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The shih tzu, a teddy bear come-to-life, could be by your side for quite a long time. The shih tzu lifespan ranges from 10-18 years.

In fact, the oldest shih tzu is believed to be a dog from Florida named Smokey who lived to 23 years of age. So, this little dog has a long life. You can expect your shih tzu to keep your lap warm for at least one decade — maybe even two.

We’ll look at how the shih tzu lifespan compares to the average lifespan for dogs and what contributes to its lifespan. We’ll share this breed’s most common health problems, and explain how owners can help protect their shih tzu’s health.

How Does the Shih Tzu Lifespan Compare to Other Dogs?

Shih Tzu life span: Shih Tzu lying on a couch

Shih tzu dogs live longer than most dog breeds. According to the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the average lifespan of a purebred dog is 11.9 years. The shih tzu’s life expectancy of 10-18 years means that, while some shih tzus will only live to the average of 11.9 years, many will live much longer.

Why Is the Shih Tzu Lifespan so Long?

Shih Tzu life span: Shih Tzu looking at the camera

One of the main reasons for the long lifespan of a shih tzu is their small size. Small dogs typically live longer than large dogs. A study published in the American Naturalist found that large dogs have shorter lifespans and can age nearly twice as fast as small dogs.

Popular Science” found this correlation to be true throughout the animal kingdom where larger animals, like whales and elephants, live longer than smaller animals, but the smallest individuals within a species live the longest.

Toy breeds — a group of dogs that includes the shih tzu, Maltese, toy poodle, and many other diminutive dog breeds — are the smallest of the dog breeds, so these dogs tend to live the longest. But the shih tzu’s upper limit of 18 years (or 23 in the case of Smokey) is high even for a small dog.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the average small breed dog’s lifespan is 12-15 years. Only a handful of small breed dogs have average life expectancies longer than 15 years, and the shih tzu is one of them.This breed’s long history may affect its longevity.

How Does the Shih Tzu’s History Affect Its Lifespan?

Shih Tzu life span: close up shot of a Shih Tzu looking at the camera

The shih tzu breed has been around for more than one thousand years. For comparison sake, the golden retriever has only been around for about 150 years.

Originally bred in China, the shih tzu likely started as a mix of two Tibetan dog breeds — the Lhasa apso and the Pekingese, which lived in monasteries and palaces in Tibet and China. The word “shih tzu” translates to “little lion dog” in Mandarin, and the breed was beloved by ancient Chinese nobility.

While the Chinese nobility did selectively breed this dog for looks, the shih tzu’s ancient lineage means that the breed predates modern veterinary medicine. Without medical intervention, natural selection will have weeded out the least healthy of the shih tzu’s ancestors, leaving only healthier dogs to pass on their genes.

So, when it comes to longevity, time is on the shih tzu’s side. But, that doesn’t mean the breed is without health issues.

What Health Issues Do Shih Tzus Have?

Vet checking a Shih Tzu

Many of the health conditions that affect shih tzus are not fatal. But they can reduce a dog’s quality of life and make the dog less active, which can reduce their longevity over time. 

Here are the most common health issues for shih tzus:

Eye Problems

The shih tzu has big, beautiful eyes, but their unique eye shape can lead to health problems, including cataracts, dry eye, and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). They are also at a higher risk of proptosis, an emergency medical condition where the eyeball pops out of its socket.

These eye problems can reduce your dog’s vision, which can lead to decreased mobility, which can in turn lead to a shorter lifespan.

Ear Infections

Many dogs with long, floppy ears are prone to ear infections because water, dirt, and debris can more easily get trapped in their ear canal. These infections will cause pain and reduce the dog’s quality of life. Frequent infections could also lead to chronic inflammation, which can increase a dog’s risk of developing a variety of chronic diseases.

Joint Problems

While hip dysplasia is more common in large breed dogs, it can still affect small dogs, including the shih tzu. This condition is caused by a malformed hip socket that causes bone to rub on bone. Patellar luxation, which happens when a dog’s kneecap shifts out of the socket, is also common in this breed.

Both conditions can decrease a dog’s mobility, leading to a more sedentary and shorter life.

Skin Allergies

Skin allergies are relatively common in dogs, and very common in shih tzus. Allergies are usually a reaction to something in the dog’s environment, although in rare cases, dogs can be allergic to food. Symptoms include itching, hot spots, and red, irritated skin. Uncontrolled allergies can also lead to chronic inflammation.

Breathing Problems

Shih tzus are considered a brachycephalic dog breed — a class of dogs with short snouts and shortened airways. Other brachycephalic breeds include boxers, pugs, English bulldogs, French bulldogs, and Boston terriers.

All of these breeds are at risk of developing Brachycephalic Obstructive Airway Syndrome (BOAS), a condition where the shape of the dog’s airway makes it difficult for them to breath. This can make it difficult for the dog to regulate its body temperature. And, combined with the shih tzu’s long coat, it puts them at increased risk of heat stroke.

In severe cases, BOAS can make it difficult for your dog’s body to get the oxygen it needs, which can lead to additional long-term health issues.

Shih tzus are also at risk of trachea collapse, an emergency medical condition that makes it difficult for your dog to breathe and causes your dog to make a distinct honking noise. This condition can be fatal without immediate medical treatment.

How Can You Raise a Healthy Shih Tzu?

Woman walking a Shih Tzu

Pet parents play an important role in keeping their shih tzu healthy into old age. You can take steps to help your dog live a healthy life and to ensure your pet gets early diagnosis and treatment if any health conditions do emerge. 

Here’s what you can do to protect your shih tzu’s health:

  • Get your shih tzu puppy from a responsible breeder who uses genetic testing to make sure their dogs are healthy before breeding.
  • Feed a healthy diet with a high-quality dog food that features real meat as the first ingredient and includes whole food fruits and vegetables.
  • Use a fish oil supplement to help protect your dog’s eye, skin, and joint health.
  • Use probiotics and high-fiber pumpkin to help support your dog’s digestive health.
  • Keep your dog up-to-date on their annual vaccinations to protect against rabies, distemper, Bordetella, and other preventable causes of death.
  • Schedule annual check-ups with your vet to monitor your dog’s health and identify any issues as early as possible.
  • Get regular dental cleanings to prevent dental problems, which research shows can decrease the risk of early death.
  • Provide regular exercise to prevent obesity, but limit time outdoors on very cold or hot days, and avoid letting your shih tzu swim. Remember, their short faces can make it hard for them to breathe in these conditions. Exercise your shih tzu indoors when it isn’t safe to do so outside.

Your Shih Tzu and You

Shih Tzu lying on the lap of his owner

The shih tzu is a loving and affectionate dog. And because the shih tzu lifespan of 10-18 years is longer than most breeds, this toy dog will provide you with love for an extra long time — potentially for close to two decades.

But while they are a relatively healthy dog breed, shih tzus are still prone to a variety of health conditions — from eye and ear infections to brachycephalic obstructive airway syndrome and heat stroke. These health issues can affect the dogs’ quality of life and decrease their longevity. But, owners can help.

Get your shih tzu puppy from a responsible breeder. Then provide a high-quality diet, preventative veterinary care, frequent exercise, and health-promoting supplements for dogs. Take good care of your shih tzu, and they will take care of you (and your lap) for years to come.

For more information on your favorite dog breeds, visit the Native Pet blog.

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