Have Teacup Dogs Caught Your Eye? Here's What a Veterinarian Wants You to Know About Them
When a cheerful itty-bitty bundle of fur waddles your way, it's hard not to swoon with delight. This is one of the reasons teacup dogs are so popular: They're a handful (literally!) of cuddly sweetness, and many people can't get enough of them.
However, just like purebred and mixed dog breeds, much of the wellbeing of teacup dogs hinges on responsible breeding practices. So while your heart is swayed by a captivating furry-faced photo, it's critical that you firmly evaluate the qualities of this pup's life before birth, in early puppyhood, and with you for the long term.
Brief Overview of Dog Breeding
A thorough understanding of why teacup pups are more than just adorable tiny faces starts with a look at how dogs are bred. And to best understand how to research teacup dog breeders in particular, let's quickly review a few key points regarding the practice of animal husbandry.
- In the U.S., this type of business is regulated under the Animal Welfare Act issued by the Animal Care division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
- Additionally, each state has specific laws dog breeders must follow.
- Some breeding operations require licensing depending on their end sale point, such as a pet store, while others might not.
However, even with all this regulation, puppy mills still exist in the U.S. They are known to manufacture rather than nurture animals. At mills, puppies are born into unsanitary environments, with scant veterinary care, few preventative vaccinations, and no vital socialization.
Disreputable breeding practices are at the center of the public controversy involving teacup dogs. These designer breeds often come from mills and are sold to prospective pet parents for thousands of dollars because they're so unique. Teacup puppies might also be shipped from other countries—a process frequently associated with sickness and scams. These troubles have occurred with specialty dogs in the U.S., too, as this 2020 Orlando Sentinal report details.
Amy Nichols, vice president of companion animals with The Humane Society, shared her views regarding puppy mills with Daily Paws. "We're not against the breeding of dogs," Nichols said in this article. "We're supportive of healthy, responsible breeding. There's a need. Where we draw the line is when you talk about facilities that aren't providing a quality of life for the animals."
So, What's a Teacup Dog?
Teacup breeds are often miniature versions of purebred toy dogs such as Yorkshire terriers, Chihuahuas, and shih tzus, to name a few. They can also be crossbreed or hybrid dogs, such as a Maltipoo (toy poodle and Maltese mix). The descriptive moniker "teacup" is used for marketing purposes because full-grown teacup dogs usually weigh less than 5 pounds and are only a few inches tall, thus theoretically able to fit inside a teacup.
Bonnie Bragdon, DVM, is co-founder and president of the Independent Veterinary Practitioners Association and a former board member of the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics. She tells Daily Paws that pet owners might want smaller dogs for numerous reasons, especially if they're restricted to lifting less weight or worried about being tripped or knocked down by larger dogs.
She adds that an individual living somewhere with limited potty areas, such as in an apartment, might also prefer a more compact canine companion.
Few can deny the cuddly attraction of smaller dogs, but there are several factors to consider before following your heart's desire and becoming a pet parent to one.
Are Teacup Dogs Bred to Standards?
According to Bragdon, just because an individual dog is purebred doesn't necessarily mean they are within breed standards. "Individual dogs who are smaller than recommended breed standards are red flags and could mean the individual is a mistake or narrowly bred," she explains.
In animal husbandry, professionals interested in pedigree breed preservation—whether they intend to show dogs or not—follow breeding conformation standards in the U.S. implemented by the American Kennel Club (AKC) if they want to offer registered purebred puppies. The AKC has seven different classification groups of these types of breeds, based on characteristics and purposes:
- Herding, such as corgi or Shetland sheepdog
- Hound, including beagle and dachshund
- Non-Sporting, which features small dogs like French bulldog and Pomeranian
- Sporting, like a miniature poodle or papillon
- Working, including Siberian husky and boxer
- Terrier, such as Boston terrier or Russell terrier
- Toy, like the ones mentioned above
Although some toy breeds are quite little—a Chihuahua barely tips the scale at 3–6 pounds!—they're not teacups. Again, that's a marketing term, and not a group recognized by the AKC or any other breed organizations in the world.
However, not all teacup dogs have purebred parents. More on that in a moment.
The Dangers of Teacup Dog Breeding
Teacup dogs have a serious wellness disadvantage if they're not bred within specific guidelines. Here are some pointers to discuss with prospective breeders.
When Bragdon refers to "narrowly bred" dogs, this means certain pedigree breeds have genetic challenges due to closed familial lines, which some outside the husbandry community refer to as inbreeding. However, most dog breeds' parent clubs have stringent genetic testing protocol that professionals must follow to ensure better health outcomes for puppies. They also vary their dog parent pairs so the same sire (male) and bitch (female) aren't producing every litter.
Keep in mind, it's not always a cross of a toy sire and bitch that causes issues for teacups—as long as parent dogs are healthy, their pups should be, too, especially when raised with compassionate care.
But their breed-specific heritable diseases and other medical disorders might result in compounded complications for such tiny offspring if a disreputable breeder doesn't adhere to the proper testing guidelines.
For example, registered toy poodle breeders follow testing recommendations from the Canine Health Information Center, which often include:
- A board-certified ophthalmologist evaluation
- PRA Optigen DNA Test, which determines if pups are at risk of Progressive Retinal Atrophy, the degeneration of retina cells, resulting in blindness
- Patella Evaluation, to avoid luxating patella (kneecap displacement) which, depending on its severity, may require surgery
Jenna Stregowski, RVT, is the pet health and behavior editor at Daily Paws. She says indiscriminate breeding—focusing on breeding for canines' 'good' traits without considering the 'bad' ones—can compromise the whole line.
She adds that "line-breeding" can concentrate genetic traits. "So if Mom and Dad both have genes that increase the likelihood of patellar luxation, it greatly increases the chance of that pup having the disease and/or passing it to future offspring," she says. "This becomes more likely with each generation and applies to both desirable and undesirable traits."
You have every right to ask breeders about the health of both dog parents—and their lineage—to learn what to expect for the long-term health of your teacup puppy. If a breeder doesn't willingly disclose this information or let you visit their operation, move on. Toy breeds and their offspring are often best pals with you for 12–15 years; do everything you can to ensure they'll be healthy.
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Bragdon adds that knowing this genetic background might be even more critical with teacup crossbreeds. "Pups produced as the result of mating two purebred dogs of different breeds could produce a smaller individual with fewer problems—or more problems!" she says. "If Papa was a small-statured Pomeranian and Mama was a small-statured Chihuahua—both with dental problems caused by genetics—the pup could have an increased risk of dental disease." Conversely, she says, mating parents with less risk of disease due to their family lineage could further decrease the risk of genetic diseases.
Breeding for Size and Looks
Another challenge with teacup breeding is targeting that tiny size. "Dwarfism can occur in individuals and often sets up the dog for many significant health problems over its lifetime," Bragdon says. "A narrowly bred dog means small stature has been achieved by breeding related dogs to quickly achieve the extreme reduction in size."
Some strictly profit-minded breeders are also prone to cross the runts of litters to create smaller dogs or worse, pups with medical conditions, just to maximize litter production.
"The runt of the litter is often the pup with other congenital (present at birth) problems. This may occur because the fetus didn't get enough nutrients and/or oxygen in the womb, especially in large litters where the placenta wasn't able to provide enough for all fetuses," Stregowski says. "These pups are also often weaker and have trouble competing against littermates for resources—specifically mother's milk. If they do survive to breeding age, their litters are more likely to inherit their negative genetic traits."
And although this might be hard to imagine, disreputable breeders occasionally force bitches into malnourishment to encourage tinier offspring.
Additionally, there's a trend of breeding two teacup dogs together to create what's called micro puppies, which weigh approximately 2–3 pounds. Breeding Business indicates teacup mothers face many difficulties simply with the pregnancy and delivery (known as whelping) of such extremely minuscule pups, so her health and that of her offspring are automatically compromised, often resulting in birth defects and other complications.
Finally, unscrupulous breeders are also more likely to disregard health concerns by producing teacup crossbreeds to solely achieve a particular image, such as husky teacup dogs with striking blue or piebald eyes. The average husky weighs 35–60 pounds—the majority of toy breeds weigh under 10 pounds. To "breed down," as the Humane Society states, just to achieve a designer look is frequently the practice of puppy mills.
Regardless of how cute teacups might look as perpetual puppies, it's critical to consider their full lifetime.
Health Risks for Teacup Dogs
"On the practical side, teacup dogs can be fragile and difficult to treat," Bragdon says. "Stepping on a tiny dog underfoot can put your beloved pet in the emergency room with life-threatening injuries—yes, I've had such cases presented to me! And it can be a struggle to make medications, IV catheters, bandages, splints, medical supplies made for average dogs at 40 pounds work for these little guys."
In addition to parent breed-specific diseases, Bragdon says these are some of the most common health conditions for teacup breeds:
- Collapsed trachea and other breathing problems
- Incontinence or conversely, constant elimination urgency
- Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar
- Bone fractures
- Cushing's syndrome
- Liver disease and liver shunts, which is a congenital birth defect
- Chronic heart disease (valve disease)
- Hydrocephalus, or "water on the brain"
Small and toy breed dogs also have a higher risk of dental issues and tooth decay. Additionally, sometimes their baby teeth don't come out naturally and require surgery to remove. So these concerns might develop in their teacup offspring, too.
Although the cost of medication is less because of size, you and your teacup pup might be visiting the vet clinic more often.
Should You Get a Teacup Dog?
"Smaller is often not better, and there is such a thing as too small and too narrowly bred. Pet parents should take care to find conscientious breeders and seek the advice of their veterinarian," Bragdon says.
She adds that sometimes when looking for exactly the right dog, you might come across a pup who you know is poorly bred or clearly has problems secondary to its breeding and size.
"It's absolutely noble to 'rescue' these individuals, but attempt to negotiate a reduced price or even request to adopt the dog at no cost for several very good reasons," she says. "Medical care could cost a lot, and it makes sense to save money to treat future conditions. Just as importantly, negotiating a reduced rate discourages breeders from irresponsible practices."
However, Stregowski says if a breeder insists on full price or is otherwise not assuming responsibility for unhealthy puppies, report that breeding program to your state authorities.
She adds if you really want a tiny purebred dog, responsible breeders might adopt out healthy runts for little to no fee just so they have good homes. "This would be with a warning that medical conditions may develop later on. It would also require an agreement that the dog will be spayed/neutered, as so not to be bred," she says. "Also, a breeder should take back the dog at any point if an owner can't keep it for any reason—this should actually apply to all dogs purchased from breeders."
Choosing a lovable canine companion should always be with their best interests in mind. The Humane Society provides a comprehensive checklist for finding responsible breeders so you can be assured of your decision.
And after a thorough evaluation, if you ultimately determine a teacup pup isn't for you, that might be really good news for all the devoted doggos waiting to leave the local shelter to possibly join your family.