Story: Farm dogs

Page 5. Feeding, housing and health

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A working dog is an athlete, regularly covering 60–100 kilometres a day or more on big hill-country musters – much of it at 20–30 kilometres per hour. Understanding this has led to massive improvements in diets available for high-performance dogs. This was badly needed as dogs were traditionally fed on frozen mutton, which is grossly deficient in energy and vitamin B complex. The excessive amount of bones also caused digestive injuries and constipation.

There is a wide range of dog tucker that can be used both wet or dry, with extra energy and protein for dogs with special working needs, or during pregnancy and lactation.

Dog Friday

One of New Zealand’s folk heroes is James Mackenzie, who in 1855 was found at an inland pass in South Canterbury with 1,000 sheep from The Levels station, near Timaru. It was largely through the skills of his dog Friday that he was able to drive so many sheep such a distance, without being discovered. Mackenzie was jailed for theft of the sheep, but later pardoned.


Dog housing has greatly improved in recent years. It is now rare to see working dogs tied up under trees, in holes in a bank, or in old rusty oil drums. Modern housing ranges from individual insulated kennels to purpose-built units with sleeping quarters and outside runs. Some shepherds prefer a dog to be chained to a single, transportable kennel on the ground – there is more chance to pat and talk to the dog than when it leaps into a fenced run at the end of the day.


Farm dogs are susceptible to all canine diseases. They are also at risk from internal parasites (worms) and tapeworms where the dog and the sheep are intermediate hosts. These are hookworm (Uncinaria), roundworm (Toxocara canis) and whipworm (Trichuris).

Hydatids is caused by tapeworm larvae that live in the gut of dogs. The tapeworm’s life cycle also involves an intermediate host, such as sheep. The hosts do not show clinical signs, so it is difficult to determine whether they are infected. True hydatids is caused by the tapeworm Echinococcus granulosus, ‘fleaworm’ by Didylidium caninum, and false hydatids by Taenia hydatigena. True hydatids can cause serious illness in humans, through contact with infected dogs. In New Zealand, where hydatids was once a significant health risk, a prolonged programme of dog dosing has eliminated the disease.

Another tapeworm (Taenia ovis) shared between dog and sheep causes ‘sheep measles’. Infected sheep carcasses must be trimmed or rejected for export. The disease is not a human health risk.

External parasites of dogs include fleas and lice. The cattle tick (Haemophysalis longicornis), which is also found on deer, can be a problem in warmer areas.


Farm dogs are very prone to injuries such as broken legs, dislocated stifle joints (equivalent to the human knee joint) from getting caught in fences and gates, and cuts and tears from barbed wire and stakes. Bruising from falling off farm bikes is also common. Poisoning from baits laid for vermin is a very serious risk to farm dogs, so a shepherd’s knowledge of first aid can be crucial when veterinary help is far away.

How to cite this page:

Clive Dalton, 'Farm dogs - Feeding, housing and health', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Clive Dalton, published 24 Nov 2008