The Chihuahua

A pint-sized canine with a macho streak



Introduction

With its big eyes, big ears, and bigger-than-life attitude, the Chihuahua is the epitome of cocky canine in a petite package.

In other words, this pint-sized pet is master of his universe and fears nothing, characteristics that make him a most suitable pet for some people and the worst possible choice for others. But a sudden spurt of popularity as the Taco Bell dog has brought notoriety, and demand for the tough and intelligent dogs has increased.

The Chihuahua has always been popular as a pet for elderly owners and apartment dwellers, so in an era when many breed registrations are declining, the number of Chihuahuas registered annually has increased from 29,860 in 1991 to 38,926 in 1997, an average increase of 1133 registered dogs per year and an overall increase of 30.4 percent. The number is hardly equivalent to the registrations of Labrador Retrievers, the breed with a lock on the number one slot for the past several years, but it has been enough to move the Chihuahua from 16th in popularity to 12th.


Breed history

The Chihuahua takes its name from the Mexican state abutting west Texas and New Mexico, but likely came from the ancient Techichi dogs of the Toltecs crossed with hairless dogs from the Orient. Historians describe the Techichi as a heavy-boned small dog with a long coat indigenous to Central America and definitely connected to the Toltec civilization near present-day Mexico City. The Techichi was larger than the modern Chihuahua and was mute.

The Aztecs conquered the Toltecs and adopted the little dogs as sacred icons of the upper classes, used in religious ceremonies to expiate sins and as guides for the spirits of the dead. Somewhere along the way, breed historian K. deBlinde* concluded, the Techichi was crossed with an Oriental hairless breed that made its way to the New World via the Bering Strait land bridge and the smaller, smooth-coated, vocal Chihuahua of today was born.

The breed was discovered in Chihuahua State in the 1850s and quickly became popular. It was first registered with the American Kennel Club in 1904.


Appearance

The Chihuahua is the smallest of the AKC registered breeds, weighing in at two-to-six pounds. No height is given in the standard, but most Chihuahuas are six-to-eight inches tall. As with many breeds, the body is slightly longer than it is tall.

The overall appearance is of a fine-boned but muscular dog. The head is distinctive with its rounded skull, large eyes, and large ears that perk upright when the dog is alert and flare out to the sides of the head when the dog is resting. The muzzle is moderately short and slightly pointed; teeth are arranged in a level or scissors bite.

The Chihuahua has a graceful neck carried with a slight arch and sloping gracefully into the shoulders. The topline is level, the ribs rounded and well-sprung, and the tail moderately long and carried up in a sickle shape or as a loop that touches the back.

Smooth-coated Chihuahuas have a soft, glossy, and close coat that is full over the body and scanty on the head and ears. The long-coated dogs have a longer soft coat that can be flat or slightly curly and must have an undercoat. The tail on a longcoat resembles a plume; the ears, feet, and legs are feathered; and the neck carries a ruff. Either coat can be any solid color or can be marked or splashed with color on a white background.


Temperament

The official AKC standard for the breed describes the Chihuahua as “A graceful, alert, swift-moving little dog with saucy expression, compact, and with terrier-like qualities of temperament.” However, some Chihuahuas carry “saucy” and “terrier-like” to extremes and are grumpy, haughty, or downright nasty when provoked – and provocation may come easy.

The tendency to be temperamental, a reputation for being suspicious of everyone but his owner, and a clannish dislike of any breed but his own makes the Chihuahua an unsuitable pet for households with small or boisterous children. On the other hand, he may be perfect for an elderly couple or individual, a pet owner who loves to pamper, those who live in apartments, and those on limited incomes.

Unfortunately, the Chihuahua’s innate curiosity, intelligence, and loyalty to and affection for his owner often get lost in the oft-repeated description of the more prominent features of his temperament, but in the right circumstances, he is a wonderful companion.


Health

This is a long-lived breed, often achieving 16 or more years of age. However, there are some genetic diseases that can cause problems. Like most toy breeds, the Chihuahua is susceptible to slipped stifles (a knee injury caused by joint weakness) and fractures and may suffer from jawbone disorders, eye problems, heart disease, and tooth and gum complaints. The potential for some of these problems can be minimized by buying from a breeder who tests breeding stock for inheritable problems and by careful management. For example, Chihuahuas should not be allowed to jump off high furniture or out of your arms as the impact on landing could fracture a leg. Children should not be allowed to carry a Chihuahua or to play roughly with one for the same reason.

The Chihuahua is also born with a soft spot on the top of his head that may not fully close, so a blow here could kill him.

The Chihuahua tendency to shiver or tremble is not a health issue but takes place when the dog is excited or stressed. One explanation is the toy dogs have a higher metabolism and so dissipate body heat faster than larger dogs. Shivering helps to generate body heat – that’s why people shiver when we are cold. However, rapid dissipation of body heat is a distinct disadvantage in cool or cold climates, so Chihuahuas should always be protected when taken outdoors in these areas. Fortunately, there are dozens of styles of protective sweaters available.


The Chihuahua as pet

The Chihuahua’s loyalty and affinity for being close to his master or mistress makes him an amiable companion, and his size makes him a convenient one. Chihuahuas have been known to ride about inside a pocket, in a purse or tote bag, or tucked firmly under the arm of their owners. They fit nicely in soft-sided pet carriers for an airplane ride or a jaunt in the car, and they enjoy outings immensely.

At home the Chihuahua is curious and mischievous. Left to his own devices, the little guy might decorate the entire house with a roll of toilet paper, make confetti out of the mail, or commandeer your bed or favorite chair as his own. Although he is not much bigger than a minute, he could also wind up as master of the household, for he can manipulate owners with great finesse.

Chihuahuas have a distinct liking for others of their own breed and an equally distinct dislike for dogs of other breeds. Therefore, if you want more than one dog, make the additional dogs Chihuahuas. And if you already have a dog of another breed, consider carefully before getting a Chihuahua.


Dangers

Like other small dogs, the Chihuahua faces a danger outdoors that does not threaten his canine cousins that weigh more than 15 pounds – he is just the right size for a meal for a bird of prey or a coyote. Large hawks, eagles, and owls have been known to swoop down on pets and carry them away, and coyotes are becoming a common danger in some city fringes and suburbs.

The indomitable spirit of the Chihuahua also causes problems when the little dog spars with a large breed dog, especially one with a dominant personality or a high prey drive. It is best to always keep a Chihuahua on a leash or carried in arms so it cannot challenge a big dog to a duel it will surely lose.


Finding a well-bred Chihuahua

The Taco Bell dog has made it easier to find poorly-bred Chihuahuas to meet the demand of those folks who do not carefully select a breed to fit their family. That obviously self-confident and trainable little guy has lulled many families with children into thinking the breed is perfect for them, and they trot down to the nearest pet store or let their fingers do the walking through the newspaper ads or on the Internet. However, puppies purchased from these sources may be bred for profit without concern for health or temperament and the breeders and dealers may know next to nothing that will help a family choose wisely or cope with the breed temperament or needs once they get the puppy home.

Responsible breeders are adamant about finding good homes for their puppies. Most responsible Chihuahua breeders – indeed most breeders of toy dogs – rarely place a puppy in a home with children under the age of 12. But like most other toy breeds, Chihuahuas have small litters – often only one or two puppies – so the number of puppies available from responsible breeders (those who check parent dogs for genetic abnormalities, back their puppies with warranties, support puppy buyers with advice and assistance, and breed only dogs of good temperament) are often scarce. So, in spite of the appeal of the Taco Bell dog, families should carefully consider if the breed is right for them and should seek out a sturdier dog of more moderate temperament if they have young children.


For more information about the Chihuahua browse The AKC website.

See also the Booklist below.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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