Australian Shepherd

Katie Ryan, DVM
Vet Reviewed
By Katie Ryan, DVM on Jun. 8, 2022
Australian Shepherd

IN THIS ARTICLE

General Care

Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent and active medium-sized dogs with natural herding instincts and muscular and agile builds. They were originally bred to be used as working dogs.

Australian shepherds stand between 18-24 inches tall and typically weigh between 40-65 pounds when full grown—with males being generally larger than females.

Caring for an Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds are high-energy dogs that love to have a job. They are known to be intelligent and loyal dogs that are typically friendly but can sometimes take a bit of time to warm up to strangers.

Due to their herding background, Australian Shepherds can have a prey drive, which means they love games like fetch and frisbee. It also means they like to chase and nip at moving objects—like children, cats, cars, and other wheeled objects like scooters, bikes, and golf carts. However, with early socialization, they can live harmoniously with cats, children, and other dogs.

Australian Shepherds historically have docked tails, but this is not for cosmetic reasons. They are either born with naturally bobbed tails or their tails are docked for job-related reasons, such as for identification purposes or to avoid injury.

With their lifestyle and temperament being so high-energy, pet parents of Australian Shepherds need to be considerate of their joint and hip health to ensure healthy mobility at all life stages.

Australian Shepherds are athletic and agile. Without thorough and proper recall training, this breed should be kept on a leash or confined to a secured fenced yard—they are master escape artists if left unattended. 

Australian Shepherd Health Issues

Australian Shepherds are generally healthy dogs with a life expectancy of 12-15 years. However, they are predisposed to a few health issues more common to the breed.

Hip and Elbow Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia and elbow dysplasia are inherited conditions that sometimes afflict Australian Shepherds.

These conditions occur when either the hip or elbow joints develop improperly, resulting in malalignment and development of significant osteoarthritis and pain.

It’s very important that breeders obtain certified screening for these genetic conditions prior to breeding any Australian Shepherd to reduce the risk of passing these conditions on to their puppies.

When purchasing a puppy, check to ensure proper Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) screening or that a PennHIP screening has been performed on the puppy’s parents. If you have adopted an Australian Shepherd or are not able to obtain any parent documentation, you can still get your dog screened for hip and elbow dysplasia to know their risk as they grow.

Dogs with hip or elbow dysplasia will need special care as they age—the amount of care will depend on the severity of the dysplasia. Management options include medications, joint supplements, and therapies. There are also surgical treatment options that can correct malalignment and help improve mobility.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) is a term used for a group of eye diseases. These degenerative diseases affect the photoreceptors in a dog’s retina. Photoreceptors are responsible for helping the dog see better in low light, detecting movement, and detecting color. As the cells atrophy/deteriorate over time, a dog’s vision will deteriorate as well—eventually resulting in incurable blindness.

PRA can present itself anywhere between the ages of 3-9 in dogs. There is also an early onset form of PRA that affects puppies within their first few months of life. This form occurs when the photoreceptors develop abnormally instead of deteriorate over time.

This is an inherited condition, so dogs that have been diagnosed with PRA should not be bred.

PRA is not a painful condition for dogs, and there is no current effective treatment or cure. The first signs of PRA are typically night blindness and increased clumsiness (walking/bumping into things). However, since dogs rely heavily on all their other senses as well, they can live long, happy lives without their vision.

Hereditary Cataracts

Hereditary cataracts can also occur in Australian Shepherds and can be passed on from parents to their litters. Hereditary cataracts most commonly occur in dogs between the age of 1-5 years old.

A cataract is the “clouding” of the lens of a dog’s eye. This clouding prevents the passage of light and images directly to the retina, which reduces a dog’s vision.

Cataracts can progress over time and ultimately lead to blindness or glaucoma. Currently, the only approved treatment option for cataracts is surgery. Your veterinarian can recommend a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist to determine if cataract surgery would be appropriate.

Iris Coloboma

Iris coloboma is another ocular condition that more commonly affects Australian Shepherds. This condition occurs when the iris (the colored part of the eye that surrounds the pupil) fails to develop properly.

The result can be either that the iris is too small—causing no major issues—or that the iris is too big—causing light sensitivity and discomfort. While the light sensitivity and discomfort will not affect quality of life, these will need to be considered when determining the best lifestyle for the dog. In some cases, dog goggles can be used to act as sunglasses and reduce the impact of light sensitivity and the amount of squinting. But to prevent further eye complications, it’s recommended that severely affected dogs are kept out of bright and direct sunlight.

This is an inherited condition, so breeding pairs should be certified to have normal eyes by a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist, with the results recorded through the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) within the previous year. There is no treatment available.

Puppies should have their eyes examined by a veterinary ophthalmologist after 6 weeks of age, and prior to being acquired.

Epilepsy

Primary epilepsy, a seizure disorder caused by an abnormal electrical disturbance in the brain, is another inherited condition seen in Australian Shepherds.

Unfortunately, there is no genetic testing available to identify which dogs may carry genes associated with epilepsy. Depending on the frequency of the seizures, dogs with this condition may require lifelong daily anti-seizure medications to control their symptoms.

Multidrug Resistance Mutation (MDR1)

Multidrug resistance is a genetic mutation most commonly found in herding breeds, including Australian Shepherds.

When dogs have this condition, it can affect how their body processes certain drugs and medications. The MDR1 gene makes dogs more sensitive to certain ingredients found in commonly used medications for flea and tick prevention, heartworm prevention, diarrhea, and certain cancers. The result is that dogs with the MDR1 gene experience more significant side effects to these medicines at doses that would normally be tolerated by dogs of similar size.

The MDR1 gene can be detected with a DNA test. Talk with your veterinarian about testing and DNA test options. They will also be able to provide guidance on alternative medication options that will not lead to drug-related toxicity.

Deafness

Certain genes that control the coat color of an Australian Shepherd can affect their hearing.

Dogs who have two merle-colored parents and have inherited double-merle genes are more likely to be whiter in color. This lack of pigment can affect their hearing as well, especially if there is a lot of white color on the head or ears.

A BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) test can be performed to determine if deafness is present.

Lymphosarcoma

Lymphosarcoma is a cancer seen slightly more commonly in Australian Shepherds.

This disease occurs when the body forms abnormal lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. It often presents as swollen lymph nodes, but these abnormal cells can develop in any organ in the body.

Thankfully, it’s one of the most treatable forms of cancer in veterinary patients, with a good success rate in dogs receiving chemotherapy.

Hemangiosarcoma

Hemangiosarcoma is a devastating cancer that has an increased incidence in Australian Shepherds.

It most commonly presents as a bleeding tumor within the abdomen, typically affecting the spleen and/or liver. It can lead to acute lethargy, weakness, collapse, and pale gums, and is sometimes fatal.

Typically, surgery is required to control the internal bleeding and for definitive diagnosis of the type of tumor.

Unfortunately, even with chemotherapy the prognosis is very poor, with average survival time of 6 to 9 months with both surgery and chemotherapy.

What to Feed an Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds should be fed a high-quality diet, whether commercially manufactured or home cooked under the guidance of your veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. Fresh water should be available at all times.

Australian Shepherds with a working job (i.e., search and rescue, herding on a farm, or guide dogs) or high activity level (i.e., field training, fly ball, run several miles a day, hike frequently) may require a higher protein/higher fat diet to meet their needs. Diets labeled as “performance” or “sport” should be considered under the guidance of a veterinarian.

How to Feed an Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds can be fed normally in a standard pet food bowl.

Meal feeding helps to monitor appetite as well as control intake; this is preferred over filling the bowl and allowing them to graze.

Some Australian Shepherds that are highly food motivated may be prone to eating too fast. For these dogs, it’s worth considering a slow feeder bowl to help them slow down and prevent gastrointestinal upset.

How Much to Feed an Australian Shepherd

How much you feed an Australian Shepherd depends on their life stage, body condition score, activity level, and brand/type of food you’re feeding.

Growing puppies should be fed a standard puppy food until they are spayed/neutered or reach skeletal maturity (approximately 12-16 months). Once they reach their full, adult size, they should be slowly transitioned to a high-quality adult diet or performance diet if they have excessively high energy demands—such as working dogs or dogs that accompany owners on lengthy fitness routines like running and hiking.

Despite their high energy levels, some Australian Shepherds can be prone to gaining weight as they age, so frequent reevaluation of their dietary needs is important. Your veterinarian will also want to have them evaluated and tested for conditions that may promote weight gain, such as hypothyroidism or Cushing’s disease.

Nutritional Tips for an Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherds tend to be very active dogs and can develop osteoarthritis as they age.

Adding in joint supplements as they age at the recommendation of your veterinarian should be considered.

Australian Shepherds also are predisposed to certain eye conditions, so supplements targeting eye health may also be beneficial.

Behavior and Training Tips for an Australian Shepherd

Australian Shepherd Personality and Temperament

Australian Shepherds are loyal, intelligent dogs with a strong character. Many Australian Shepherds are quite friendly, but some can be reserved toward new people. With a proper introduction, they will often warm up and be accepting.

Early socialization is very important. Australian Shepherds can be good with children, cats, and other dogs as long as they are well socialized. Their innate herding tendencies may still result in their attempting to herd and possibly nip other small animals and children if this behavior is not redirected.

Due to their protective nature, Australian Shepherds are apt to bark at strangers and strange noises, but they don’t tend to be excessively vocal unless triggered.

Australian Shepherds are highly energetic and maintain their energy levels through their adult life and sometimes into their senior years. As a result, consistent exercise and mental stimulation is a must for this breed. Without an outlet for their energy, the Australian Shepherd may develop destructive behaviors.

Australian Shepherd Behavior

With proper training, good socialization and adequate regular exercise, Australian Shepherds can be very well-behaved dogs. They are also very loyal and attentive to their owners, so it’s not uncommon for them to become a shadow and follow their pet parents around as much as possible.

In some cases, this attachment to their favorite humans can develop into separation anxiety, so be sure to work with a trainer and develop healthy attachment styles.

Due to their high energy and intelligence levels, Australian Shepherds can find destructive ways to offload their energy, such as digging and chewing, if not properly stimulated mentally and physically on a regular basis.

Australian Shepherds can be more reserved and occasionally become fearful, which can lead to behaviors such as fear biting. Early socialization is very important.

Australian Shepherd Training

Australian Shepherds are very intelligent and motivated dogs that respond to training readily. They thrive on being trained with advanced behaviors, as it helps to exercise their mental drive.

High-level exercise and long-distance running/hiking sessions should be avoided until they are fully grown, which typically occurs between 12-16 months. This helps to ensure they don’t hurt their joints, hips, and elbows during their growth years, which could lead to long-term mobility issues.

Fun Activities for Australian Shepherds

  • Agility training

  • Field trials

  • Herding trials

  • Fly ball

  • Advanced obedience training

  • Hiking

Australian Shepherds excel in working jobs, specifically herding. They also do well in working jobs like police search-and-rescue, guide dogs, and service dogs.

Australian Shepherd Grooming Guide

Australian Shepherds have a double-layer water-resistant coat that comes in many different color patterns, from simple black and white to tricolor and a mixed merle pattern. Their eyes are typically brown or blue.

Since their coat is medium in length, it will require routine upkeep and weekly care. Their active, outdoor lifestyle will also mean they need more frequent grooming.

Skin Care

Weekly brushing sessions will help keep their coat looking best and avoid development of matted fur, which can result in inflammation and infection of the underlying skin.

Coat Care

Australian Shepherds are moderate shedders, so frequent brushing can help to minimize shedding during their shedding season.

Due to their active nature, Australian Shepherds are often outdoors in the mud and dirt, so bathing may also be more frequently necessary.

Close shaving of the hair is not typically recommended, as their double coat helps to protect them from both heat and cold by holding a layer of temperate air close to their body.

Eye Care

Since Australian Shepherds are predisposed to certain eye issues, routinely checking them and monitoring for excessive discharge or change in appearance is a good habit to get into.

Ear Care

With the increased need for bathing and longer hair, clean and check your Australian Shepherd’s ears routinely.

By cleaning their ears, you can prevent infections or the buildup of dirt or debris. These cleanings also ensure that you fully dry your dog’s ears after each grooming session to prevent moisture buildup, which can lead to ear infections.

Considerations for Pet Parents

Australian Shepherds are highly energetic and maintain their energy levels through their adult life. This means they require daily devoted exercise for physical and mental stimulation. Owners must be committed to providing Australian Shepherds with the time and attention they require; otherwise, their undirected energy can make them more likely to exhibit destructive behavior.

Training and socialization will also be a vital part of the Australian Shepherd’s development and mental growth. Australian Shepherds also thrive with advanced training exercises and fun dog sports, so be ready to invest heavily in their training both in time and finances.

This breed also needs to be thoroughly socialized to prevent nipping and attempted herding of children, cats, bicycles or cars. Socialization can also help to prevent separation anxiety or reactive behaviors to strangers such as barking or fear biting.

They are generally healthy with a life expectancy of 12-15 years. Common health conditions include hip and elbow dysplasia, multidrug resistance mutation (MDR1), ocular conditions, epilepsy, and various cancers.

Australian Shepherd FAQs

Is an Australian Shepherd a good family dog?

Australian Shepherds can make excellent family dogs. However, it is important to ensure they are well socialized with children. They may try to nip/herd young children or small animals due to their herding instincts.

Are Australian Shepherds smart dogs?

Australian Shepherds are highly intelligent and very receptive to training and mastering tasks/skills quickly. It also means they are great escape artists and excellent at finding outlets for mental stimulation (no matter how destructive) if not provided constructive ones.

What are the drawbacks of an Australian Shepherd?

Australian Shepherds are high-energy; they require dedicated exercise time daily. They are not suitable for owners who do not have the time to ensure they are properly exercised; they can turn that energy toward destructive behaviors.

Australian Shepherds can be reserved and occasionally become fearful, which can lead to behaviors such as fear biting. Early socialization is very important.

How much do Australian Shepherds cost?

Cost can vary depending on the breeder, location, lineage, and color markings. Average price typically ranges between $500-$2,000.

References


Katie Ryan, DVM
Vet Reviewed

WRITTEN BY

Katie Ryan, DVM

Veterinarian

Dr. Ryan is a 2012 graduate of Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine. Following graduation, Dr. Ryan enjoyed a brief stint in...


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