While whippets are related to the greyhound and Italian greyhound from cross-breeding hundreds of years ago (and are often mistaken for these similarly-shaped dogs), this sleek and friendly breed is in a class of its own. Often called the “Goldilocks” of dog breeds, they’re a mid-sized dog with few grooming requirements, average exercise needs, and easy-going temperament.
Whippets are tall but slim dogs: Males are 19–22 inches tall, while females measure in at 18–21 inches, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC). They weigh 25–40 pounds. Don’t be alarmed if you see a skinny-looking whippet. Adult whippets at a healthy weight should actually have two to four visible vertebrae.
According to the AKC whippet breed standard, the color of a whippet is “immaterial.” In other words, you’ll find whippets in all kinds of color combinations and marking patterns, from fawn to cream, black to blue. However, the American Whippet Club notes you will not find a merle, tricolor, or harlequin colored whippet—this coloring indicates a whippet mixed breed.
Eye color can also vary, but large, dark eyes are preferred in pure-breed whippets. The whippet’s large ears are rose-shaped, with a fold even when alert—this, combined with their large, dark eyes, gives them an irresistible, elfin charm.
One thing to note: “The whippet breed standards are supposed to have low tail carriage,” says Karen Lee, the public education chairperson and AKC delegate at the American Whippet Club. They don’t have their tails tucked because they’re scared or nervous, she says, so don’t worry when you see a whippet with its tail between its legs.
Whippets need a moderate amount of exercise. “They're burst exercisers, which means they can get all the exercise they need in a short amount of time with a sprint,” Lee explains. As sighthounds, Whippets were bred to chase down rabbits and other small game in open fields. But once they’ve had their exercise, they’re content to lounge around the house for the rest of the day. “You do need to offer them outlets for speedy bursts of galloping, that would be after a ball or a Frisbee, five to 10 minutes a day. And, you know, a nice little walk in between,” Lee says.
Compared to other sighthounds like greyhounds, whippets are much less high strung, says Bradley Phifer, executive director of the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. “They’re a little bit more resilient,” he says. “They can bounce back from stress.” That being said, a whippet left alone for long stretches or without exercise can lose its calm and eat through the curtains and couch.
The ideal living situation for a whippet, as with most dogs, will include a securely fenced yard—for whippets, this means a fence that is at least 6 feet high because these dogs are extremely agile. However, whippets can live in apartments as long as their owners are dedicated to getting them outside for daily walks and exercise. Once they’ve exercised, they love to lounge on couches and snuggle on laps. If you’re unable to provide an exercise outlet for a whippet, Lee suggests looking into adopting a senior whippet.
Whippets are wonderfully gentle with children and seniors and have a very high bite inhibition. They get along with other dogs in general, though it’s best to keep them away from very aggressive dogs—they have a short coat and their skin tears easily, so they’re more likely to be injured than a thick-coated breed. Small animals do tend to excite their prey drive: a cat running through the yard, for example, or a pet rabbit hopping across the living room floor.
Because the whippet has such low body fat, they’re more tolerant of warm weather than cold weather and shouldn’t be kenneled outdoors. “Whippets are great in the summer,” Phifer says. “But you're going to have to make accommodations for them in the cold weather months if you live in a cold climate.”
Lee agrees. “They appreciate having a coat or a sweater… maybe even some jammies if [your] house gets cold at night,” she says.
Whippets are technically not hypoallergenic and do shed some, but their coat is very short and easy to care for. “The advantage to the whippet is minimal grooming. They're kind of wash-and-wear with that short coat,” Phifer says. Lee also notes whippets have a very low doggy odor, and their ears don’t retain moisture like some other breeds do. She advises keeping their nails short and wiping them down after a romp outdoors. “They’re incredibly low maintenance,” she says. On top of being easy to groom, their coats are also soft and satiny to the touch.
Whippets do not bark very much and tend to be better companion dogs than guard dogs, but they can be trained for agility and racing competitions. Because of the intense prey drive they were bred for, it’s extremely important to keep your whippet on a leash in any outdoor, unfenced situation: Whippets have been known to chase a squirrel directly into oncoming traffic.
Lee offers another word of caution: “Whippets do not do well as only dogs left alone for long stretches of the day,” she says. As pack dogs, they’re very social and need human and/or canine companions, which means it’s best to reconsider adopting a whippet if you plan to leave the dog alone for the day. “That is proven to create a dog with severe, severe separation anxiety,” Lee cautions. She suggests doggy day care or hiring a walker for your dog if you must be gone for long hours.
As a rule, whippets do not exhibit significant health problems. According to the American Whippet Club, it’s one of the healthier purebred dogs out there. That being said, it’s important to help your whippet maintain a healthy weight since its frame was not built for excess pounds.
One extremely rare genetic condition that only affects whippets is called Bully Whippet Syndrome. When one mutated myostatin gene is present, it can increase muscle mass and make for a stronger, faster racing dog. But when two recessive myostatin genes combine, the resulting dog is abnormally muscular—think Arnold Schwarzenegger in dog form. Sadly, the condition has led to some breeders putting down these puppies. And bully whippets have normal-sized hearts that must support extra-large bodies, leading to heart issues.
The whippet originates in Northern England. “Back in the mid-Victorian era, working-class people weren't allowed to really have greyhounds if you weren't landed gentry or aristocracy,” Lee says. So the miners and other working-class folks of the region cross-bred more rugged and amiable terriers with the fleet-footed greyhound, resulting in a smaller, hardier, and still-speedy dog.
“They could put a rabbit in the pot to feed the family. They made an excellent family pet,” Lee says. “They also provided gambling sport on the weekends.” One of the most popular whippet sports was “rag-racing,” in which whippets would race each other toward fluttering rabbit skins (and later, rags) at the end of the course.
As time went on, the breed caught the attention of wealthier dog fanciers, who crossed in a little more Italian greyhound to create a slightly more elegant form. The whippet crossed over into America with textile workers immigrating to New England from Lancashire, the AKC says. The kennel club recognized the breed in 1888.
Whippets became especially popular in the early days of California, where they were raised as racing dogs. Douglas Fairbanks, the silent film star, even had a racing whippet.