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All about Shih Tzu 

Shihtzu laying down with a ponytail

No doubt about it, the Shih Tzu is a charmer. They have affectionate, playful personalities, are good family companions, demand little exercise, and love nothing more than a nice cuddle next to their favorite people. If you live in an apartment or have limited time and space to exercise a pet outdoors and are looking for a sweet, cheerful fur friend, a Shih Tzu might just be the perfect fit for you and your family. 

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Shih Tzu are small but sturdy. At full maturity, expect them to weigh between 9 and 16 pounds and to stand about 10 inches tall. They come in a wide range of colors from black to gold to silver or red. Shih Tzu can also have a range of markings. Some display a black mask while others have black or tan markings. They have hair instead of fur, which allows for a whole variety of grooming styles. Shih Tzu grow a thick double coat that is usually straight but may be a bit wavy. The AKC breed standard calls for a long, flowing coat, but some people like to trim them up short for ease of care and to lessen the need for daily brushing. Their large eyes give them a sweet and friendly expression, and they proudly carry their plumed tails curved high over their backs. 


Bred solely to be a companion, the Shih Tzu is marked by a cheerful, outgoing temperament. They are known to be gentle and affectionate with children and to get along with people of all ages. They might run out of patience with small children, especially since they like to have their own way, and children should be taught to treat them gently and respectfully. Shih Tzu are also friendly companions to other dogs, and they are generally known to get along with cats. Shih Tzu are playful and like a good romp around outside, but they do not need long daily walks or constant exercise. They are very people focused and tend to become attached to one special human in their household, so they might be underfoot and a bit clingy.  


The Shih Tzu is an ancient breed, thought to have been first descended from the wild Tibetan Gobi Desert Kitchen Midden dog. In time, these wild dog ancestors were bred and the various breedings led to the Shih Tzu, who was a beloved companion to Tibetan monks and royalty. It is said that the Dalai Lama gave a breeding pair of Shih Tzu to the Dowager Empress Cixi in the late 1800s. Empress Cixi was responsible for developing the breed into the dog we recognize today as the Shih Tzu. She bred these dogs to be companions small enough to be carried in a kimono sleeve. Their thick coats also made them desirable as bed warmers. They were dogs for royalty, and they could only be given as gifts. It was actually a crime for anyone who was not royal to possess one. 

Their name in Chinese is shih-tzu kou, or Lion Dog, because of their mane-like appearance and to honor the Buddha, who was said to have come to Earth on the back of a lion. Eventually they were given as gifts to European nobles in the 1930s, and they made their way to the US in the 1940s as soldiers stationed in England brought them home after World War II.  Unfortunately, the breed was eliminated in China during the Communist revolution beginning in 1949 because of their association as pets for the nobility. It is said that all Shih Tzu now are descended from fourteen dogs bred in England in the mid- 20th century. The breed was formally recognized by the AKC in 1969. They have steadily grown in popularity and are currently ranked 20 out of 200 registered dog breeds. 

Health issues 

Shih Tzu are a generally healthy breed and are not overly susceptible to health problems and disease. They have a life expectancy typical of a small breed from around 10-16 years. There are, however, a few issues to be aware of. 

Their short noses and squished faces give them the signature ‘lion’ look, but brachycephalic (flat faced) dogs can have a few health challenges. Veterinarian Megan Conrad noted to Forbes Advisor that these dogs can have a condition called brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome. Narrow nostrils and other physical features of the palate and airway can make breathing difficult and even lead to dangerous breathing problems. Dogs with this syndrome snore, gag, and breathe loudly, and these difficulties might become worse in hot weather or if the dog is under extreme stress. Depending on the severity of the syndrome, there are a range of methods to address this. It can be managed minimally by limiting exercise, especially in the heat, to taking a more serious step of surgery to ease airway restrictions. 

While they have a natural ability to swim, Shih Tzu’s heavy coats and short faces make swimming difficult, and they don’t have much stamina for staying in the water. 

The large, cheerful eyes that give them such a wonderful expression can also mean that they are more susceptible to a few eye problems such as inflammation, dry eyes or cataracts, and,  

like other small breeds, they can be prone to hip dysplasia and patellar luxation (kneecap dislocation). A reliable breeder will have screened their breeding animals for these eye and joint problems to eliminate them as issues. 

Working closely with your veterinarian will help address any of these health concerns and help ensure that your pup stays healthy and happy for their whole life. 

To consider 

The silky, long coats are one of the best features of the Shih Tzu, but they demand steady grooming attention to stay mat free and looking their best.  

Similar to some other small breeds, it can take extra time and patience for a Shih Tzu to be fully house trained. They can have a stubborn streak and seem to understand that they can get away with a lot of mischief with their cute antics and expressions. This can make them challenging to train, as they seem to understand commands but choose not to comply. Consistent, positive training methods are successful with this breed. 

Shih Tzu are very connected to their people, food, and toys, and they can show possessive behaviors if they feel a threat to any of these. Lots of early socialization and ample physical and mental exercise can help diminish resource guarding behaviors. 

The bottom line 

The Shih Tzu is a wonderful, small companion dog. They offer love and a daily dose of fun, and they are especially well suited for individuals and families without the time or location for lots of daily exercise. A regular walk and some play time are usually all this small doggo needs each day. They do demand lots of attention, but they are always up for a cuddle. This little charmer will reward their family with loving and loyal affection.