Shih Tzus

Once the prized lap dog of Chinese emperors, the Shih Tzu doesn't see any reason to accept the slightest reduction in status. But his assumption that the world revolves around him rarely comes with arrogance or aggressiveness. The Shih Tzu is, somewhat inexplicably given his willingness to be spoiled, one of the sweetest of all toy dog breeds and one of the most popular, too.

Shih Tzu Personality Traits and Behavior

The Shih Tzu is a very small dog. He doesn't know that, of course. He's pretty sure he's the size of the beast from which the breed gets its nickname: the Lion Dog. But that small size and Shih Tzu personality makes these dogs a bit iffy around very young children, or any child who can't understand just how fragile the dog is under his "lemme at 'em" attitude.

Is it the Shih Tzu's flowing locks of gold and white that made you fall in love with these little dogs? The Chinese emperors probably had an entire army of servants who did nothing but comb them, because even one day without grooming can turn that coat into a tangled mess.

Fortunately, the long coat is mostly seen in the show ring; retired champions and "just pets" alike mostly sport a short, puppy-like clip. Some pet owners can do it themselves with a pair of scissors (difficult) or a set of electric clippers, but keeping your Shih Tzu free of mats and skin problems often requires regular professional grooming.

Shih Tzu Characteristics

Shih Tzus are happy in even a small apartment, as long as they get plenty of affection and have enough room to run around. What they can't do is live outside. The Shih Tzu is too small, too human-oriented, and too heat-sensitive to survive living outdoors. He may not need a palace, but he definitely needs a home.

Their small size and naturally sunny disposition are some great Shih Tzu characteristics, but that doesn't mean you don't have to train your Shih Tzu. Trick training can be especially fun! Careful socialization and firm but gentle training methods are essential to avoid turning your companion into a tyrant. And as with most small dogs, Shih Tzus can be yappy and hard to house-train. Despite their generally sweet demeanor, some may be snappish, especially when frightened.

Variations of the Shih Tzu Dog Breed

A proper Shih Tzu weighs between 9 and 16 pounds. Although some breeders produce, and some misguided puppy buyers want, an even smaller dog. So-called "Teacup" or "Imperial" Shih Tzus are simply dogs below the minimum healthy size for the breed. They're marketed as something special, but are plagued with health problems and often live a very short life. The code of ethics of the American Shih Tzu Club specifically bars its members from breeding these undersized dogs or using those terms to describe their puppies. Don't fall for this slick marketing gimmick or your dog will pay with health problems, and you'll pay the vet bills.

Common Shih Tzu Health Issues

The Shih Tzu suffers from most of the health problems common to tiny dogs and has a few particular health problems, but overall, it is a fairly healthy breed. Shih Tzus have a small mouth, which means their teeth are frequently misaligned or missing. They're also very prone to periodontal disease and require regular veterinary dental care.

Like most small dogs, their kneecaps are often not very stable, and can get knocked out of position easily -- the common condition known as "luxating patellas." Their eyes protrude and can be easily scratched or injured, and their breathing can be full of snuffles and wheezes that sometimes turn into major respiratory problems.

Shih Tzu health issues also include renal dysplasia, where the dog's kidneys stay stuck in an immature stage and can't handle the demands of an adult-sized dog. This is something a puppy inherits from his parents, so buy puppies only from breeders who test all their dogs for renal dysplasia. You'll want to see documentation that both parents' kidney function is normal, and better yet, the results of a kidney tissue biopsy that show the kidneys themselves are normal.

Unfortunately, not even normal kidney biopsies on both parents can completely guarantee puppies won't develop renal dysplasia. Shih Tzu owners need to watch their puppies carefully for signs of excessive thirst, failure to gain weight or other signs that they're not thriving.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Shih Tzu before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Entropion High $300-$1,500
Patellar Luxation High $1,500-$3,000
Arachnoid Cysts High $4,500-$10,000
Distichiasis and Ectopic Cilia High $1,500-$2,000
Fold Dermatitis High $300-$2,500

5 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Shih Tzu Puppy

Don't ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store. You're more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to housetrain puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills. Puppy mills also advertise through Internet sites, so never deal with a breeder who'll ship anywhere to anyone with a credit card.

Find a responsible, careful breeder if you have your heart set on a purebred Shih Tzu puppy. Begin at the website of the American Shih Tzu Club, where you'll find a referral list for breeders who have agreed to be bound by the club's Code of Ethics -- which, by the way, prohibits its members from selling puppies to pet stores.

Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in Shih Tzus aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. In addition, Shih Tzus can live to be quite old, so an adult dog will still be a part of your family for a long time to come.

Puppy or adult, take your Shih Tzu to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues. Ask specifically about dental care, as most toy breeds suffer from dental problems. If your dog is still a puppy, discuss monitoring for renal dysplasia with your veterinarian.

Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with "puppy lemon laws," be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Shih Tzu Pet Insurance

Pet insurance for Shih Tzus costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Shih Tzus are much more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat. Embrace dog insurance offers full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Shih Tzus are susceptible. The best time to get Shih Tzu pet insurance is when he's a healthy puppy. You can't predict what will happen in the future and pet insurance is the one thing you can't get when you need it the most.