An owners’ guide to the special needs of small and mini breeds

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See the world through their eyes

Small dog breeds are understandably popular, slotting into our lives and homes without taking up too much precious space, but we do need to consider how the world looks from their point of view. Try to get down on your dog’s level – literally – and take a good look around. Does the sofa loom high overhead? Does the slippery kitchen floor seem to extend for miles? Do even the children look like scary giants to your small dog? This is your dog’s environment, so it’s important to see things from their perspective. Ask yourself a few key questions:

Do things look a little scarier from down here? When people and household objects loom high overhead, it can get a bit intimidating – think of a hoover that’s bigger than you are to get an idea of how your dog may feel.

How far away from primary rest or play areas are essentials such as the water bowl? A short sprint or marathon distance?

If your dog is allowed on the furniture, how far do they have to jump? Would your dog benefit from a step that leads up to furniture?

All shapes and sizes

Small and miniature breeds are a celebration of the wide variety of the mini canine forms. Some are compact and sturdy, like Jack Russell Terriers or West Highland White Terriers. Others, such as Italian Greyhounds, Prague Ratters and Chihuahuas, can be quite sensitive and delicate, naturally requiring gentle handling and careful treatment.

There are several breeds that have very distinct features, such as the iconic long-backed Dachshund, round-headed Japanese Chin, or the hairless Chinese Crested. Beware of breeds like this. Distinctive features are often extreme compared to ‘normal’ dogs, and all these features can have a detrimental effect on the health and welfare of dogs. By all means choose a small breed, but look for those that are not teeny tiny teacup versions and choose breeds with normal proportions and coats.

Whatever your dog’s size and shape, be sure to take their needs into account when considering things like the size and shape of their bed, food and water dishes, lead and collar or harness type, temperature requirements, and more.

Small dog syndrome

Being a small dog in a big world can be a challenge. However, small dogs very often get away with naughty or dangerous behaviours that would never be tolerated in their larger breed counterparts. These little Napoleons often first use these behaviours as a kind of defence mechanism, but it can quickly turn to habit if not corrected early on. Owners should keep in mind that pulling on the lead, running away when called, snarling, or biting are all equally bad behaviours whether coming from a 2kg Chihuahua or a 50kg Rottweiler. In both cases, the right socialisation and training can work wonders.

Learning and practising appropriate behaviour in a wide variety of situations from an early age will help a dog of any size feel reassured and relaxed, helping prevent behaviours that are undesirable or downright dangerous. Seek help from a reputable, reward-based trainer who knows your breed, or search for a local obedience class.

Less means more

Small breeds have different calorie requirements than large dogs. Since they have more surface area per kg than large dogs, they typically expend energy at a faster rate for normal body functions like keeping warm. They also spend more energy on simply getting around. Walking down to the end of the block may cost your neighbour’s Labrador 100 steps, while your Lhasa Apso may need 400 to cover the same distance.

Small dogs may need more calories per kg of body weight daily than large dogs do, but they should still be safeguarded against gaining too much excess weight. Obesity is just as dangerous for small dogs as it is for big dogs.

Pocket-sized puppies

These tiny tots need more calories per gram of body weight, and can’t stockpile energy reserves in the way larger breed pups can, so they require more frequent calorie-dense meals.

Mini and small breed puppies should be fed small meals frequently throughout the day to compensate for their small stomach capacity and rapacious need for energy. Read food labels for optimal feeding amounts and ask your vet for advice tailored to your individual puppy’s needs.

As with any breed, small pups should be protected but not babied. Although it may take a stout heart to look a fluffy little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppy in its big brown eyes and say no, it must be done. Early training for small breed dogs sets the stage for a more relaxed, dependable, and better-behaved canine companion later on.

Living long and well

Small dogs often live significantly longer than their large and giant breed counterparts. Maltese, Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers and Miniature Dachshunds are all known to live to be over 12 years old. The median lifespan for Miniature Poodles and Border Terriers is nearly 14 years of age, with the maximum reported to be nearly 20 years of age.

This long life is very often combined with city dwelling, and small dogs need extra protection to maintain good health well into their golden years. In between regular trips to the vet, small dogs can really benefit from extra antioxidants to help their bodies combat the effects of ageing and urban life.

Feeding the right food

Always make sure you feed a good-quality, complete and balanced food suitable for your small or mini dog. The choice can be a bit daunting, so speak to your vet about what they recommend and how much to feed to keep your little friend in tip-top condition.

Reviewed by Dr. Emma Milne BVSc FRCVS