Pet Care Blog

Shih Tzu Breed Guide: Characteristics, History & Care

Aliyah Diamond
Aliyah Diamond
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Longhaired Shih Tzu with bow

Although the name means “little lion” in Mandarin, the playful Shih Tzu is far from a fighter. Originally bred for royalty in China, these cute dogs are born companions whose purpose in life is to love and be loved.

Read on to learn more about Shih Tzu’s temperament, history, training, care requirements, and figure out whether this regal breed is the right choice for your family.

Table of Contents

Pro Tip: If you’re contemplating a new, four-legged family member, you should consider the value of pet insurance — no matter what breed you bring home. While there are several health conditions genetically linked to Shih Tzus, accidents can happen anytime, anywhere, leading to unexpected vet bills that could cost up to $5,000 without coverage protection.

Shih Tzu characteristics

Physical appearance

On average, the weight of a full-grown Shih Tzu is between nine and 16 pounds, with a height of eight to 11 inches. This means the breed falls into the toy-sized category, which is smaller than medium-, large-, and giant-sized dog breeds.

True to the breed’s heritage, they walk with a regal gait, marked by an eye-catching, curled-up tail and luxurious hair. Any coat color is acceptable to Shih Tzu breed standards, but a dark pigment is typically preferred on the nose and around the eyes.

Shih Tzus are brachycephalic dogs, which is a term used to describe canines with a significantly shortened nose and upper jaw. This condition creates several defining characteristics of the breed, including their round head, prominent eyes, short muzzles, and noticeable underbite.

Temperament and personality

Shih Tzus are known for their happy, lively temperament. They’re very friendly and usually get along well with children and other pets. They enjoy being in the company of their humans, whether that means taking a hike in the park or simply sitting on their lap.

Shih Tzus are not big on chewing due to their short muzzles, but many enjoy digging and some might be prone to nuisance barking.

Average lifespan

The life expectancy of Shih Tzu dogs ranges from 12 to 16 years old, with an average age of 14 years. Most members of the breed will live into their early teens and are considered senior dogs at nine to 10 years old. Generally speaking, small-sized breeds tend to live longer than larger dogs, and Shih Tzus get to enjoy one of the longest lifespans in the canine world.

Fun Fact: The oldest Shih Tzu on record was named Smokey and lived to be 23 years old!

Shih Tzu care tips

Training and exercise

Although the temperament of a Shih Tzu is often friendly and docile, they still benefit from obedience training and early socialization. As with all dogs, consistency, patience, and positive reinforcements are helpful when training your pup.

Shih Tzus can be difficult to housebreak and may need indoor supervision for some time. Experts also recommend crate training, which can be especially helpful when you travel.

Because they were bred as lapdog companions, Shih Tzus only require minimal exercise — a short, daily walk or some indoor playtime should be enough to satisfy their need for physical activity.

Grooming

Shih Tzus have a double coat that requires a fair amount of grooming, especially at long lengths. With long hair, even one day without brushing can turn their coat into a tangled mess. Perhaps that explains why most long-haired Shih Tzus are seen in the show ring, and owners typically prefer their pets to sport a lower-maintenance short clip. A shorter coat also helps prevent heat stroke in dogs by helping them stay cool.

These dogs need weekly baths but make sure to comb out any tangles before bathing and blow-dry the coat afterward to keep your pet from getting chilled. The nails should be trimmed every one to two weeks and the teeth should be brushed daily with a vet-approved pet toothpaste. Don’t forget about the eyes, as well. Wash the area around the eyes using a wet cotton ball, dog eye wipes, or a soft washcloth to minimize staining.

Do Shih Tzus shed?

Potential pet parents sometimes ask if Shih Tzus are “hypoallergenic”, non-shedding dogs if someone in the household suffers from allergies. While it’s true that people are less likely to have allergic reactions to this breed, it’s important to know that they’re not entirely allergen-free.

Shih Tzu dogs are one of several breeds that have human-like hair, rather than fur. And, just like humans, they will shed their hair every day. The difference is that the long strands of shed hair get caught within the coat, then brushed out with grooming. Therefore, the dander on Shih Tzus that typically triggers allergic reactions in people stays trapped, rather than released in the environment then falling onto the ground, furniture, or clothing.

This is true of most mature breed members, but as younger pups develop, pet parents often wonder "Why is my Shih Tzu puppy shedding so much?" Around nine to 12 months of age, the Shih Tzu coat evolves from a puppy stage with short, thin hair into a thicker adult coat. During this three-week period, Shih Tzus shed very profusely due to the increased volume of hair and require more thorough brushing.

Shih Tzu dog grooming

Diet and nutrition

As small breed dogs, Shih Tzus only need up to one cup of dry dog food a day, divided into two or three meals. Because they’re not high-energy dogs, these tiny pups are prone to weight gain, so be sure to limit the number of treats you offer. Your veterinarian will recommend the proper meal and snack portions for your pet at each stage of development based on their unique needs and medical history.

You can nourish your pet’s luxurious coat from the inside out through a protein-rich diet balanced with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Quality nutrition will also help optimize muscle and joint health, as well as their overall wellbeing.

Don’t forget to keep your dog’s bowl filled with fresh water throughout the day; Shih Tzu dogs have higher heat sensitivity than other breeds, so they might be more thirsty than usual.

Living with Shih Tzus

Shih Tzus love apartment living and could be a great choice for pet parents who are limited in space. They require little exercise but be especially careful with physical activity in hot, humid weather. Brachycephalic dog breeds are more prone to heat stroke because their shortened muzzle inhibits their ability to cool themselves off efficiently.

As born lapdogs, Shih Tzus typically need a lot of attention. They thrive on human company and enjoy training because it makes them the center of attention. When these needs are unmet, you might find them to act out through excessive barking or destructive behavior around the house.

Shih Tzus are great with children and will readily extend their affection to strangers. However, don’t count on your pet Shih Tzu to guard the home; they’d probably give intruders a very warm welcome.

Common Shih Tzu health issues

Due to their undershot jaw, Shih Tzus frequently experience oral health problems such as misaligned or missing teeth. In some cases, they may not lose their baby teeth before their permanent teeth come in, which might require a vet visit for extraction.

Their prominent eyes also make Shih Tzus more prone to issues such as cataracts, retinal detachment, corneal dryness, and progressive retinal atrophy. They’re a generally healthy dog breed, but as with any other breed, there are certain health conditions owners should be aware of, such as:

  • Hip dysplasia
  • Patellar luxation
  • Ear infections
  • Umbilical hernia (a condition caused by incomplete closure of the umbilical ring after birth)
  • Portosystemic liver shunt (an abnormal vessel that allows blood from the intestine to bypass the liver)

Pro Tip: Shih Tzu health insurance is designed to provide a financial safety net should your pet ever encounter a hereditary condition, common illness, or accidental injury. You can enjoy peace of mind knowing your canine companion has access to the gold-standard veterinary care they deserve, with less stress placed on your personal finances.

Shih Tzu dog in nature

Shih Tzu breed history

Historically, Shih Tzus were bred as house pets and in the 14th century, they made their way into Chinese royalty. The Chinese royals did not allow Shih Tzus to be traded outside of the nobility until 1930 when the first members of the breed were brought to Europe. The breed arrived in the States after WWII and was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1969.

Adopting or buying a Shih Tzu dog

Organizations like American Shih Tzu Club and Shih Tzu Rescue can inform you about rescue opportunities and provide breeder referrals. You can also check local animal shelters and see if there are any Shih Tzu rescues in your area.

If you are interested in dog breeds similar to Shih Tzus, consider checking out the Maltese, Lhasa Apso, Bolognese, and Silky Terrier. There are also many popular Shih Tzu mixed breeds, such as the:

  • Shih Tzu-Poodle (Shoodle)
  • Shih Tzu-Maltese (Malt-Tzu)
  • Shih Tzu-Yorkie (Shorkie)
  • Shih Tzu-Chihuahuas (Shichi)

Whether you’re buying a Shih Tzu puppy or rescuing an adult, be sure to take your pet to your vet as soon as possible. Your vet will be able to spot any issues and will work with you to set up a preventive pet care regimen and a nutrition plan that suits your pet’s needs.

Key Takeaways

  • Exceptionally playful and friendly, Shih Tzus make affectionate and loyal companions for families with children.
  • These cute dogs require extra grooming and a little more patience with training, but their affection and loving nature make it all worthwhile.
  • In general, Shih Tzus are a healthy breed, but they can have a disposition towards certain health conditions like hip dysplasia, as well as eye, ear, and respiratory problems. Should you notice anything out of the ordinary, be sure to discuss your concerns with your vet.

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Aliyah Diamond

Aliyah Diamond
Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Aliyah Diamond has more than ten years of experience in animal hospitals - working with dozens of species from dogs and cats, to elephants and snow leopards. Her lifelong passion for helping animals currently has her earning her doctorate of veterinary medicine at Cornell University and helping Pawlicy Advisor educate pet parents.

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