What To Know About Basenjis

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen Claussen, DVM on April 29, 2022
7 min read

Basenjis are most likely the oldest, and certainly one of the strangest, dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC). They’re members of the hound group. 

They’re sometimes called the African barkless dog because they originated in Africa and don’t bark, although they do manage to make other sounds. Basenjis aren’t right for every home. but the people that do own them are entirely devoted to this unique breed. 

How big do Basenjis get? Basenjis are medium-sized dogs. The males are slightly larger than the females. 

On average, males reach about 17 inches in height and females reach 16 inches at the shoulder. A healthy male has an average weight of 24 pounds while a healthy female weighs an average of 22 pounds. Talk to your veterinarian if you’re concerned that your pet is too far under or overweight.

Body shape. Basenjis have compact, graceful bodies. They have moderate chests and long, straight legs that end in small, rounded feet. 

Their erect ears are set towards the front of their heads. Their foreheads are wrinkled. Their tails are tightly curled and set high on their hindquarters. 

All of these features combine to produce another basenji trait, their distinctive gait. With their sleek, contained bodies these dogs are capable of intense movement. They’re sometimes referred to as miniature racehorses because of this stride. 

How long do Basenjis live? Basenjis have a reasonable lifespan for their size. The average basenji will live between 13 and 14 years. This means that you can expect a long life with your dog, especially if you get them as a puppy. 

Coat. The basenji’s coat is smooth and short. It glistens in the sun. They come in at least nine recognized color combinations including: 

  • Black and white
  • Black, brindle, and white
  • Cream and white
  • Red and white
  • Blue, cream, and white

Their coats can also have distinct patterns. In most cases, all of their feet, their underbellies, and their tail tips are white. They can also have marks like black masks.  

Eyes. They have almond-shaped eyes that are set into their heads at a slight slant. Eyes come in a range of colors, from hazel to dark brown. 

Personality. The basenji personality is that of an independent, intelligent dog. The AKC rates them a moderate three out of five for both their affection for their family and their playfulness. 

The breed survived half-wild for centuries in Africa and this is reflected in their personality. The basenji temperament is defined by their alert attention to their surroundings. They’re poised hunters that are capable of looking after themselves. 

They can also be good family dogs. For the right family, basenjis can be loyal and loving pets. 

Grooming. Basenji grooming is exceptionally easy because they mostly prefer to do it themselves. Members of this breed lick their bodies all over — just like cats. This means that a quick rub with a grooming glove or brush once a week is all that you need to keep their coats looking their best.

The breed never develops that distinct doggy smell so you’ll only need to give them a bath if they get into something that’s exceptionally messy. 

To complete their grooming routine you should:

  • Trim their nails as needed
  • Check their ears for debris and clean them on a weekly basis
  • Brush their teeth often — daily is best, but at least twice a week 

Feeding. Make sure that your dog has access to clean water at all times. 

Find a high-quality dog food brand that your particular dog enjoys or make their food yourself. Talk to your veterinarian about the best foods to include in a homemade mix and any necessary dietary requirements for their age, although most may recommend a commercial diet. 

The amount that you feed your dog will depend on their size and age. Make sure you know what human foods are safe for your dog to eat

Exercise and Mental Stimulation. Basenjis are full of energy and need a lot of exercise every single day. 

They also need their activities to be varied so they remain mentally occupied. Otherwise, these dogs become bored and temperamental. 

You can engage them with long daily play sessions or let them run on a lead. They also thrive in canine sports like agility, tracking, and lure coursing. 

Veterinary visits, medications, and immunizations. Your veterinarian is the best person to determine all of the vaccinations that your pet needs. But all dogs will need a core set. 

This includes vaccinations for:

These can begin as early as six weeks of age, but the exact vaccination schedule will depend on your situation. You need to talk to your veterinarian to find out which non-core vaccinations are recommended for your breed and physical location. 

Dosages for flea and tick medications are based on your dog's weight and used as needed. Oral and skin-based applications are available from your veterinarian or other distributors.

Many of these medications can be effective against a variety of pests and parasites. Your veterinarian will have the best recommendations for your location. Additionally, heartworm medication is recommended year-round in all parts of the U.S.

The basenji breed has existed for thousands of years with little human intervention. This has created a rather healthy breed, but some health issues are still present in current breeding populations. 

Basenji health issues can include: 

  • Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). This is a genetic condition that affects your dog’s eye function. It can eventually lead to blindness. Some versions can be detected with a genetic test. 
  • Fanconi syndrome. This is a kidney condition that leads to an excessive loss of nutrients in your dog. It can be treated with supplements if caught early but will lead to death if it’s not diagnosed in time. 
  • Immunoproliferative small intestinal disease (IPSID). This is a type of irritable bowel syndrome that, for unknown reasons, is more common in this breed than others.
  • Hip dysplasiaThis is a common condition in dogs where the ball and socket of their hip joint do not fit properly together.  It’s less common in this breed than in others. Just over three percent of basenjis have problematic cases of this dysplasia. 
  • Patellar luxation. This is a common cause of lameness in dogs that’s due to problems with your pet’s knee joint. They could be born with it or develop the problem from an injury. The treatment will depend on how severe your dog’s condition is but could include surgery.
  • HypothyroidismJust over five percent of the breed have this issue. It could be caused by a condition called autoimmune thyroiditis. 

The basenji breed is very distinct so there are a number of things to keep in mind before making one part of your family. 

First, make sure that you have the right kind of space for your pet. These dogs love the outdoors but need very high fences or constant supervision. They can climb competently and have an incredible vertical jump. 

This jump is meant to help them hunt in African grasslands but also lets them escape from many modern enclosures that would hold other dogs. When you combine these traits with a strong prey instinct, you get a dog that needs to be supervised most of the time. 

If your basenji is left to roam or taken off-leash, they’re bound to begin chasing something almost immediately. This could be a cat or a small child. They’ll chase anything that looks or acts like prey. 

They’re only moderately good with young children, other dogs, and strangers. Early training is necessary to keep them sociable and obedient. But they aren’t an easy breed to train. 

Basenji are willful, stubborn animals so training one is more like training a cat than a dog. They become bored quickly, so brief, positive bursts of encouragement are the best way to train them.  

Luckily they rarely, if ever, drool and they aren’t able to bark. But this doesn’t mean that the dogs are silent. Instead, they make a sound almost like a yodel or chortle.  

Although there’s no way to know for sure, Basenjis are likely one of the oldest dog breeds still alive today. According to paleontological records, they very closely resemble the first dogs that humans domesticated. 

The first definitive record of these dogs is thousands of years old, dating from a period when they were given as gifts to Egyptian Pharaohs. But the breed was already well established at this time. Their image is found throughout ancient Egyptian art as well as even earlier Babylonian and Mesopotamian works. 

They may have been bred to hunt rats that lived in the reeds at the edges of the Nile river. 

When these ancient civilizations collapsed, the dogs persisted in a semi-wild form near the Nile and Congo rivers and their tributaries. The breed remained relatively unchanged throughout the intervening millennia until it was introduced to Europe in the late 1800s. 

In 1895 the first breeding pair was brought to England, but they both died before they could produce a litter. The next pair wasn’t brought to England until 1937. This time, the dogs were displayed to the public as exotic curiosities. 

People fell in love with them, but the breed faced another hurdle before it became established in the west. The female and her first litter all died before the babies were mature. 

Luckily, a breeder from Boston had just acquired another female named Congo. The male from this second English mating attempt, named Bois, was sent to Boston to join her. The result was the first Western litter of Basenjis. The U.S. population has been slowly growing since then with the addition of a few more individuals to the gene pool. 

Today the breed is considered a bit of a cult sensation — there’s a very small population and their owners are devoted to the breed.