Imperial Shih Tzu: Myth or Reality

by Janice Jones     |last Updated 08-20-2020

Imperial Shih Tzu, Miniature, Munchkin or Dwarf, Tiny Imperial, Tiny Teacup, Chinese Imperial, and Tiny Toy Shih Tzu are all names that are being used interchangeable to refer to Shih Tzu dogs that are smaller than the AKC breed standard of 9 to 16 pounds.

At first glance, one would think that they represent a separate AKC breed.  This just is not the case; rather they are Shih Tzu dogs that usually reach adult weights of between four and nine pounds with a height of 9 inches or under. These names have been invented and used by breeders and the general public and are in no way “official” designations of the breed.

Imperial Shih Tzu:  Accident or Deliberate?

There is always some variation in size among dogs in the same litter.  Some puppies are born smaller than expected even though their parents are the normal size. 

As with any breed, every once in a while there will be a runt or a puppy that will be smaller than his littermates and will thus be smaller than the breed standard once they reach adulthood.  This is an accidental occurrence, but common in many breeds.

Breeding Smaller Dogs

Some breeders have fallen in love with the smaller versions of the Shih Tzu and  are purposely breeding smaller and smaller dogs. 

Breeders who deliberately breed small Shih Tzu will choose two small dogs that are less than the breed standard hoping to produce offspring that are small as well.  Some breeders who purport to breeding Imperials go so far to claim that there is an “imperial gene” responsible for creating small Shih Tzu.  There is no evidence to this claim.

To breed selectively for small dogs, breeders will find a very small male, breed him to a very small female, and continue to take the smallest dog from the litter until they have a very tiny dog.  Some of the breeders who are actively trying to breed small dogs are also working to get their dogs listed as an official dog breed, “Imperial.” or “Chinese Imperial.” Whether you call them teacups, miniatures, Imperial Shih Tzu or Chinese Imperial, the terms all mean the same thing -- a Shih Tzu who is below the standard weight.

Imperial Shih Tzu:  The Debate

In the United States, this is a hotly topic nowadays when it comes to this breed.  The American Shih Tzu Club is the official national organization that sets the standards for the breed in the United States.  Other countries have their own organizations that set standards and they may or may not be exactly like the American version.

Imperial Shih Tzu:  The Controversy

Small Imperial Shih TzuImperial Shih Tzu

The controversy lies in the fact that some breeders deliberately breed small and then claim their dogs are special in some way and thus should be worth more than those bred to the AKC standard should. 

By calling their puppies “Imperials,” they are implying that their dogs are fundamentally different.  The American Shih Tzu Club considers these claims to be a Myth.  Imperial breeders do not see their dogs as a Myth. 

So-called Imperial breeders tend to charge more for their puppies because they insist that these tiny pups require additional nutritional supplements, care, and affection.  Due to their small size, they sometimes need to be hand-fed. 

In actuality, all toy breeds require this care and most if not all breeders will supplement their puppies with additional nutrients, bottle feeding and even tube feeding if necessary. 

Imperial Shih Tzu & the Law of Supply and Demand

It is unclear whether these breeders of the so-called “imperials” are doing so in order to make more money, or are doing so in respond to a society who is looking for smaller and smaller “purse” dogs.  Most imperial Shih Tzu breeders will say that they breed for a smaller size because they like small sized Shih Tzu dogs. There is some merit in that.

Shih Tzu are very sturdy dogs and a 16 pound Shih Tzu is quite a handful, even though they are considered a toy breed by AKC standards.  Shih Tzu dogs love sitting on people’ s laps and a 16 pound lap dog is formidable weight, especially to a 110 pound woman. To be honest, our dogs have gotten smaller over the years through deliberate attemps by breeders to reduce the size of the dog. 

We have many breeds today that have more than one size including Schnauzers, Poodles, American Eskimo, Shar Pei among others. Even among the toy breeds, there have been drastic reductions in size even within the last century or two. The Yorkie, once a much larger dog is now expected to be 7 pounds or under.

A quick survey of Shih Tzu breeders reveals that oftentimes the demand dictates the supply.  The law of supply and demand is alive and well in the dog breeding industry whether or not breeders or the general public are willing to acknowledge it. 

Breeders are simply supplying society’s demand for small dogs, using the terminology that has become fashionable in recent years.  The terms, Imperial Shih Tzu, Teacup, and Tiny toy Shih Tzu are those terms that the buying public has latched onto. 

As consumers want new and different inanimate products, so too are they search for unusual pets, often time as status symbols.  Is this right?  This is just the reality of the world we live in. 

The Downside to Smaller Shih Tzu

Sadly, there is another side to this breeding tendency.  Normally these so called Shih Tzu Imperial dogs are healthy.  Still, there is no guarantee.  If puppies are less than five pounds, they may have considerable health problems. 

As with other small dog breeds, Hypoglycemia can be a problem in tiny breeds.  Hypoglycemia or low blood sugar is a possible problem with all toy breed puppies but becomes an even greater risk to tiny Shih Tzu pups.  If not caught early, it can be fatal.  Other problems associated with the Shih Tzu breed can worsen in the tiny versions of the breed.

One of the saddest problems that seem to occur when we breed for smaller and smaller dogs is skeletal defects that result in discomfort and pain. 

This happens in dogs selectively bred to be dwarfs as well as those whose structure is small than the breed standard. Often this “dwarfism” in Shih Tzu dogs is deliberate and desirable.  Long bodies and short legs, coupled with outward turned feet are often described by breeders as Shih Tzu with a cobby body, a very desirable trait. 

In reality, these dogs may develop serious problems due to the cobby bodies.  You can see the results of shorter legs and longer bodies in such breeds as Dachshund and Corgi.

Whether or not there is a right or wrong to this debate remains to be seen.  In the meantime, there are tiny Shih Tzu puppies that can be purchased as well as the normal size dogs of nine pounds or more. 

New owners have the right and responsibility to research and make an informed decision as to the size of Shih Tzu they prefer.  New owners should not be caught up in the terminology and should do their homework prior to purchasing a new puppy.  As with any living creature, impulse buying should be avoided.

My Imperial

Regardless of what you call him, he is sweet and sassy and I'm hoping he will someday make lots of little Shih Tzu puppies.

Shih Tzu, Ketchikan