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No Small Problem: The Ethics of Teacup Dogs

So-called teacup dog breeds may be perpetually adorable, but they have many medical issues.

 |  Jun 25th 2014  |   6 Contributions


"Oh! They're so cute when they're that age! Sometimes I wish they'd stay that small forever." These are common things you'll hear whenever anyone trots out a tiny baby, whether it's a human infant or a newborn puppy. For years now, dog lovers have searched for the philosopher's stone, the fountain of eternal youth; to wit, for small dogs who stay small. While we have been unable and unwilling to halt the progress of human growth, in dogs, breeding science has given us the previously unthinkable: teacup dogs. Can you look at this teacup Yorkie without gushing?

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I dare you not to make baby noises at the sight of this Teacup Yorkie. Cute Yorkie puppy in large teacup with white daisy flowers on blue background by Shutterstock.

These feelings are nothing new. Edmund Burke's 1757 treatise, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, was one of the first sustained examinations of human aesthetic experience in English. Burke theorized that "in the animal creation, out of our own species, it is the small we are inclined to be fond of," such as "little birds, and some of the smaller kinds of beasts." He notes that not only are the things we consider beautiful "comparatively small," but that we even refer to beloved people and things by diminutives in our language.

What are teacup dog breeds?

We may be drawn instinctively toward things that are small and cute, but is it ethical, is it appropriate, is it even desirable to breed living creatures for the express purpose of ensuring they are forever tiny? In many ways, the demand among consumers for a teacup puppy of their own is similar to the rage for designer dogs. It is a pattern of behavior that reeks of avarice and of a strange disregard for the health and well-being of creatures we claim to love. Let's look at where teacup dog breeds come from, and the issues that a teacup dog may face over the course of her life.

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Not only are teacup dog's births suspect, but they also tend to suffer from any number of health issues. a tiny chihuahua lying on a couch by Shutterstock.

First of all, it is worth noting that technically, there is no such thing as a "teacup" dog; the name itself is a marketing ploy, a cunning linguistic trick used by disreputable breeders to make their own pockets fat. There is not one kennel club on the planet, not one official dog registry, nor any dog fancy organization that recognizes teacup dog breeds for purposes of competition or pedigree.

So where do teacup puppies and teacup dogs come from? Some teacup puppies are born in puppy mills -- the abhorrence of every rational being -- when unethical breeders breed the runts of litters with each other in hopes of selling their equally tiny offspring to gullible buyers. The exorbitant prices that a teacup puppy can fetch ranges from several hundreds to many thousands of dollars. A so-called teacup puppy may, in fact, be a runt itself or a prematurely born puppy, cleverly and insidiously marketed and sold as a teacup dog long before he grows to full size.

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This is an outrageously cute teacup Poodle, which may end up suffering outrageously throughout her life. adorable poodle puppy with pink bows by Shutterstock.

Health issues in teacup dogs

One of the major ethical issues with the breeding and sale of teacup dogs is that they face lives beset with risk and peril. Teacup puppies tend to suffer more frequently from crippling birth defects that become lifelong health problems. Add the high cost of adopting a teacup puppy to an almost-constant stream of veterinary bills, and what should be a loved pet and friend quickly becomes a yawning chasm of medical expenses.

One particularly odd fact about teacup dogs is that many of them are members of traditionally small dog breeds. Despite the general differences between dog breeds -- whether we are talking about a teacup Chihuahua, teacup Maltese, teacup Pomeranian, teacup Poodle, teacup Pug, or teacup Yorkie -- all teacup dogs are subject to a similar litany of potentially debilitating health problems.

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I want to give this teacup Pomeranian a hug, but that might accidentally injure him. Small Pomeranian puppy sitting in the grass by Shutterstock.

Your breed-standard Pug or Chihuahua already has slightly bulging eyes and shortened muzzles, which can cause problems as they age. In their teacup forms, these physical issues are writ large. Teacup dog breeds often have malformed skulls with permanent soft-spots, and the structural deficits don't stop there. Many teacup dogs have poor bone density, making their bones brittle throughout life. Dogs who stay small may be eternally cute and precious, but at what cost to their quality of life?

Regardless of breed, teacup dogs suffer more frequently from major organ malfunctions. Enlarged hearts and heart murmurs occur more often in undersized dogs than in their normal-sized brethren. Liver shunts, conditions in which blood fails to reach or be cleaned in the liver, are more common in teacup dogs. Teacup dog breeds are at higher risk for developing, or being born with, serious problems in their digestive and respiratory systems. Because he is so small, a teacup puppy is also subjected to constant stress, which not only causes its own digestive issues, like diarrhea and constipation, but also puts added pressure on lungs and hearts, which may already be underdeveloped.

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Standard Pugs have known health issues as they age; these issues are accelerated in a teacup Pug. Pug puppy by Shutterstock.

What's it all for?

Edmund Burke's treatise, which we began with, claims that "an appearance of delicacy, and even of fragility, is almost essential" to our experience of beauty, even pointing out that, "among animals, the Greyhound is more beautiful than the Mastiff." While purpose-bred lapdogs were popular in the 1700s and earlier, Burke was comparing differences in size that were almost entirely natural. Whatever fragility contributes to our experience of and sympathy with the beautiful, Burke importantly adds that an "ill state of health, which produces such weakness, alters the other conditions of beauty," concluding that "the parts in such a case collapse."

The same rationale may be applied fruitfully to the phenomenon of designer dog breeding. Whether they are bred to shed less hair, produce fewer allergens, or to be dogs who stay small, the vanity in all such pursuits is problematic at best. When prospective dog owners seek out a teacup puppy or a teacup dog, they unwittingly encourage disreputable breeding practices and the perpetuation of myriad health problems in the dogs thereby produced. Where do you stand on the issue of teacup dogs? Share your thoughts in the comments!

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