Defining the Inuit Dog
Canis familiaris borealis

by Sue Hamilton

© December 2011, The Fan Hitch, all rights reserved
revised: December 2020

I. Introduction
A. The Inuit Dog’s place in the natural world
B. The Inuit Dog is not a wolf!
C. Dangerous confusion

A. The Name Controversy
B. Defining 'Purity'
C. Mistaken Identity: Promoting a breed vs. avoiding
D. The Belyaev Experiment
E. Summary

A.  Ancient history
B. Recent history: The Inuit Dog in service to nations          
1. Exploration
2. War
3. Sovereignty
C. Population decline
A. In the North
B. Below the tree line

A. Inherited diseases
B. Disease prevention and access to veterinary services

A. Appearance
B. Behavior
C. Performance
D. The big picture

VII. The Inuit Dog in Scientific Research, Films and
        in Print

VIII. Acknowledgements
Appendix 1: Partial list of scientific publications about
                     the Inuit Dog

Appendix 2: Selected (alphabetical) list of other resources
                    with a focus on Inuit Dogs

Appendix 3: A small sampling of other resources of

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Editor's/Publisher's Statement
Editor-in-Chief: Sue Hamilton
Webmaster: Mark Hamilton
The Fan Hitch, Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog, is published four times a year. It is available at no cost online at:

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This site is dedicated to the Inuit Dog as well as related Inuit culture and traditions. It is also home to The Fan Hitch, Journal of the Inuit Sled Dog.

Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic
                                     Corel Arctic

V.  Health

     A. Inherited diseases
The Inuit Dog is known to be a robust, hearty and healthy animal. It is, however, not free of inherited or other diseases. Without access to veterinary pathology service in the Arctic, some of the reasons dogs die or are killed most often go undiagnosed. In Antarctica, a huge body of knowledge was generated by the British Antarctic Survey veterinarians who studied the dogs' anatomy, physiology, nutrition, occupational and inherited diseases, work output.1 Outside polar regions, cataracts, cancers, endocrine diseases and bloat have been identified.

The extremely harsh selection process of the arctic environment, along with sound judgment on the part of their owners, dictates that only the fittest examples reproduce. As mentioned in IV B, it is worth repeating here that owners keeping these dogs outside of their native habitat unchallenged by polar conditions are encouraged to take full advantage of veterinary diagnostic technology to screen for debilitating inherited ailments such as hip dysplasia and endocrine diseases, as well as poor reproductive performance so that these animals may be removed as breeding stock, hopefully before a prevalence of their deleterious genes predominate in future generations.

     B. Disease prevention and access to veterinary services
Unfortunately, upon returning home from the 2008 Nunavut Quest, many dogs became sick and died due to communicable diseases that could have been prevented with proper vaccinations. An unnecessary tragedy, this was not the first time epidemics of distemper and parvovirus, spreading from community to community, have decimated populations of northern sled dogs.

A Canadian Animal Assistance Team member
vaccinates a sled dog as its owner assists.
Photo courtesy of CAAT

Because rabies is a zoonotic disease and considered endemic among wild arctic mammals such as foxes and wolves, thus posing a risk to domestic dogs and therefore to humans, a program of rabies vaccine administration in northern communities is well established. However, based on comments received from several northern residents, there is no consistent, reliable program to protect working sled dogs (and therefore the needs of their owners, many of whom continue to rely on dogs for tourism income as well as some hunting and fishing for the preferred "country food" diet) against other preventable diseases which are not considered a threat to humans. The two-pronged problem is that a) according to Canadian law, vaccines to prevent distemper, parvovirus, coronavirus and other communicable dog disease that either exist in wild canids and can be transmitted to domestic ones or are introduced into the arctic, brought north by dogs from outside the region, cannot be administered [by a veterinarian] unless that professional has personally examined the dogs being vaccinated and b) it is not legal for lay individuals such as dog team owners to obtain such vaccines.

Right now, there are almost no permanent veterinary clinics that routinely service the needs of northern communities. These needs include: vaccination, spaying and castrating, wound management, miscellaneous other medical/surgical interventions, first aid training, bite prevention training for community children. Veterinary medical support is a service that is needed and sought out by northern mushers as well as the burgeoning number of owners of non-aboriginal pet dogs now living in a polar climate. Options are few: send a dog south on an expensive airlift to Ottawa or Montreal, airline hubs where veterinary care is available or mushers treat the problem themselves as best they can, sometimes resorting to a bullet to end suffering.

This dog was lucky. Although his fight wound was not fresh,
the Canadian Animal Assistance Team was in the community
in time to successfully surgically repair it.         Photo: CAAT

While Greenland has a veterinary network system, in Canada there are but a few traveling veterinarians who may show up once or twice a year to some of the larger communities such as Iqaluit, Nunavut's capital. There are volunteer teams of veterinarians and technicians such as the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada Atlantic Veterinary College's The Chinook Project which, as long as their program continues to receive grant support, makes an annual pilgrimage to a northern community. Similarly, the Canadian Animal Assistance Team sends crews of veterinarians and technicians to communities across the Canadian North as financial support permits. Quite often these visits are the very first introduction to the concept of medical care for dogs and both the Chinook Project and CAAT have ever so gently introduced traditional concepts on animal keeping practices to modern technology alternatives such as preventative medicine, including spaying and castration, for improved health and work performance. The Chinook Project and the Canadian Animal Assistance Team have been sought out by and invited into northern communities. These professionals come without prejudice or proselytizing. They take an attitude of unselfish service, performing only those procedures they are asked to do, with their enthusiasm encouraging the community's interest and imagination and showing by example all the good that can be done for their dogs and thus for them as well. Both of these organizations report back describing the overwhelming support and gratitude for their services (only performed when asked) which range from vaccinations and de-wormings to spays and castrations, surgical repairs of wounds, tumor excisions and general education programs on veterinary first aid and dog bite prevention for children.2

Chinook Project veterinarians spay a sled dog
during one of the organizations wellness clinics
in Nunavut, Canada. Perhaps some of the audience
will be inspired to become veterinarians.
Photo: Jane Magrath, Chinook Project

1Inuit Sled Dogs in service to the Falkland Islands Dependencies Survey, later to be known as the British Antarctic Survey represented a unique exception to the lack of veterinary care and diagnostics in polar climates. See Appendix 1: Partial list of scientific publications about the Inuit Dog; and the Health, Science and Ethology heading in the Index of Articles by Subject link.

2The appreciation expressed by northern dog owners of both pets and working sled dogs to these volunteer efforts would seem to indicate that the Canadian North needs permanent veterinary centers in their major "hubs", where most airline routes travel to and from, to be staffed by professionals who can organize a system whereby all necessary vaccines are always available and there are trained paraprofessionals, similar to physicians' assistants for humans, to administer them, to serve as the long-distance eyes and hands of the clinic's veterinarian, to teach basic first aid skills and do whatever else the dog owning community needs. But more than that, such a network of support can work in concert with local wildlife biologists and hamlet hunter and trapper organizations to monitor the health of terrestrial and marine mammals and birds, destined to become country food for humans. Zoonotic diseases, illnesses transmissible from animals to humans by various routes, come in more "flavors" than just rabies.

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