What to Know About Irish Wolfhounds

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen Claussen, DVM on May 02, 2022
10 min read

Irish wolfhounds are one of the gentle giants of the dog world. They are one of the tallest dog breeds. Their size is imposing, but they typically have a calm demeanor to offset anyone who is nervous about their stature. Their origins go back to ancient times. They were originally kept to hunt wolves, protect people and livestock, and help in battles. In our modern era, the breed has become a faithful and docile companion.

Physical characteristics. Perhaps the most astonishing physical trait of the Irish wolfhound is their height. The minimum Irish wolfhound size for a male dog is around 32 inches high at the shoulder, or withers, meaning that many are taller. When they stand on their hind legs they can be over 7 feet tall. Female dogs are a bit smaller, with a minimum height of 30 inches at the shoulder, or withers. Males weigh around 120 pounds, with females weighing in at around 105 pounds.

The breed has over 10 approved colors as far as the breed standard goes. The most well-known may be grey, but other colors include:

  • Black
  • Blue
  • Brindle (brown with black or brown stripes)
  • Cream
  • Gray and brindle
  • Red
  • Red and brindle
  • Wheaten (similar color range to blonde hair)
  • Red wheaten
  • Silver
  • White
  • Wheaten and brindle

They have a double coat with a soft undercoat and a more wiry overcoat. Their coat has a rough texture, and they usually grow longer hair over their eyes and under their chin. They are typically muscular and lean dogs.

The Irish wolfhound's lifespan is on the short side, like many large dog breeds. Most live just six to eight years.

Irish Wolfhound temperament. Irish wolfhounds are sweet, loyal, and calm dogs. They love to be around their family and enjoy plenty of affection.

Because of their strong prey drive, only let them off-leash in a securely fenced-in area. Otherwise, they may take off after something and get into a dangerous situation.

While the Irish wolfhound's personality doesn't make them much of a guard dog, their imposing size is often a deterrent to strangers.

Like other large dog breeds, they only have moderate energy levels. They'd be very happy to stay home and sleep on the couch, but to be truly healthy and happy they need plenty of exercise like a daily walk.

Grooming needs. Irish wolfhounds don't shed too much. They don't shed their coats seasonally like some other breeds, but just shed a bit here and there. Give them a brushing once a week to keep them looking their best.

Make sure to trim your dog's nails regularly. Overly long nails can lead to walking issues and pain in any dog breed.

As with any dog breed, you should brush your dog's teeth with doggie toothpaste to keep them healthy. Ideally, you should do this once a day or at the very least a few times per week. Some experts estimate that over 60% of dogs kept as pets have gum disease, which can lead to teeth falling out and other health problems.

Nutritional needs. With large breeds such as the Irish wolfhound, it is particularly important to give them a large breed dog food that is specially formulated for the dog's age. There are special foods for large breed puppies, adults, and senior dogs.

Do not give your dog strenuous exercise right before or after eating to prevent a dangerous condition that some large breed dogs can get, called bloat. The condition involves a swelling of the abdomen that can be deadly.

Irish wolfhound exercise. Irish wolfhounds need a moderate amount of exercise. They can be very lazy if you let them, but they are happiest when they have a bit of exercise each day. Take them for a walk or play with them outside. Due to their strong prey drive, keep them on a leash for walks. They also enjoy dog sports like agility courses or tracking.

Irish wolfhound veterinary care. Take your dog to the vet once a year for a checkup. Because they are prone to heart issues, your dog should receive an EKG at their annual visit to check on their heart.

Like all breeds, your dog should receive preventative treatment for fleas, ticks, and heartworm. Talk to your vet about any other preventative medications that could benefit your dog based on your lifestyle.

Irish wolfhounds should also get spayed and neutered if they are not going to be used for breeding. You should talk to your vet to find the right time to spay or neuter.

Your dog also needs to receive the standard vaccinations when they are a puppy, and then every few years as an adult. A dog vaccine schedule may include:

Core vaccines:

  • Distemper. This condition is caused by a virus. The symptoms of distemper include a thickening of the footpads, fever, eye and nose discharge, twitching, and even death. Distemper vaccinations are usually given as part of the DAPP (distemper, adenovirus, parainfluenza, parvovirus) vaccine at 6-8 weeks, 10–12 weeks, 16–18 weeks, 12–16 months, and every one to two years after that.
  • Parvovirus. This virus affects a dog's digestive system, leading to severe vomiting and bloody diarrhea that can lead to death in just a few days if no treatment is given. The vaccine is given as part of the DAPP shot given at 6-8 weeks, 10–12 weeks, 16–18 weeks, 12–16 months, and every one to two years after that.
  • Adenovirus. This virus is a form of hepatitis that causes jaundice, liver pain, vomiting, and more. This vaccine is given as part of the DAPP shot at the previously mentioned intervals, first at 6-8 weeks, then again at 10–12 weeks, 16–18 weeks, 12–16 months, and every one to two years after that.
  • Parainfluenza. Canine parainfluenza can cause kennel cough. This vaccine is given as part of the DAPP shot at the previously mentioned intervals of 6-8 weeks, then again at 10–12 weeks, 16–18 weeks, 12–16 months, and every one to two years after that.
  • Rabies. Spread through a bite from an infected animal, rabies causes symptoms like headache, drooling, fear of water, paralysis, and death. Treatment is required within hours of an animal bite to prevent death. Because of this, most states require rabies vaccinations at regular intervals for all dogs.

As recommended by your veterinarian:

  • Bordetella. This vaccine prevents one type of bacteria that causes kennel cough. Your vet may recommend this shot around six to eight weeks old, and then again every six to 12 months depending on your lifestyle.
  • Leptospirosis. This vaccine is given optionally, depending on your dog's lifestyle. The bacteria causes fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms. Luckily, this condition can be treated with antibiotics. But, it can pass between animals and people, so it is best to prevent it altogether.
  • Lyme disease. This is the same condition that humans can get after being bitten by an infected tick. The Lyme disease vaccine prevents infection in dogs. It is also given optionally depending on your lifestyle and where you live.
  • Coronavirus. This vaccine is not related to COVID-19. There are many different types of coronaviruses. In dogs, a specific coronavirus can cause severe digestive issues. This vaccine is also given optionally.
  • Canine influenza. Similar to humans, dogs can also get the flu. However, the flu virus that dogs get is different from the ones we humans have. There is a vaccine for dog influenza that may prevent some infections. Even if it doesn’t prevent infection, your dog’s bout of flu may be shorter and less severe if they are vaccinated.

Heart problems. Because of their large size and genetic tendencies, these dogs are prone to heart issues, especially a condition called cardiomyopathy. The condition causes arrhythmia, sometimes leading to congestive heart failure. If your dog develops this condition, they may seem weak or not themselves, and may not want to exercise. However, some Irish wolfhounds do not show any symptoms, which is why an annual EKG is essential.

Early detection and treatment of cardiomyopathy can improve the outcome. Your vet can prescribe medications to reduce arrhythmia, strengthen the heart muscle, and block hormones that contribute to heart disease.

Osteochondritis dissecans. Irish wolfhound puppies grow a lot. Improper nutrition or exercise can lead to bone and joint development issues. Growth that is too quick can lead to osteochondritis dissecans in this breed, a condition where the cartilage separates from the bone. Puppies most often develop this condition between six and nine months old. Symptoms include a limp, and yelping when you touch the affected joint. Treatment includes rest, anti-inflammatory medications, and physical therapy. If that doesn't work, your vet may recommend surgery.

Rear-end weakness. At least one out of five Irish wolfhounds who are eight years of age or older have rear-end weakness. It can be caused by arthritis or other bone and joint conditions. It often leads to the point that the dog can no longer walk. Addressing the underlying cause, such as anti-inflammatory medication for arthritis, may help, in addition to alternative treatments like acupuncture.

Elbow and hip dysplasia. Like other large breeds, Irish wolfhounds can get elbow and hip dysplasia. With hip dysplasia, the ball and socket joint does not fit together properly. Over time, the bones grind together and wear down, causing arthritis, pain, and difficulty moving. Elbow dysplasia occurs when the dog’s ulna, one of the bones in the lower leg, is malformed, also leading to arthritis in the joint. You may notice the symptoms of dysplasia between the age of five to nine months.

Symptoms of dysplasia include lameness or limping that is worse after exercise and never fully goes away, even after resting. Your dog may also show signs of not wanting to exercise. They may flat-out refuse walks or activities they previously enjoyed. Severe cases of hip or elbow dysplasia are treated with surgery. Physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, and joint supplements may also help in mild cases or cases in which surgery is not an option.

Osteosarcoma. Bone cancer is one of the most common causes of death for Irish wolfhounds. Symptoms include limping, a visible lump on a limb, and not wanting to put weight on a limb. Treatment includes amputating the affected limb and then chemotherapy if cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Bloat. Bloat is a condition that causes a sudden and extreme swelling of the stomach. The swelling can be so severe that it cuts off the blood supply to the stomach, damaging the tissue. If your dog seems uncomfortable, tries to vomit but can't, or has a solid, swollen, and hollow-sounding abdomen, go to the vet right away.

Liver Shunt. This is a liver deformity that all Irish wolfhound puppies should get tested for before going to their forever homes. After birth, if the blood vessels that once helped the mother filter the puppies blood in utero do not close properly, the puppy’s own liver will not be able to properly filter the blood. Toxins build up in their bloodstream and lead to symptoms like seizures, blindness, confusion, and depression.

You can manage the condition with a high protein diet, supplements like BCAAs, and prescription medications to manage the symptoms. In some cases, surgery may be appropriate to close the blood vessels properly. Without surgery, and with medical management only, the lifespan of a dog with a liver shunt may be two to four years. With surgery, your dog may live its normal lifespan.

Irish Wolfhound Startle Disease. This genetic disorder is primarily found in Irish wolfhounds from the US. The symptoms are low birth weight, tremors, and trouble breathing. You will start to notice this when a puppy is five to seven days old. The symptoms are usually induced by activity or touching, and the puppies usually can not stand up. There is no treatment for the disease. Because it is genetic, test any dogs you plan to use for breeding for this disease.

Irish wolfhounds are cautious around strangers, but they don't bark much. They are also not big droolers.

Due to their strong hunting instincts, they may not be very good with other animals, especially those smaller than them. They may be cautious of other dogs at first, but with a slow and supervised introduction, they may happily become part of "the pack”.

They can be very patient with children. However, young kids might be afraid of their large stature and must be introduced carefully. Because of their size, you should always supervise playtime with your Irish wolfhound and small kids.

These dogs are not hypoallergenic, though they do shed less than some other dog breeds. 

Irish wolfhounds were known in ancient Ireland as fierce hunting and war dogs. Some Irish chieftains used the Gaelic word for dog, cú, as part of their name, to show they were just as fierce as these dogs. During these ancient times, Irish wolfhounds were primarily owned by royalty and noble families. They were prized gifts, and were often given in groups of seven.

They spread throughout the Roman empire and became prized possessions. One dog was so ferocious and famous that a nobleman offered "three score hundred" cows and a chariot with two horses as payment for it. They could kill wolves with one stroke, and were often used for the protection of people and livestock.

Later, in the 1200s, an Irish wolfhound named Gelert became the subject of a much-loved tale. Llewellyn, the prince of Wales, returned home from hunting and saw the baby's bassinet overturned with blood on the floor. He immediately stabbed Gelert, believing the dog had killed the baby. However, the baby crawled out from under some clothing and Llewellyn saw the dead wolf that Gelert had killed to protect the baby.

However, wolves became extinct in Ireland in the 1700s. So, by the 1800s, the Irish wolfhound was nearly extinct as well. However, one breed enthusiast decided to bring it back by breeding country dogs thought to have some Irish wolfhound in them, with Scottish deerhounds, great Danes, a borzoi, and one Tibetan mastiff. No one knows how similar today's wolfhounds are to the ferocious dogs of ancient times. However, the modern dogs are loyal, well-loved, and friendly companions who don't seem to be in danger of going extinct again anytime soon.