6 Common Health Problems of Small Breed Dogs

Small breed dogs, often characterised as weighing less than 20 pounds, are among the most popular choices for pet owners. These pint-sized pets come with a host of lovable qualities, from their playful personalities to their compact sizes suitable for apartment living. However, just like their larger counterparts, small breed dogs have their own set of health challenges. Below, we’ll explore six common health problems specific to these little canines.

6 Common Health Problems of Small Breed Dogs

Patellar Luxation

Symptoms: A common orthopaedic problem in small dogs, patellar luxation refers to the dislocation of the kneecap. Symptoms include intermittent skipping or hopping, sudden lameness in the affected leg, or the dog holding up the leg.

Causes: It is typically a congenital condition, meaning dogs are born with it. The misalignment of the bones or weak ligaments can cause the kneecap to slip out of its groove.

Treatments: Mild cases might not need treatment. However, severe cases or those causing pain may require surgical correction. Pain medications and joint supplements can also help manage symptoms.

Prevention: While it’s primarily a genetic condition, keeping your dog at a healthy weight and providing regular exercise can reduce the strain on the knees and potentially decrease the severity of symptoms.

Dental Disease

Symptoms: Bad breath, yellow or brown buildup on teeth, inflamed gums, difficulty eating, or tooth loss.

Causes: Small breed dogs often have crowded mouths, which can lead to increased plaque and tartar buildup. This can result in periodontal disease.

Treatments: Regular dental cleanings by a veterinarian, tooth extractions if necessary, and antibiotics for infections.

Prevention: Brush your dog’s teeth regularly using dog-specific toothpaste. Provide dental chews and toys designed to reduce plaque and tartar. Regular veterinary check-ups can also catch dental issues early.

Collapsed Trachea

Symptoms: A honking cough, especially when the dog is excited or after pulling on a leash. Difficulty breathing or bluish gums in severe cases.

Causes: The trachea, or windpipe, is supported by cartilage rings. In some small breed dogs, these rings weaken or collapse, restricting airflow.

Treatments: Mild cases can be managed with cough suppressants, weight management, and avoiding respiratory irritants. Severe cases might require surgery.

Prevention: Use a harness instead of a collar to reduce pressure on the neck. Keep your dog’s weight in check, and avoid exposure to smoke or other respiratory irritants.

Brachycephalic Syndrome

Symptoms: Snoring, laboured breathing, intolerance to exercise, and on occasion, fainting.

Causes: Dogs with “smushed” faces, like Pugs or Shih Tzus, can have narrowed nostrils, elongated soft palates, and other structural abnormalities that hinder airflow.

Treatments: Depending on the severity, treatments range from lifestyle changes (like keeping the dog cool and avoiding stress) to surgical corrections.

Prevention: Avoiding obesity is crucial. Breed responsibly and be aware of the breed-specific challenges when choosing a dog. Some breeders have started breeding programs seeking to undo or minimise this condition.  


Symptoms: Lethargy, shivering, muscle twitching, uncoordinated movement, and in severe cases, seizures or unconsciousness.

Causes: A drop in blood sugar. Small breeds, especially puppies, have less glucose storage and can quickly deplete their energy reserves.

Treatments: For mild cases, offering a meal or a small amount of honey can restore glucose levels. Severe cases require urgent veterinary attention.

Prevention: Feed small, frequent meals, especially for puppies. Monitor for signs after vigorous activity or if the dog misses a meal.

Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD)

Symptoms: Pain, reluctance to jump or climb stairs, hunched back, muscle spasms, or even paralysis in severe cases.

Causes: Degeneration of the discs (cushions) between the vertebrae. The disc material can then press on the spinal cord. Dachshunds, Pekingese, and other breeds with long backs are especially at risk.

Treatments: Depending on severity, treatments can range from pain medications and rest to surgical intervention.

Prevention: Keep your dog at a healthy weight to reduce strain on the spine. Use ramps or steps to help them access higher surfaces. Regular exercise helps maintain good back muscle tone.

Why Do Different Sizes of Dog Breeds Have Different Health Conditions

Understanding why different sized breeds face distinct health challenges requires a dive into genetics, anatomy, and the history of selective breeding.

Genetics and Selective Breeding

The range of dog sizes we see today is primarily due to selective breeding by humans. Desired traits were bred into dogs for specific functions. For instance, large breeds like the Saint Bernard were bred for tasks such as mountain rescues, while smaller breeds like the Dachshund were developed for burrowing and hunting small game. 

Over time, the repeated breeding of dogs with these specific traits resulted in the consolidation of certain genetic predispositions, some of which relate to health issues.

Anatomy and Physiology

The physical structures of dogs vary significantly across breeds and sizes. Large dogs bear more weight on their joints, leading to conditions like hip dysplasia. In contrast, the compact skeletal structure of small dogs can result in crowded teeth, making them more susceptible to dental issues. 

Furthermore, small breeds often have faster metabolisms, which can lead to problems like hypoglycemia if they miss meals or exert too much energy without replenishment.

Lifespan Differences

Generally, smaller dog breeds tend to live longer than larger breeds. The accelerated growth rate and shorter lifespan of large breeds can result in age-related diseases occurring earlier in their lives. 

The reasons for this phenomenon are complex, but it’s suggested that large breeds age faster and are more prone to conditions related to rapid growth and ageing.


While small breed dogs bring immense joy, they also come with specific health considerations. Whether you’re getting your dog from dog breeders in Michigan or a shelter in SoCal, regular veterinary check-ups, a balanced diet, proper exercise, and awareness of these common health problems can go a long way in ensuring your petite pooch leads a long, happy, and healthy life.

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