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Coat length in the Alaskan Malamute
Bring up coat length with any group of Malamute fanciers and it’s almost guaranteed to create a debate. What is a correct coat? When is a coat not correct? What is a functional coat? Are all long coats really long coats? The discussions are endless, and the purpose of this article is not to focus on what is and is not a “correct” coat. Instead I’m going to simply address the specific genetic coat lengths which occur in the Alaskan Malamute.
The AKC standard describes the coat of the Alaskan Malamute as “The coat is thick with a coarse guard coat of sufficient length to protect a woolly undercoat”. It then goes on to say "The Malamute has a thick, coarse guard coat, never long and soft. The undercoat is dense, from one to two inches in depth, oily and woolly. The coarse guard coat varies in length as does the undercoat. The coat is relatively short to medium along the sides
of the body, with the length of the coat increasing around the shoulders and neck, down the back, over the rump, and in the breeching and plume. Malamutes usually have a shorter and less dense coat during the summer months."
Normal Coat - L
From a genetic standpoint, the normal Malamute coat is considered a short coat (or a "smooth" coat in the case of Collies). While still a double coat with a certain amount of length to it, this coat is still comparatively short and lacks true feathering on the legs. It is dominant in nature, and its genetic symbol is "L". Only one gene is responsible for the general length of the coat. Specific length, as well as texture and density, are all determined by modifiers.
Modifier genes do not act on their own, but instead have an affect on another gene. Modifiers come into play with many genes, and they certainly play a roll in Malamute Coat color. Modifiers are responsible for determining how bright a sable dog will be, and they play a major role in dictating the length of the colored tip on agouti and gray dogs (and thus how "dark" they appear).
Coat length is a good example of how modifiers work. The gene for "short" coats (L) dictates that the dog will lack feathering and that the coat length will be within certain parameters. Every dog does not have exactly the same length of coat, however, and it is modifiers which determine the actual hair length within the parameters dictated by the coat length gene. There are likely several modifiers which all work together to determine the exact length of a dog's coat, therefore this is not something that is simple or straightforward to select for. Coat length is not the only feature affected by modifiers. Other modifiers determine coat texture and density. The combination of the coat length gene (L) along with modifiers for length, texture, and density, all come together to determine the actual appearance of a particular dog's coat.
Long Coat - l
There is good evidence to suggest that long coats have historically been a part of the Malamute breed. The gene for long coats also occurs in other "northern spitz" type breeds. It appears periodically in Siberian Huskies, and is what gives Samoyeds their fluffy appearance. Though sometimes called "woollies", that term can be misunderstood because the standard for the breed uses the term woolly several times in another context. There also has been great debate on what a woolly is with some people classifying them as only certain variations of long coats while other people group any dog with a longer than typical coat and lots of thick undercoat under the woolly category regardless of its genetic makeup.
The correct term for the mutation discussed in this article is "long coat". In Corgis long coats are usually called "fluffies". If a nickname must be used, I much prefer this one for long coats as it is less confusing and actually far more descriptive of the coat produced regardless of the variation in appearance.
Long coat in Malamutes is caused by a recessive gene (ll). In Collies the same gene causes a "rough" coat. This coat is both longer all over than a normal or "smooth" coat, and it causes true feathering on the dog's legs. This feathering is also often obvious around the dog's ears, as well as on the tail and britches. Due to modifiers the coat can vary considerably in appearance. Some dogs have coats just slightly longer than normal. Some have silky coats. Others have huge, thick, dense, and very long coats. Regardless of the coat's actual characteristics, all these dogs will have true feathering on the backs of their legs. This feathering is not only distinctly longer than the rest of their leg hair, but it also differs in texture.
Above and below:
Long coats can vary considerably in appearance. All, however, have true feathering on their legs.
While long coats are not always immediately obvious in a litter, experienced breeders can often spot them at birth. Before the coat dries the fur on the back of the ears has a wave to it. Once they dry the coat looks even, so this only applies to newborns.
If the long coats are not spotted at birth, there is no way to identify them until the puppies are big enough and have grown enough guard and under coat. For Malamutes this is typically about 5 weeks of age. Normal coated puppies will have a "halo" effect with the guard coat being just a tad longer than the undercoat. With a really full coated puppy this may require brushing out their coat and holding them up to the sunlight to see. For most long coat puppies the texture of their coat will also be different. When
combed out it is very reminiscent of a cotton ball and will have a sculptured look similar to a Bichon or Poodle. The coat will quickly develop a "clumpy" look, will become messy looking very easily, and debris will stick to it more readily than to the normal coated siblings.
Though the fact that a puppy is long coated is normally clear by the time they are 8 weeks old, it is impossible to tell exactly what characteristics that coat will have as adults. A guess can be made as to the likely adult coat based on other long coats in the line. The actual coat length and texture a puppy will have, however, will not be known until they are a year old or more.
In this litter of 5 week old puppies you can clearly see the difference between the Long Coats (above) and the normal coats (below). Note that in the two normal coated puppies you can see the halo effect along the sides of their bodies where the guard hair is longer than their undercoat.
Long coated puppies typically have a sculptured look and cotton ball texture to their coats.
The long coat gene
The idea has been proposed that there may be more than one gene responsible for long coats in Malamutes. There is not one shred of evidence to suggest this, and in fact there is ample evidence that long coats are produced by one simple recessive gene (ll).
In 2006 a scientific paper was published showing that the gene causing hair length difference in Corgis and several other dog breeds was fibroblast growth factor 5 (FGF5). FGF5 normally tells the hair to progress from the anagen (growth) phase to the catagen (transitional) stage. A mutation in FGF5 can cause the hair shaft to continue growing for a longer period of time before the catagen phase is reached, resulting in much longer hair. It has since been shown that this same gene is responsible for normal and long coats in Alaskan Malamutes. We use the symbol "L" for this gene.
D. J. E. Housley and P. J. Venta (2006) The long and the short of it: evidence that FGF5 is a major determinant of canine "hair"-itability. Animal Genetics.
While there is only one gene that determines that a dog will have a long coat, there is considerable variation in how long coated dogs can appear. This, once again, is due to modifiers that determine how much actual length, texture, and density the coat will have. These are exactly the same modifiers that play a part in the appearance of a normal coated Malamute. In no way should this be mistaken for the presence of more than one long coat gene.
The Fluffy Brothers
These three littermates are a classic example of how modifiers cause considerable variation in the expression of the long coat gene. While the long coats on all three boys is caused by the same gene, the actual length, density, and texture of their coats varies considerably. Kwest, on the left has a coat which is at the short end of the spectrum. Kooper on the right has a coat that is about as long as they get. And the third brother Loki has a coat which is somewhere in between. These boys are actually three of the four long coat pups shown in the litter above. Kooper being the pup on the right, Loki the pup on the left, and Kwest the only seal. Clearly you can not tell how much coat a long coat will have as an adult based on what they look like as a puppy.
Long Coat Inheritance
The long coat gene is recessive. This means that in order to be a long coat a dog has to inherit the gene from both parents. Thus every dog that produces a long coated puppy carries the long coat gene.
I am going to use Punnett Squares to illustrate inheritance of the long coat trait. The Punnett Square is a mathematical tool used to predict genetic makeup and ratios in offspring. It’s also a simple way to visually see how genes are inherited. The punnett square is a grid with the genetic makeup of one parent across the top and of the other parent along the left hand side. The squares in between show you all the genetic variations possible in the offspring along with the expected ratios.
Malamutes can have three different genetic coats. They can have a normal coat and not carry the long coat gene (LL). They can have normal coats but carry the long coat gene (Ll). Or they can be long coats (ll). These three different genetic possibilities can combine in 6 different ways.
Non-carrier X Non–carrier
If two dogs that do not carry the long coat gene (LL) are bred together, none of the resulting puppies will carry the long coat gene.
Non-carrier X Long Coat
If a non-long coat carrier (LL) is bred to a long coat (ll) there still will not be a single long coated puppy in the litter. Every puppy, however, will carry the long coat gene.
Carrier X Carrier
If a long coat carrier (Ll) is bred to another long coat carrier (Ll) each puppy will have a 25% chance of being a non-long coat carrier, a 50% chance of carrying the long coat gene, and a 25% chance of being a long coat.
You will notice I did not say that about ¼ of the litter will be non-carrier, ½ will be carriers, and ¼ will be long coats. While that's the way this is often thought of, it is not actually accurate, particularly not when dealing with the small number of pups produced in a single litter. Instead, think of each puppy as a roll of the dice. On each roll you would have a 25% chance of coming up "non-carrier" (LL), a 50% chance
of coming up carrier (Ll), and a 25% chance of coming up long coat (ll). It is entirely possible that in a single litter you could come up with coats very different from what the odds suggest. For instance, an entire litter of long coats or not a single long coat in the litter. It is only when you approach 100 puppies from a particular pairing that you would expect to see the 1/2/1 ratio. Obviously not something likely to happen when breeding dogs. So looking at a ratio like this does not give a real idea of how many
puppies of each genetic makeup there will be in the litter. It does, however, give a breeder an understanding of what combinations are possible.
Carrier X Long Coat
Similarly, if a long coat carrier (Ll) is bred to a long coat (ll), each puppy will have a 50% chance of being a long coat carrier and a 50% chance of being a long coat.
Non-Carrier X Carrier
And if a non-long coat carrier (LL) is bred to a dog who carries the long coat gene (Ll), there will be no long coats in the litter. The puppies will, however, will each have a 50/50 chance of carrying the long coat gene.
Long Coat X Long Coat
Finally, if two long coats (ll) are bred together, every single puppy in the litter will be a long coat.
While dogs who do not carry the long coat gene and those who do both have "normal" coats, it is interesting to note that they do not have identical coats. The long coat gene is not a case of simple dominant-recessive inheritance. Instead it involves what is called intermediate inheritance (also sometimes called incomplete dominance). What that means is that a dog that has one "normal" and one "long" gene actually has a coat somewhere in between. Thus a long coat carrier (Ll) will have a slightly longer overall coat with more hair on its legs, tail, and likely its britches and ruff than a dog that does not carry the long coat gene (LL). Though it sounds like this would make it easy to tell long coat carriers from non-carriers, the truth is that there still is considerable variation in actual appearance. Modifier genes play a big roll and can greatly affect what the coat actually looks like. Within family groups and particularly within litters, however, the amount of coat a dog has can be a strong indicator of the gene being carried.
From a practical standpoint this means that dogs that carry the long coat gene typically have a bigger, flashier coat than related dogs that do not. Modifier genes can produce the same effect, though it is easier and quicker to obtain it through the long coat gene. Again, the intent of this article is not to discuss "correct" coat, and in truth I have never seen any proof or suggestion that carrying or not carrying the long
coat gene is a determining factor in a coat being correct.
Non-long coat carrier (left) and littermate long coat carrier (right)
The differences are not huge, however note the additional coat on legs, tail, and britches of the dog on the right.
Modifier genes, on occasion, will sometimes produce a coat which is genetically "normal" but with modifiers for extreme length. Such dogs can easily resemble genetically long coated dogs with modifiers for coat length at the short end of the spectrum. While these genetically "normal" but too long coats are no more correct than an identically appearing long coat, they produce a different breeding dilemma than a true long coat.
Up until recently breeders had to guess what kind of coat they were dealing with. Now there is a simple genetic test which provides this information.
Very recently a genetic test has been developed which determines if a particular dog carries the long coat gene or is a long coat. There are two organizations which offer this test.
The DNA test is done with a simple cheek swab. The company who does the testing will send you a kit and you simply twirl the little brush around along the inside of your dog’s cheek and mail it back to them.
This test gives one very simple but potentially useful piece of information - the coat length genotype for your particular dog. There are three potential genotypes:
N/N – (clear) Normal “short” coat and not a carrier of Long Coat (LL)
N/F – (carrier) Normal “short” coat but has one copy of the short hair allele and one
copy of the long hair mutation (Ll)
F/F – (affected) Long Coat and have two copies of the long hair mutation (ll)
Note that this test does NOT determine if a dog has a correct coat. In no way does it indicate how long the dog's actual coat will be, nor does it suggest the texture or density. It simply indicates the presence or absence of the long coat mutation in a particular dog.
This piece of information can be considered very useful. Long coated dogs typically have not been kept for breeding, and as the coat is incorrect they are normally not kept for showing. In addition, in some areas they are very difficult to place as pets or working dogs and there are certain environments which make coat care a serious issue. Knowing the genotype of the dogs involved in a breeding can thus be of great value to a breeder. It is one of the many pieces of information which can be taken into account in planning a pairing. It allows breeders to avoid producing long coats if they choose to do so. This
potentially gives the breeder more choice of which puppy to keep to further their breeding program since there are no long coats that would normally be automatically excluded from selection. It also eliminates the problems associated with placing long coat puppies in areas where they are unpopular or where they present a maintenance issue. If a particular breeding does present the possibility of producing long coats, having this information allows the breeder to plan accordingly and have appropriate homes lined up.
In addition to those benefits, genetic testing is also an excellent tool which allows breeders to retain long coats in their breeding program if they choose to do so. Sometimes long coat pups are produced who have characteristics which make them very valuable to a breeder's goals and overall breeding program. In the past these pups were often not kept and used because of the increased number of long coated pups they potentially produce. With the advent of testing breeders have the option of keeping a
long coat and, through choosing a mate who does not carry the long coat mutation, never producing a single long coat pup. Thus essentially eliminating the fault in the next generation.
The one danger with being able to test for the long coat gene is the potential that breeders might use the test to eliminate the mutation from the entire population over a period of time. While long coats themselves are not desirable, there is a long history of this gene existing in the breed. The fact that it was not selected out when the breed developed and that it exists in all of the northern spitz breeds suggests that it may have some survival value. We do not know what that advantage might be, however
eliminating the gene completely from the breed should not be the goal. As many Malamute breeders prefer the coats of long coat carriers, it is unlikely the gene is in danger of disappearing.
Owning a Long Coat Malamute - Oh Those Fabulous Fluffies!
While there is plenty of information out there on Malamutes, there is little written specifically about Long Coats. And yet many people end up owing them and lots of folks actually prefer the look. The truth is that long coated Malamutes are stunning dogs. There is nothing cuter than a long coated puppy, and as adults they are often absolutely striking in appearance. The long coat gene does not change the temperament of the dog, and they are still Malamutes under their extra hair. But they are Malamutes with a little extra flash and flair (and they seem to know it). It’s not unusual for a long coat to draw attention wherever they go, even more so than the average Malamute.
While spectacular, a long coat is not a “correct” coat. I know at the beginning of this article I said that I am not writing about what is and is not a correct coat and that is still true. It is not, however, possible to write about long coats in Malamutes without touching upon why it is not a desirable characteristic.
A genetically long coated dog does not have a correct coat and it is important for anyone considering adding one to their family to be aware of this. Though the specific characteristics of long coats can vary dramatically from dog to dog, the extra length and resulting change in texture (even if it is slight) present some added challenges. As puppies, long coats are cottony and attract stickers and burrs. This occurs in adult long coats as well, particularly in the feathering on the legs. In an area with fox tails or other similar plants this can be everything from an inconvenience to a serious health risk. In addition, a long coat is not desirable for a working environment. Because of its length and texture the coat is not as resistant to water as an “ideal” coat, and many (most?) long coats will develop ice balls in most snowy conditions. The majority of long coats do not shed or “blow” their coat like a normal Malamute will, and instead the old coat has to be brushed out. Without regular brushing a long coat will clump (at best) or
mat (at worst) leading to much less resistance to the elements. People who seriously work their dogs usually avoid long coats because of these issues.
A busy schedule and a few weeks of missed grooming sessions can leave a long coat in a sorry state. Thankfully, Kwest's coat clumps instead of matting - none of what you see here is actual mats. Even as bad as he looks in this picture, a good bath and blow dry is all it took to return him to his fluffy self. Most long coats and their owners are not so lucky.
While a long coat is a “fault”, for the most part it is a purely cosmetic one. The long coat gene does not, in itself, present any health or temperament issues. Long coated Malamutes are no different than any other Malamute except for the length of their hair. That extra hair length can, however, lead to potential health risks if not properly maintained.
As has already been mentioned, burrs and stickers tend to bury themselves in long coats. It is much easier for them to be overlooked, and if allowed to burrow into the dog they can cause an abcess or worse. A coat which is matted or clumped can trap dirt and debris, leading to skin irritation and possible infection. A matted dog has little protection from the elements and can become very wet and cold. They also will suffer in the heat because air can not circulate through their coat. It takes longer for a long coat to dry after a bath and the length and density of their coat tends to trap moisture. Thus hot spots can be an issue if they are not carefully dried to the skin. This can also become a problem in a wet, rainy, or really humid climate where the coat is constantly damp and does not have an opportunity to dry out completely. Of course every single one of these issues can be prevented with regular grooming.
A Malamute with a “correct” coat, and in fact a normal coated Malamute in general, is a very low maintenance dog. While they are likely to blow their coat twice per year, and they benefit from the occasional brushing and bath, they really require little to stay reasonably clean and neat looking. This is not true for a long coated Malamute. Long Coated Malamutes require a serious commitment to regular grooming from their owner. How much grooming depends on the coat characteristics of the particular dog, something which can not always be predicted when they are puppies. Some long coats stay in good condition with a minimum of brushing and require just a little more attention than a normal coat. Others require a willingness and ability to provide regular ongoing grooming. This often means every day or every other day, can lead to purchasing considerably more and costlier grooming supplies, and may involve the time and expense of taking the dog to a groomer on an ongoing basis.
Kwest after a bath, blow dry, good brush out, and a little trimming. Not hard to do but time consuming - about 4 hours start to finish.
An excellent article on grooming long coated malamutes can be found at
At this point many people may wonder why on earth someone would want to own a long coated Malamute. The truth is that, though they may require a little more effort to groom, they are spectacular dogs to own. They usually do not need any more grooming than other large long coated breeds (a collie for instance), and for those who appreciate the look of a long coat and the temperament of a Malamute they can be an excellent choice. Many people enjoy the grooming process and find it relaxing and therapeutic. Others simply make regular appointments with a groomer and enjoy the beauty of a long coat while leaving the work to someone else. Though their coat usually prevents them from competing at conformation shows, long coated Malamutes enjoy all the other activities that a normal coated Malamute can do. Long coats have done well in obedience, rally, and agility. They run on recreational sledding teams, hike and backpack, scooter, skijour, and weight pull. And of course they make wonderful loving companions, excel at snuggling on the couch, and are the very best foot warmers on cold winter nights.
Wencinja's Kodiak Kwest CD RN CGC
WPD WTD WLD WWPD WWPDX
A little extra fluff has never stopped Kwest from getting out and having fun
While a long coat is not a “correct” coat in an Alaskan Malamute, the choice of producing them in a litter, using one in a breeding program, or adding a long coat to your family is a personal one. The long coat gene does not impact the health of the dog, and is simply a cosmetic fault. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to own these stunning dogs so long as you are prepared for the grooming challenges they can present. Ethical breeders do sometimes produce long coats in their litters, and are always happy to find excellent homes for those pups. For a truly special new family member consider saving a life by adopting – Malamute Rescue frequently has long coats looking for new
If you are considering adding a long coated Malamute to your family, be aware that there are breeders out there who capitalize on this coat type and intentionally breed for it; often charging more for their long coated pups. The standard for the Alaskan Malamute states “IMPORTANT: In judging Malamutes, their function as a sledge dog for heavy freighting in the Arctic must be given consideration above all else.” No reputable breeder will intentionally develop a breeding program focused specifically on
characteristics (like a long coat) which are in conflict with this statement.