The Small But Mighty Chihuahua: Characteristics, Traits and Care

Updated December 13, 2021
Woman holding a small white chihuahua in her lap

Descended from ancient Mexican breeds, the Chihuahua is a small but proud dog breed prized for their companionship and affectionate nature. These are feisty, joyful little dogs that love life and attack it with gusto.

Origin and History

The Chihuahua's origin is unclear, but there is a theory that their ancestors could potentially be the South American dog, the Techichi. In the 9th century A.D., a civilization known as the Toltec carved drawings depicting a dog appearing similar in nature to the Chihuahua. The Aztecs conquered the Toltec civilization and believed the Techichi had the power to heal the sick and safely guide their people to the next life.

The version of the Chihuahua known today was discovered some time later, in the 1850s, in Mexico. The dogs were adored by American travelers who brought them back to the states. They were recognized by American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1904 and have remained one of the most popular breeds since the 1960s.

Breed Characteristics

Chihuahuas frequently form attachments to a single person, yet they are usually willing to make new friendships if appropriately introduced, especially if they have been properly socialized.

A chihuahua dog standing on top of a wooden fence

Appearance

According to the AKC breed standard, the Chihuahua's body is just slightly longer than it is tall, and it's compact. The topline is level, and the tail should be carried either sickle or curved over the back. The Chihuahua should be well-balanced, and should not exceed 6 pounds. There are tiny "teacup" Chihuahuas, but they are usually not particularly healthy.

The head is this breed's most distinctive feature. The skull is well-rounded and is often described as an "apple head." The eyes are full and round, and they should convey a saucy expression. The ears should be large and held erect, and they should flare to the sides at about a 45-degree angle when the dog is relaxed. The muzzle is moderately short, and the stop is well-defined where the muzzle meets the head. The bite is either level or scissored, and bites that are overshot or undershot are considered a serious fault.

Any coat color is permissible, including solid colors, as well as dogs with markings or splashes.

Temperament

The Chihuahua, also known as a chi, may be the smallest breed of dog, but they certainly pack a wallop in the personality department. Although many may still have that image of the trembling chi so prevalent decades ago, today's Chihuahua is a different customer. Thanks to the wonderful work of responsible breeders, the Chi fancy has been able to greatly improve the temperament of this adorable breed.

Chihuahua dog on bed

Members of this breed are more likely to be the Kings and Queens of all they survey. They are quite robust and even Terrier-like in temperament, and full of self confidence. Of course, every dog is an individual, but overall, the improvement in personality has been amazing. It should be noted that while these dogs have a natural love for children, their tiny size does not make them the best pets for young children.

This breed is territorial, believing deeply in the pecking order, and will bully each other to establish their place in the order of dominance in their family group. Normally, these issues resolve themselves, but if you find two of your pets are trying to take charge, you'll likely have to resign yourself to keeping them separated.

Training

Training seems to be the Chihuahua's one weak point. That's not to say they are not intelligent enough to learn, because they are. However, these dogs are driven by strong territorial instincts. This results in wetting around the house to mark territory, and females seem to be no better than males in this respect. This means you must be absolutely diligent when commencing potty training, and be sure to thoroughly clean up any accidents so your pet isn't drawn back to that spot. Some owners find that using a litter box or potty pads is helpful.

Long Coat Chihuahua

Chihuahuas do actually take well to obedience training, and can learn to follow consistently given commands. This may actually be of some help with the potty training issues many owners face. Agility training also seems to appeal to their mindset, and there is nothing so adorable as the sight of one of these little, mighty mice racing around the course at full tilt.

Due to their affectionate and gentle nature with humans, these toy dogs also make wonderful therapy dogs, brightening the atmosphere during nursing home visitations.

Exercise Requirements

These little dogs only require 30 minutes of exercise every day. A stroll through the park will provide the exercise that Chihuahuas require to stay happy and healthy. They'll almost certainly request more exercise than they can handle, so it'll be up to you to figure out when they've had enough.

Health

As with most breeds, there are health concerns to be aware of prior to bringing home your furry companion.

  • Patellar Luxation: A common hereditary condition, involving dislocation of the kneecap. Sometimes referred to as a floating patella or slipping kneecap, the problem occurs when the kneecap moves from its normal position causing the dog to limp. In most cases, surgery can correct the problem.
  • Dental Problems: A Chihuahua has a very small mouth, often resulting in overcrowding of their teeth. When teeth are overcrowded, food is easily trapped between them, causing tarter and plaque to build up. Sometimes, teeth have to be removed or are lost at an early age. Another tooth problem that often occurs in Chihuahuas is the retention of puppy teeth. When this occurs, the adult tooth grows in next to the puppy tooth.
  • Hypoglycemia: This occurs when a Chihuahua's blood sugar levels become extremely low. The low levels cause the dog's body to go into shock, generally referred to as sugar shock. When this occurs, the dog becomes weak because essential nutrients cannot reach their body and brain. Many dogs become very sleepy or show an extreme lack of energy. They may begin to shiver, exhibit a lack of muscle coordination, and seem disoriented. The condition, if not treated properly, can result in seizures, coma, and death.
  • Unusual Head: While puppies of most breeds are born with an opening in the bone at the top of their skull, it closes with maturity. According to the Chihuahua Club of America, the Chihuahua's opening, called the molera, may naturally remain open all of their life and is not a cause for alarm. This means that you will always need to have some care for your pet's head, but this almost never presents a problem unless the opening is unusually wide. An exceptionally wide molera at birth could be a sign of hydrocephalus (water on the brain), and though very rare, it's worth examination by a vet. Just note that the presence of a molera does not automatically mean a Chihuahua has hydrocephalus.

Lifespan

In general, Chihuahuas are a healthy breed that often live 12 years or more.

Grooming

Grooming a pet Chihuahua is fairly straightforward. The breed comes in two varieties; smooth coat and long coat. The smooth-coated variety is a breeze to bathe and dry, and even though the long coat carries more hair, it is still fairly easy to maintain as long as you take care to comb through the fringes and the skirt at the rear. You can bathe your dog as often as once a week, if you wish.

Toe nails and ears do need to be checked more regularly on this breed. Since they do not spend the amount of time running around as do other breeds, they don't have the opportunity to wear their nails down, so keep their nails clipped. Clean their ears out twice a month with a cotton swab dipped in a little alcohol.

Famous Members of the Breed

The Taco Bell Chihuahua brought a great deal of attention to the breed, though this dog was not the best representative of the standard. However, a chi is a chi, and Gidget made her mark. Her influence was also felt at Chihuahua rescue programs across the nation, when hasty owners surrendered their pets after realizing the amount of attention the breed requires.

This famous dog sparked love for the Chihuahua, but provides an excellent example that you should be completely aware of the breed you are adopting prior to bringing them home. Don't bring a breed home because they're famous or you're captivated by an advertisement. Choose a breed that's best for you based on your family's lifestyle and what you're looking for in a dog.

Purchasing or Adopting a Chihuahua

If you're looking for a Chihuahua puppy, a good place to start is the Chihuahua Club of America. The club has a breeder directory available as well as helpful tips on how to find responsible breeders with quality dogs. The AKC Marketplace page also has a breeder search. Expect to pay around $400 to $800, although higher-end show dogs from champion lines can cost as much as $2,400.

Chihuahua puppy

Rescue Organizations

If you're not particular on a puppy-age Chihuahua, and would be interested in a rescue dog, you can begin your search on PetFinder and Save-a-Rescue. You can also search breed-specific rescue organizations:

  • Chihuahua Rescue & Transport: A foster-based, non-profit organization dedicated to rescuing and adopting Chihuahuas of all ages.
  • Chihuahua Rescue of San Diego: A non-profit organization rescuing abandoned Chihuahuas in the San Diego, California area.
  • Second Chance Chi: A volunteer-based organization rescuing Chihuahuas and other small breeds from euthanasia in shelters and finding their forever homes.

Is This the Breed For You?

If you live in a home with young children, you may want to consider looking at other, more hardy small breed dogs. If you reside in a home with older children and adults, or you live alone, and are searching for a small breed you can cart everywhere with you easily, this could be the breed for you. They are peppy, but don't require an excessive amount of exercise and adjust well to apartment-living. Prior to making the decision to purchase or adopt this breed, do your research and check off the boxes to see if this breed is what you're looking for. Then, take the next steps toward bringing one home.

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The Small But Mighty Chihuahua: Characteristics, Traits and Care