Cirneco dogs adjusted to their harsh environment, becoming smaller and especially well-adapted to the landscape of their volcanic homeland. The Sicilian islanders left their dogs’ development largely to nature. The absence of human tinkering and the Cirnechi’s geographical isolation are rather unique among modern dog breeds and likely are responsible for this breed’s resilience and good health. Limited food sources, constant inbreeding and the lack of wide-open spaces to mingle probably account for its gradual reduction in size.
The first record of the Cirneco dell’Etna’s name appeared in the early 1500s, when the Sicilian government imposed sanctions against anyone caught hunting with this dog, because it was considered destructive to local game, but very little was known about the Cirneco outside Sicily until the 20th Century. In 1932, an Adrano veterinarian, Dr. Maurizio Migneco, published an article in the Italian journal "Il Cacciatore Italiano" (The Italian Hunter), in which he expressed passionate disappointment about the breed’s descent into near-obscurity. After reading this article, a Sicilian aristocrat named the Baroness "Donna Agata" Paternó Castello of the Dukes of Carcaci decided to research and reestablish the ancient breed. For the next 26 years, she worked tirelessly to learn about the Cirnechi’s origins and track down dogs from all over Sicily that she felt were sound representatives of the breed in terms of both temperament and type. She used those dogs in a selective breeding program and consulted with a well-known zoologist, Professor Giuseppe Solaro. He wrote the first Cirneco dell'Etna breed standard, which was adopted by the Italian Kennel Club, Ente Nazionale della Cinofilia Italiana (ENCI), in 1939, a mere 7 years after Dr. Migneco's stirring article. In 1951, Dr. Migneco was appointed the first president of the Italian Cirneco dell’Etna Breed Club, which was founded that same year. The Baroness became the first club secretary. The Italian Kennel Club officially recognized that parent breed club in 1956. The first Cirneco to achieve its Italian Championship title was a bitch named Aetnensis Pupa, bred by Donna Agata herself.
The Cirneco dell’Etna eventually spread across Italy and to several other European countries, including France and Finland. In 1989, the ENCI’s Technical Committee revised the breed standard to bring it in line with the format also approved by the Federation Cynologique International (FCI) that year. Cirnechi have at different times been classified in FCI Group 10 - Sighthound, Group 6 - Scenthound, and most recently as a primitive hunting dog in Group 5 - Spitz and Primitive. The first Cirnechi arrived in the United States in the 1990s. A group of fanciers established the first colony of purebred Cirnechi in this country in 1996. They formed a breed club in 1997. The Cirneco dell’Etna was accepted by American Sighthound Field Association (ASFA) in 1999. The United Kennel Club (UKC) officially recognized the Cirneco in 2006, as a member of its Sighthound and Pariah Group. The American Kennel Club (AKC) also recognized the Cirneco dell'Etna in 2006, as a member of the Foundation Stock Service program. The AKC welcomed the Cirneco into its Miscellaneous Class in January 2012, with a Hound Group designation. The breed is recognized by the American Rare Breed Association (ARBA), but has not yet been recognized by the Canadian Kennel Club (CKC).
The average life span of the Cirneco dell’Etna is 12 to 15 years. Because this breed developed in such an unforgiving, isolated environment, with little manipulation by man and constant inbreeding, there are no widely reported breed-specific health concerns.