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Health Problems in Shih Tzus: 11 Common Issues to Watch For

Written by: Kit Copson

Last Updated on June 4, 2024 by Dogster Team

shih tzu sitting in the grass face closeup shot

Health Problems in Shih Tzus: 11 Common Issues to Watch For


Dr. Ashley Darby Photo


Dr. Ashley Darby

BVSc (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Shih Tzus are very popular family dogs thanks to their fun-loving, spirited, and affectionate natures. They bring a lot of joy and countless laughs to any household they’re a part of for many years (their long-expected lifespans of 10–18 years are a bonus).

Nevertheless, if you’re a Shih Tzu parent or are considering making one a member of your family, there are some health issues this breed is prone to that you should be aware of. In this post, we’ll explore 11 health conditions to keep an eye out for if you have a Shih Tzu.

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The 11 Common Health Problems in Shih Tzus

1. Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome

Because Shih Tzus have short faces, they are a brachycephalic breed, along with Pugs, French Bulldogs, and others. Unfortunately, brachycephalic dogs are prone to breathing problems and signs of severe cases include a loud, pronounced noise in the airways, getting tired quickly, collapsing or fainting after exercise, retching, coughing, gagging, and vomiting.

Brachycephalic dogs tend to struggle in hot and humid weather due to being more at risk of overheating. In the long term, the extra effort Brachycephalic breeds have to make just to breathe can result in stress on the heart and higher blood pressure.

If you have a brachycephalic breed, it’s important to manage things by keeping your dog out of hot, humid temperatures, keeping them at a healthy weight, and making their environment as stress-free as possible. In some cases, a vet may recommend surgery to help your dog breathe more easily.

sad Shih Tzu with tear stains
Image Credit: sypacc, Pixabay

2. Collapsing Trachea

When the cartilage rings in the windpipe weaken and flatten down when the dog breathes in, this is what’s known as a collapsing trachea. Shih Tzus are one of the most commonly affected breeds, along with Chihuahuas and Toy Poodles, among others.

Symptoms include a dry cough that’s persistent in nature and sounds somewhat like a “goose honk.” When pressure is applied to the neck, the coughing may get worse. This condition is treated with surgery and/or medication.

3. Hip Dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a condition that causes the hip ball and socket to loosen because they did not grow at an equal rate during the growth stage. This results in discomfort and pain and leads to degenerative joint disease, also known as arthritis. Treatment includes managing the condition at home with moderate exercise and weight control, medication, vet-prescribed supplements for the joints, physical therapy, and, in some cases, surgery.

4. Luxating Patella

This term is used to describe a dislocating kneecap. Unfortunately, several small and toy breeds are susceptible to a luxating patella1, including the Shih Tzu, Maltese, and Bichon Frise. There are four grades, the highest grade being the most serious. Treatment options depend on how severe the luxation is—grades two to four are often treated with surgery.

shih tzu with puppy cut
Image By: AlexFilim, Shutterstock

5. Dry Eye

Shih Tzus are susceptible to corneal damage and eye ulceration caused by dry eye. Dogs with dry eyes suffer from inflammation in the cornea and areas surrounding it because they lack the natural protection that tears provide. The dryness is usually a result of the immune-mediated destruction of the tear glands.

Watch out for symptoms like irritated eyes that are red, sore, squinting, and/or held shut. The eye can also appear dry or have a thick yellow discharge. In time, the cornea can become damaged and discolored. Treatment is life-long medication, usually administered as drops in the eye.

6. Dental Disease

Shih Tzus are prone to dental disease because they have the same number of teeth as other dogs, crowded into a smaller space. The crowding provides a great environment for plaque and tartar to form, and in time, this can lead to infection around the root of the tooth, known as periodontal disease.
Good at-home dental care is very important for Shih Tzus to prevent tartar. Daily teeth brushing using a dog-specific toothbrush and toothpaste, dental treats, a dry food diet, and regular vet checks can help keep their teeth in good condition.

7. Cataracts

When the eye lens becomes cloudy or opaque, this is what’s called a cataract. If the lens becomes 100% opaque, it causes blindness, though this does not happen in every case. Dogs with a smaller percentage of opacity (up to 30%) are much less likely to suffer from problems with vision. Fortunately, treatment options are available to prevent blindness.

shih tzu with cataracts
Image By: Mary Swift, Shutterstock

8. Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive retinal atrophy is a condition in which the photoreceptor cells in the retina start to deteriorate, which, in the long term, results in blindness. It is a genetic disease caused by a DNA mutation. One of the early symptoms is night blindness, which means your dog may bump into things when it’s dark and struggle to find their way around. There is no treatment for progressive retinal atrophy, but blindness in dogs can be managed to improve their quality of life.

9. Cushing’s Disease

Cushing’s disease affects the adrenal glands, causing them to produce too much cortisol (the stress hormone). It can be caused by tumors in the pituitary gland or adrenal gland, although the disease is more prevalent in certain breeds. Symptoms include drinking more water, appetite increase, lethargy, thinning hair, and peeing more often than usual.

Treatment involves medication to control the production of cortisol and close monitoring with regular blood tests if your dog has the more common pituitary form of the disease. Although it is not the norm, advanced surgical treatment can be an option.

10. Portosystemic Shunt

This is a liver disorder in which blood shunts around the liver due to the portal vein (the vein that carries blood into the liver) and another vein not connecting properly. Symptoms include, but are not limited to, disorientation, seizures, head pressing, circling, stunted growth, and poor muscle development.

The condition is best treated with surgery if this is possible on a case-by-case basis, but it can be managed with medication and special diets.

Sad Shih Tzu
Image By: Lindsay Helms, Shutterstock

11. Intervertebral Disc Disease

When the discs in a dog’s spine slip, rupture, herniate, or bulge out, it is known as intervertebral disc disease. Genes affecting the formation of cartilage lead to a Shih Tzu having short legs but also cause the intervertebral discs to degenerate over time. This makes them susceptible to injury.

A disc can rupture in the neck or back, and the signs vary depending on which part of the spine is affected. General signs include neck pain, back pain, weakness, wobbly gait, and even paralysis. This condition is treated with rest and medications, but more severe cases could need physical therapy or surgery.

Other Potential Shih Tzu Health Conditions:

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To increase the chances of your Shih Tzu staying healthy, it’s a good idea to take them for at least one vet checkup per year even if they seem fine, though it’s perfectly fine to bring them more if you want to put your mind at ease.

Check your Shih Tzus eyes often for signs of redness, swelling, and/or opacity, and their ears for inflammation, discharge, or anything that seems unusual to you. Keep an eye out for other symptoms of being unwell and make sure your Shih Tzu is eating a high-quality diet and being exercised enough. They should maintain a healthy weight at all times. If you suspect that something isn’t right, please contact your vet.

Featured Image Credit: Fran • @thisisfranpatel, Pixabay

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