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The Akita is the largest of the six Japanese spitz-type dogs. For several hundred years, these dogs were used in male-female pairs to hold game such as bear, boar, deer at bay until the hunter arrived. They have also been used to retrieve waterfowl.
They have been rumored to have been kept by the aristocracy or wealthy people but interestingly, when the Allied forces occupied Japan after WWII, American GIs saw the Akita, though there were very few left. The GIs were very attracted to the massive-sized dog and the Akita became one of many “Japanese Souvenirs” brought to the US along with Japanese swords, helmets, etc.
The Japanese saw a business opportunity and began mass producing Akita dogs to sell to the Americans from pet stores in Tokyo. Some breeders began advertising the Akita as “a dog of the Shoguns, a Dog of Royalty.” The tall tales of royal dogs, etc., stuck with the Akita in the United States and was even incorporated into the early literature distributed by the AC There was no truth to the advertisements but the Americans fell for it (may have made them feel as if they were taking a little piece of the Emperor with them).
At the end of the 19th century, the Japanese crossed this large dog with non-native dogs (such as the Tosa Fighting Dog, German Shepherd Dog, St. Bernard, Mastiff) to increase their size and strength for pit fighting.
In 1919, concerned by the Japanese breeds’ potential extinction, the Japanese included the large spitz-type dog (by then called the Akita after the prefecture on the northern part of Honshu Island where it had become well known as a fighting dog) in a list of natural monuments to be preserved. At that time, most of the Akitas resembled the crossbred fighting dog. It was not until 1931 that enough dogs that resembled the current idea of a purebred Akita were found, and the Akita became the first of the Japanese native dogs to be declared a natural monument. The Akita gradually lost its popularity as a fighting dog because other breeds proved more efficient fighters (and dog fighting had been outlawed).
During World War II, the breed was nearly lost because many Akitas, especially those in the cities, were killed for food or for their pelts. The breed was re-established in Japan from the best of the remaining dogs. Although the first Akita to come to the United States was the puppy given to Helen Keller on her visit to Japan in 1937, breeding stock did not arrive until Akitas were brought here in some numbers after WWII by servicemen stationed in Japan. They were probably not used as guard dogs by the military; both US and Japan military used German Shepherd Dogs then (and Malinois today) [source, Bouyet].
Best suited as a companion now, some Akitas also work as sled, police, therapy, guard and hunting dogs. Several have herding titles, and several are trained companions of hearing- and sight-impaired people. In general they are discerning guardians of their families. Because of their dog fighting and hunting background, most Akitas are dog aggressive and can be small animal aggressive.
In 1992 Akitas ranked 33rd in popularity among the 135 breeds recognized then by the AKC. The Akita stud book in the United States closed in 1972; no Akitas imported from Japan after that were able to be registered with the AKC. That led to two main types of Akitas being developed: American Akitas tend to be larger and stockier, often with a black mask; while Japanese Akitas are more refined and stylized, with the only allowed colors being brindle, white, and red with white markings. Akitas in other countries are of both types. In 1992 the AKC recognized the Japan Kennel Club, so Akitas from Japan (JKC-registered) can again be registered with the AKC. Some people would like to have two separate breeds, the Japanese Akita and the American Akita; others prefer to have one breed, the Akita.
The breed seems to have stabilized after a dramatic increase in registrations in the 1980s. Akitas are sold in pet shops; many of these have been bred in “puppy mills,” with little attention paid to type, health, and temperament. See later sections on how to locate a responsible breeder or how to get a rescued Akita.
Characteristics and Temperament
Coat and Grooming
Twice a year, Akitas “blow” their undercoats, that is, they shed their undercoats completely. It is a very intense shedding period that can last up to three weeks from start to finish. The good news is that this only happens twice a year. The remainder of the time, Akitas are relatively shed-free. Some people feel that this periodic problem is easier to cope with than the constant shedding and renewal of many smooth-coated breeds. The bad news is that the shedding period can be rather messy. The hair comes out in large and small clumps. Lots of vacuuming and brushing are in order. Akitas that are neutered, live indoors, or live in a temperate climate (without much seasonal change) tend to shed smaller amounts year-round and don’t go through such dramatic loss of coat.
The Akita needs very little grooming except when blowing coat. No trimming or shaving of coat hair is required or recommended, just occasional regular brushing to remove de ad hair and keep the coat fresh and shiny. Nails should be kept short (so you can’t hear them “click” as they walk) and hair on the bottom of the feet should be trimmed to preserve the characteristic tight “cat foot” of the breed.
Note: There are long coated Akitas (a fault) that require more grooming; wooden rakes with several rows of metal teeth work well on their coats.
The Akita is a noble breed – dignified, intelligent, loyal, devoted, courageous , and aloof to strangers. Akitas can adapt to many different situations and can be marvelous watchdogs (typically not barking unless there’s a good reason) and companions. They require a great deal of socialization as puppies, and obedience training is very important as Akitas are dominant dogs and tend to be aggressive towards other dogs, especially of the same sex.
Care and Feeding
Akitas, as a rule, do not do well on a food high in soybeans, which is the primary source of protein in most commercial, supermarket dog foods. They do well on meat and bone meal-based foods and those with fish meal. Twice daily feeding throughout their adult lives is recommended to lessen the chance of bloat (see below for more information on bloat). Some people add a daily natural kelp tablet for the additional iodine.
One other thing worth mentioning here is how long to feed puppy food. Some research indicates that feeding puppy food for too long can increase the incidence of hip dysplasia in dogs that are susceptible to it. The theory is that the higher percentage of protein found in puppy formulas can accelerate growth before the developing skeleton can support the weight. Some breeders start feeding adult food very soon. Most people gradually switch to adult dog food at 8-10 months. Again, this is something to discuss with your breeder and veterinarian.
Since some Akitas are jumpers, a high fence (5′ or higher) is necessary if they are kept outside. Akitas prefer to be with their families and do well as house dogs. If they are kept outdoors, they should have a dog run or a securely fenced yard. Leaving them tied outside without a protective fence may make them more aggressive. Because of their high pain threshold, invisible fences or electric fences aren’t a reliable method of containment. With their double coat, Akitas handle cold weather well but should always have shelter. With shade and fresh water, they can also tolerate hot weather. Akitas should be kept on leash when off their property because of their independence and animal aggressiveness.
Since Akitas can be dog aggressive, they must be “tempered” with obedience training. They need to know who’s boss and will test the boundaries in an attempt to become the alpha. Early correction is important to maintain control of an Akita.
Akitas do not respond well to harsh methods of training. Motivational methods, with patience, kindness, consistency and firmness work better. Early socialization in puppy kindergarten is highly recommended. In general Akitas are clean dogs, which makes housebreaking easier than in many breeds. Crates are highly recommended.
It is debatable how much exercise an Akita needs but a large fenced-in yard is ideal for this breed. Akitas usually take well to weight-pulling and sledding, though as a breed they are not highly represented in such activities. Puppies should not pull any significant weight or do roadwork until their bones and joints have matured at about 18 months.
Look for a reputable breeder when selecting your Akita puppy. Ask if the parents’ hips were checked for hip dysplasia and their eyes for PR. Because of their background as a fighting dog, there are some breeders deliberately producing Akitas with poor temperament. Be careful to avoid these breeders when picking out your puppy. While many Akitas are dog aggressive, especially when adult, they should not be vicious nor aggressive with people, and puppies should not exhibit these behaviors.
If the breeder brags about what great protection dogs the puppies will make, your alarm should go off. Also, examine the adult Akitas the breeder has. Do they have the temperament you want your pup to have when grown? A little care will let you avoid these breeders. Look for someone who took considerable care in socializing the puppies and who has adults that would be a joy to have.
When you pick up your puppy, your breeder can tell you the puppy’s schedule and brand of food and can recommend a future diet. Then you can gradually change the diet to suit your preferences. Remember that sudden changes in diet can severely disrupt the puppy’s digestive system and cause gastric distress. The Akita can eat quite a bit, especially as a young and rapidly growing puppy.
The Akita is a large, impressive and strong working dog. Its heritage must be taken into consideration by a prospective dog owner. This breed cannot be fed and forgotten – it must be given a chance to be a member of the family. It needs love, training, and exercise. More dog than a first-time dog owner may want to try, the Akita is for assertive, dog-oriented people.
Health/Special Medical Problems
Canine Hip Dysplasia
The incidence of hip and elbow dysplasia in Akitas (as in many large breed) can be a problem. However, any Akitas used for breeding should, among other things, be OFA (Orthopedic Foundation for Animals) x-rayed at 2 years of age, and only dogs that are certified normal (or better) should be bred. OFA certification cannot be granted prior to 24 months of age and many people get preliminary x-rays after 8 months of age. Other alternatives to OFA are having x-rays read by a certified board radiologist or having x-rays taken by a new system called PennHip. Conscientious efforts of breeders have kept the incidence of this condition moderate in the Akita.
Akitas are subject to hypothyroidism and allergic skin diseases, both of which can often be treated. Incidence of hypothyroidism seems to be increasing, and sometimes skin diseases are a result of thyroid dysfunction. A number of Akitas have been put down because of skin problems thought to be unmanageable. Current research indicates maternal antibodies as a major cause of hypothyroiditis. An untested mother, if affected by the disease and not demonstrating visible symptoms, will have circulating antibodies to the disease.
When the fetus begins developing its own thyroid tissue, the antibodies attack brain tissue. In humans, it causes mental retardation but in dogs, it is believed to cause behavior problems. Once the fetus begins nursing, additional antibodies are passed to the newborn in the colostrum, eventually damaging the thyroid gland of the receipent. Studies indicate a euthyroid (normal on medication) mother is no longer circulating antibodies, thereby producing normal offspring. If each female is tested BEFORE breeding, in 5-10 generations, lymphocytic hypothyroiditis could greatly diminish. A complete thyroid panel, including T3, T4. free T3, free T4 and an antibody test are important. A subclinical bitch may not be showing visible symptoms therefore, only a blood test could determine an affected bitch.
Possible congenital eye defects. Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and central progressive retinal atrophy (CPRA) have appeared in a number of breeds, including Akitas. These problems are an inherited disease and can cause sudden or gradual blindness. Careful screening of potential breeding pairs has helped reduce the incidence of these problem in the breed.
Congenital ocular defects include micropthalmia (small eyes), congenital cataracts (present at birth), posterior lenticonous (lens abnormally shaped), retinal dysplasia (retina developed abnormally). Entropion (eyelids rolling inward) and ectropion (eyelids rolling outward) can also be problems. Two other eye conditions that Akitas can get that have inherited tendencies are glaucoma and uveitis (associated with the autoimmune syndrom, VKH). Annual CERF exams are recommended for Akitas.
Other disorders include autoimmune hypothyroiditis, immune-mediated blood disorders, sebaceous adenitis, pemphigus foliaceus, lupus, atopic dermatitis, and vitiligo.
Some less common disorders are idopathic epilepsy, myasthenia gravis, diabetes, Cushings’ and Addison’s disease, chondrodysplasia, and congenital enamel hypoplasia (sometimes called “Akita teeth”).
Akitas have several red cell anomalies in their blood – microcytosis and high red cell K+ content (which can lead to a false diagnosis of hyperkalemia). In any blood work on Akitas, red cells should be separated immediately from plasma for accurate results.
As with other large, deep-chested breeds, Akitas are prone to bloat. Bloat is a serious condition where the stomach rotates, closing off both ends, and starts to produce gas; this condition can kill quickly. Some preventive measures include feeding your dog in smaller multiple portions (two smaller meals a day being better than one large meal a day), refraining from exercising your dog immediately after his meal, and either soaking kibble in water before feeding or ensuring your dog doesn’t drink a lot of water immediately after eating. You should discuss this condition with your vet: s/he can list the obvious symptoms and show you some emergency measures you can take to save his life if you find yourself rushing to the emergency room in a race against time.
Frequently Asked Questions
Akitas are supposed to be “dog aggressive”. Will I have trouble with other dogs in general? How about with other Akitas?
Akitas, even those that get along quite well with other dogs, often become dog aggressive at adolescence or adulthood, basically because they are a dominant breed and don’t back down from challenges. Because of this dominance, two strange Akitas may be more inclined to be aggressive than one Akita with a less dominant breed. Akitas of the same sex are more likely to fight than those of the opposite sex. This is why it is recommended that Akitas not be allowed off leash off their own property.
What is this business with “unusual blood cells”?
Akitas, along with one type of poodle, often have smaller red blood cells than other dogs. It is not known why. This can sometimes lead to misinterpretations of blood test results.
Are Akitas friendly or reserved with other people?
Typically Akitas are reserved with people other than their families, but many are quite friendly. As with any dog, you should ask permission before petting an Akita.
I’ve heard the breed called Akita Inu, too. Are they related to Shiba Inus?
“Inu” means “dog” in Japanese; the Akita is the largest of the native spitz-type Japanese dogs and the Shiba is the smallest.