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Rhodesian Ridgeback - History and Health

Source: PetWave, Updated on July 16, 2015
Rhodesian Ridgeback


The Rhodesian Ridgeback is an ancient breed developed in South Africa thousands of years ago. The nomadic Khoi people (also known as the Hottentots) and the South African Bushmen had medium-sized, reddish brown dogs with a distinctive ridge of hair running down the center of their backs, which they used for hunting, herding and guarding their livestock from wild predators. The Ridgeback became especially adept at fighting off lions and leopards, especially if their owners were threatened.

In 1652, a Dutch merchant named Jan van Riebeck settled in South Africa and began trading cattle for the native dogs. Other immigrants from Holland, Germany and France followed, becoming Boers (farmers) with their own Africaan language. They crossed the Khoi dogs with their Mastiffs, Bloodhounds, Great Danes, Pointers, Staghounds, Irish Wolfhounds and Greyhounds, among others, to create a breed better adapted than the European breeds to life in Africa and especially well-suited to track wild game. According to an American Kennel Club publication: “The Boers (Africaans for farmers) needed a dog that was resistant to local diseases; able to thrive in spite of extreme temperatures, limited water, rough bush, and relentless ticks; and an extraordinarily brave and cunning hunter, all while being a loyal family dog. Mating European breeds to native ridged Khoi hunting stock, the Boers produced unique dogs that hunted by both sight and scent and were devoted family guardians.”

These various crosses developed into the Steekbaard (“prickly beard”) and Vuilbaard (“dirty beard” or “wooly beard”) Africaan working farm dogs, which later became known as Boerhounds, or “farmer’s dogs,” with their distinctive ridge of hair along their backs. In the 1830s, many farmers in southern Africa moved north to avoid British rule, and they took their dogs with them. In 1873, the Reverend Charles Helm journeyed north up the African continent and found a dense population of ridge-hounds in a remote population of native people. He acquired two slightly built females in 1875 and continued north. Thereafter, a big game hunter named Cornelius Van Rooyen, who farmed in southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), selectively bred his dogs to the Helm dogs to develop a courageous, determined and fearless hunter willing to and capable of tracking and holding lions and leopards at bay. He crossed the ridge-backed females with his Greyhounds, Great Danes, Irish Terriers, English Pointers, Bulldogs and Rough Collies, and his dogs soon became known as the Van Rooyen Lion Dogs.

In 1922, after Van Rooyen’s death, a group of breed fanciers under the leadership of Francis Richard Barnes developed a standard for the breed, which remains virtually unchanged today. These dogs became known as Rhodesian Ridgebacks and are the national dog of South Africa. The breed came to England in the 1930s and to the United States shortly thereafter. It rapidly gained popularity. The American Kennel Club officially recognized the Ridgeback in 1955 as a member of the Hound group. The Rhodesian Ridgeback Club of the United States became a member of the AKC in 1971, and the breed was recognized as a sighthound for competition in AKC lure coursing trials in 1992.

Health Characteristics

The average life expectancy for the Rhodesian Ridgeback is between 10 and 12 years. Breed health concerns may include the following:

  • Cataracts: Refers to any opacity of the lens of the eye. Dogs of either gender can develop cataracts
  • Cerebellar Degeneration
  • Deafness: Defined as the lack or loss, complete or partial, of the sense of hearing
  • Dermoid Sinus
  • Entropion: The inversion, or the turning inward, of all or part of the edge of an eyelid
  • Eversion of the Cartilage of the Nictitating Membrane
  • Elbow Dysplasia: Leads to malformation and degeneration of the elbow joint, with accompanying front limb lameness
  • Hip Dysplasia: Involves abnormal development and/or degeneration of the coxofemoral (hip) joint
  • Hypothyroidism: a clinical syndrome caused by inadequate production and release of the thyroid hormones triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4)
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