Typical Health Problems in Small Breed Dogs

Published by Erin Ollila
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Congratulations! You and your family are about to adopt a small dog. You've researched everything, from the best toys for small pups to how to take your dog on holiday, but you should also be aware of some of the most common small dog health problems.

Of course, just because some health problems are common for small dogs, it doesn't mean your new family member will experience them. But as a caring pet parent, you want to be prepared for all the happy, playful times, while also knowing what to expect if anything were to go wrong. Read on to learn more about the five common health problems that small dogs may face.

1. Tracheal Collapse

The trachea, often referred to as the windpipe, is composed of small rings of cartilage with a thin membrane of tissue making up the upper surface. Tracheal collapse is a chronic, progressive condition where the cartilage rings lose some of their rigidity and the upper tissue membrane begins to sag. This condition can make it difficult to breathe.

Most dogs who experience tracheal problems are of middle age or older, though it can occasionally affect younger dogs. The most common sign of this problem is a dry, harsh cough that is sometimes referred to as a “goose honk” cough. It tends to be worse at night, with excitement, or when a collar is pulling on their neck. If your dog is coughing, it’s important to bring them to your veterinarian to determine if tracheal collapse is the cause of the cough and get recommendations on what can help.

2. Patella Luxation

Patella luxation (a dislocated/displaced kneecap) is a genetic condition that can affect any breed of dog, but The Animal Trust reports that toy and miniature breed dogs such as Poodles, Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers and Pomeranians are most commonly affected.

Dogs with this condition may not always show signs, but most will carry their affected limb for a few steps and “skip” or shake their leg before returning to normal walking. This lameness generally becomes more frequent as the condition progresses and arthritis can develop. Treatment can vary depending on the severity, with surgery being recommended in more serious cases. If you notice your dog limping or “skipping”, your veterinarian should evaluate your dog and provide you with the best management options.

Blonde Pomeranian mix being groomed

3. Mitral Valve Disease

One of the more serious small dog health problems takes place in the heart. During the ageing process, the valves of the heart may begin to “wear out” and leak, causing the heart to work less effectively. A leak in the mitral valve, one of the major valves on the left side of the heart, is called mitral valve insufficiency or mitral regurgitation. 

Not all dogs with mitral valve disease will show signs, but the PDSA lists the most common symptoms as low energy, weight loss, breathlessness, panting, weight loss and collapse. Another common symptom is coughing that gets worse at night, or after sleeping or lying down.

Dogs with severe mitral valve problems can be at risk for congestive heart failure, so it’s important to visit your vet as soon as possible if your dog shows symptoms. Your vet will check for a murmur using a stethoscope, and may wish to perform other tests like ultrasounds, x-rays or ECGs (used to check your dog’s heart rhythm). 

Unfortunately, there are no preventative methods you can take to avoid this condition. However, regular checkups mean that your veterinarian can catch the problem as early as possible and provide you with a plan for monitoring and care.

4. Dental Disease

Good dental care is important for all dogs but, due to their crowded teeth, small breed dogs tend to have higher risks of developing dental issues. The first sign of dental problems is often bad breath but you may also see tartar buildup on the teeth and reddened gums. As dental disease progresses, it can cause pain, loose teeth and trouble eating. 

It is important to make sure you have a good routine in place to try and keep your dog’s teeth clean. Daily toothbrushing is the gold standard, but this habit should be started at puppy age because it can be quite difficult to establish in older dogs. There are a number of foods, treats and doggie toothpastes available to help. Make sure to check the packaging for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal to ensure you choose a product that works. Your veterinarian can also recommend specific products that may help your dog and will let you know when a full dental cleaning is needed.

5. Obesity

While it can be tempting to give your small dog lots of treats, it is important to remember that this can lead to weight gain. Signs your dog might be overweight include not being able to easily feel their ribs and the loss of an obvious waist. Overweight dogs may also have trouble getting around and may be at risk for other diseases such as diabetes and arthritis.

Make sure that you’re feeding your dog the correct amount of food, offering a limited number of small treats, and giving them enough opportunity to exercise every day – even if they’re just playing with their toys at home or in the garden.

If you think your dog is overweight, contact your veterinarian. They can help you determine the ideal weight for your pup and help to get you started on an appropriate weight loss plan.

Knowing some of the common small dog health problems your new dog may face helps you to ensure you’re doing everything you can to keep them healthy. But remember — just because your dog's size makes them a potential candidate for some of these health concerns, it doesn't mean they will ever experience them. Knowing what to look out for means that you can seek early treatment from your veterinarian or even avoid certain issues altogether.

Contributor Bio

Erin Ollila

Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform—and even transform—its intended audience. Her writing can be found all over the internet and in print, and includes interviews, ghostwriting, blog posts, and creative nonfiction. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media. She graduated from Fairfield University with an M.F.A. in Creative Writing. Reach out to her on Twitter @ReinventingErin or learn more about her at http://erinollila.com.


Reviewed by Dr. Hein Meyer, DVM, PhD, Dipl-ECVIM-CA

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