Widely regarded as the little canine with one of the most outspoken personalities, Chihuahuas are a dog breed with traces far back in North American history. Energetic, playful, and adorable, Chis (as they are affectionately called for short) have managed to strut their stuff into top-ranking positions where popularity is concerned. The American Kennel Club (AKC) gives the popularity ranking at 33 out of 195 dog breeds in the US. However, Chihuahuas were ranked as the second most popular in the UK in 2016, beaten only by the French Bulldog. Despite their small size, they can have big personality.
Chihuahuas boast a small stature, which means they work well in smaller dwellings like apartments and are easier to groom and care for. Plus, their small faces, rounded puppy-dog eyes, short muzzles, and large ears give the breed a trademark look that everyone loves. With boundless energy and an alert, eager to protect temperament, it is hard not to love these little canines with their big hearts.
History and Background of Chihuahuas
Dogs with similar looks as Chihuahuas can be found on ancient artifacts from civilizations in multiple places across the globe. Little is known about these ancient Chi lookalikes, but Techichis did end up in Mexico at some point, and these larger Chihuahua versions are suspected as ancestors of the modern-day breed.
After the Conquest of Cortez in the 1500s, many of the early Techichis were found in small village areas only, but the breed did thrive. In the 1800s, several specimens of the breed were discovered in a state in Mexico with the name Chihuahua and brought to the United States. In 1908, the AKC registered its first Chihuahua.
- Lifespan: Between 14 and 16 years
- Weight: Under 6 pounds
- Height: Between 5 and 8 inches
- Breed Type: Toy Group
- Personality and Temperament: Alert, protective, energetic, playful
Common Health Issues
Chihuahuas are considered as a mostly healthy breed. They tend to have longer life spans, and the health concerns present are in part the same as what they are with other dogs of smaller sizes. However, the AKC still offers a breed-specific list of tests that should be done by breeders or owners to assess their overall health. The list of tests includes a heart health exam and eye or vision evaluation, among other things.
Hypoglycemia in basic speak means a dog has low blood sugar, and, unfortunately, Chihuahuas are especially prone to having this issue. Low blood sugar, which may also be referred to as sugar shock, can be caused by underlying health conditions and genetic concerns. However, a lot of small dog breeds have this issue because they don't have a lot of fat stores to keep their blood sugar regulated. In other words, they tend to burn up what they eat really quickly.
Symptoms of Hypoglycemia
- Vomiting foam or foaming at the mouth
- General weakness
- Tremors or excessive shaking
Thankfully, hypoglycemia in dogs is rather easy to treat. One thing that vets usually do is recommend switching the dog over to a low-glycemic variety of dog food, and they also recommend more frequent feedings. If you take your dog in for an emergency due to sugar shock, they will likely be treated with either an injection of glucose-containing fluids or fluid glucose dosed orally. Medications to help stabilize blood sugar levels may also be prescribed.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Monitor your pet's eating habits closely and make sure they have food available at least twice a day
- Learn how to spot signs that your Chihuahua's blood sugar levels are getting low (weaving, tilting the head, weakness)
- Left untreated, sugar shock can be fatal or damaging to the brain; make sure to respond adequately during these spells
- Honey or corn syrup can be given in small amounts to boost blood sugar levels quickly
2. Patellar Luxation
Patellar luxation is a medical term for a displaced kneecap, and this is a common problem for small-breed dogs, including Chihuahuas. The displacement will cause general pain and lameness of the affected leg or legs. In some cases, the kneecap will slip in and out of place on a regular basis. Unfortunately, patellar luxation is often a genetic condition, but it can also have contributing factors throughout life to heighten risks. Patella issues in chihuahuas are something to keep an eye out for particularly as they age.
Symptoms of Patellar Luxation
- Obvious signs of discomfort when moving the legs
- Lameness in one or more legs
- Limping or hopping while running
- Changes in the appearance of the dog's knee
Most of the time, patellar luxation in small dogs will correct itself, but the problem may progress to a point that the kneecap will not go back in place. In severe cases, your Chihuahua will have to have surgery, which involves making a small incision, retrieving the kneecap, and then surgically attaching it to the front of the knee with a synthetic pin or sutures. Patellar luxation surgery can be rather costly; it can be between $1,000 and $3,000 for each affected knee.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Keep your Chihuahua's weight in check; obese dogs can be more prone to the problem
- Protect your dog's knees from injury by helping them down from high places or investing in aids (bedside pet steps, for example)
- Make sure your dog gets proper nutrients and exercise to keep their bones and tendons strong
3. Idiopathic Epilepsy
Canine idiopathic epilepsy is caused by some level of abnormal brain activity among the neural pathways that results in sudden and sometimes frequent seizures. Idiopathic attached to any disease is basically stating the disease has an unknown cause, but the condition is most likely related to genetic variances. Unfortunately, idiopathic epilepsy is a condition that commonly affects chihuahuas.
- Stiffening of the body
- Making odd paddling movements with paws
- Abnormal bodily movements focused on one part of the body
- Lack of response to a stimulus
When a Chihuahua is diagnosed with canine idiopathic epilepsy, the vet may prescribe an antiepileptic drug. However, the prescribing of this kind of medication is questionable through some vets because of lacking scientific research into efficacy. Dogs with frequent seizures are more likely to have a shorter life span of 8 to 10 years, and euthanasia is common because of poor quality of life in the worst situations. Costs can vary drastically if a dog is diagnosed; simple monitoring can be as little as a few hundred dollars a year, but some medication management may cost between $500 and $5,000 per year.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Monitor your dog closely for signs of seizure activity at all times; intervenient actions can help bring them out of their episode
- Regular vet visits are critical if your dog has idiopathic epilepsy
- Watch for potential seizure triggers; everything from food to medications can increase the frequency
4. Heart Problems
Chihuahuas can be prone to two specific types of heart problems: patent ductus arteriosus (PDA) and mitral valve disease. PDA is actually a really common congenital heart disease among canines but is especially prevalent in smaller breeds. The condition causes a failure of blood flow through the whole heart, and it can lead to heart failure. Mitral valve disease can develop later in life and is associated with fluid leaking from certain valves. The condition is usually signified by a heart murmur.
Symptoms of a Heart Problems
- General weakness or fatigue
- Changes in typical behavior patterns
- Difficulty breathing or coughing
Heart conditions are most often diagnosed by a vet during a regular examination. Both mitral valve disease and PDA are conditions that most vets will simply monitor, but the diagnosis of these conditions don't come cheap. Something like an echocardiogram can cost as much as $500. There are some situations when heart surgery is possible to correct certain heart defects and problems, but the costs can be pretty expensive.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Make sure you work with a breeder who does the proper cardiac tests
- Chihuahuas with heart conditions can be prone to sudden heart failure
- Work with your vet to build a proper care plan for older dogs who may be more at risk
5. Gum Disease
Gum disease is actually one of the number one health problems in Chihuahuas, and studies show that small dogs can be more at risk to these kinds of oral health conditions. Unfortunately, gum disease can lead to a higher risk of tooth decay and lost teeth in your small dog's mouth. Once a Chi gets beyond the three-year mark, they are much more likely to have signs of gum disease (85%) that can lead to further dental issues. Genetics play a huge role in these problems, but dental health issues in older dogs are often also related to poor diet or eating mainly soft foods.
Symptoms of Dental Problems
- Foul doggie breath
- Red, swollen, or irritated gums
- Blood on chewy treats and toys
- Excess plaque buildup
- Loose teeth or losing teeth
Treatment for periodontal disease can involve a range of vet-prescribed actions, such as doing a thorough cleaning under anesthesia and switching to specific types of food. It is important to have Chihuahuas checked for dental issues from an early age, and preventative measures are the best way to avoid problems. An oral exam can cost between $55 and $90, but more extensive care can be as high as $1,200 not counting x-rays and prior testing.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Be extra vigilant about feeding your Chi dry kibble; it helps prevent gum disease by cleaning the teeth
- Talk to the vet if there are significant changes to how much your dog is eating because dental issues could be to blame
- Over-the-counter teeth cleaning products for dogs may help
6. Eye Disorders
Those big eyes serve up cuteness, but they can also make Chihuahuas a little more prone to eye disorders and diseases. These issues are most often relative to a genetic disposition, and the dogs can inherit a higher likelihood of some eye health concerns from their parents. Glaucoma, dry eye syndrome, and cataracts are common.
Symptoms of Eye Disorders
- Changes in the appearance of the dog's eyes (cloudiness, redness, etc.)
- Dull, dry eyes
- Thick discharge from the eyes
- Squinting or changes in vision
- Pawing at the eyes
- Obvious signs of pain in the eyes
Treatments for a Chi with eye problems can range according to the condition. Something like dry eye syndrome can be treated with medicated eye drops and ointments, but glaucoma can require more of an intense treatment plan. Cataracts can be surgically treated just as it is with humans, but this form of canine surgery can be as high as $5,000 per eye.
Tips for Chihuahua Owners
- Dogs with cataracts or glaucoma will experience some loss of sight, but dogs often adapt better than expected to these changes
- Make sure your Chihuahua comes from a breeder that has had a basic ophthalmologic exam
- Protect your Chi's eyes from direct sunlight when possible
Other Chihuahua Health Issues
- Hydrocephalus - a slowly developing condition which can lead to pain or nausea. Hydrocephalus is characterized by the presence of an abnormally large volume of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) present within the brain or between the brain and skull. Signs usually progress from mild to severe and then to death, but in some animals the disease may stabilise before this, meaning that they exhibit only minor signs that persist throughout life.
- Tracheal Collapse - if your chihuahua begins making a "honking" type cough, it may be a sign that they are experiencing a tracheal collapse. When the rings of the windpipe/trachea begin to cause an airway obstruction, typically the cause of a congenital abnormality, the air coming out gets impacted causing a honking sound. Your dog may have an aversion to exercise due to this unpleasant experience and feeling, as well as labored breathing or bluish gums. It's common in "toy dog" breeds, such as Yorkies and Chihuahuas. Common treatments are via cough suppressors, corticosteroids, and/or antibiotics. If these approaches are unsuccessful to help the dog, surgey can be explored with 75-85% success rates. More holistic treatment options include weight-management, as well as switching from collar-harnesses to chest-harnesses to alleviate extra and unnecessary strain for the dog.
- Dental Disease - According to CCOA, chihuahuas can also experience a variety of oral issues, from bad breath, to tooth loss, and bleeding or drooling from the mouth. These issues can be lower risk to the dog particularly if you stay on top of cleaning your pets teeth routinely. Feeding dry food, and providing chew toys are among some of the more basic recommendations to help this area - but also brushing your chihuahua's teeth now and then is recommended, with tips on focusing on one side of the mouth at a time, moving in an oval motion to get good coverage of the teeth, and doing one tooth at a time.
A Note About Chihuahua Sub-Breeds and Health
The AKC actually only recognizes two types of Chihuahuas: long coat and smooth coat. Both types of Chihuahua can have similar health concerns. However, many breeders and the general population recognize other types of Chihuahuas as well based on their appearance. These dogs are typically achieved through selective breeding but do not have recognition to date by most professional canine organizations. The additional non-recognized sub-breeds include:
- Apple Head Chihuahuas - Apple Head Chihuahuas have a rounded face and head that looks a lot like an apple. The breed-sub can be smaller overall, and they can be much more prone to health issues. Their short snout and bulged eyes can make them prone to eye issues, tracheal problems, and breathing issues. Plus, the Apple Head can be prone to the development of fluid on the brain.
- Deer Head Chihuahuas - Deer heads have a larger head and longer legs than a standard Chihuahua, which actually prevents them from being categorized as a Chihuahua at all by the AKC because they usually don't meet the height or weight guidelines. Nevertheless, these dogs are an ever-popular family pet because they tend to be more resilient and less likely to have health problems due to their larger head and body.
- Teacup or Miniature Chihuahuas - Teacup Chihuahuas are a really popular type of Chihuahua and must weigh five pounds or under as an adult. Even though these breeds are technically just a Chihuahua of smaller stature, they do usually get mislabeled as a different form of Chihuahua. The Mini-Chi is achieved through selectively breeding the smallest pairs until all pups in a litter are considerably smaller than usual. Unfortunately, teacups can have higher risks of all the mentioned health problems and then some.
Chihuahuas Are Devoted Pals with Generally Good Health
Even though Chihuahuas can have a few health concerns like most toy breeds, they are still one of the most highly sought-after dogs. Chihuahuas are intelligent, protective of those they love, and fairly easy to groom. Before bringing a Chihuahua in to be part of your family, it is always best to get to know the breed through-and-through, including health concerns. Your small-statured four-legged pal may require a few extra vet visits to stay healthy, but their never-waning devotion makes this breed easy to love.