How Long Do Shih Tzus Live? What Health Concerns Do They Have?

Looking for a little dog that has a wide diversity of looks and a great personality? A Shih Tzu may be the right dog for you! I think the Shih Tzu is a breed frequently confused with others, but once you recognize the difference you can’t help but notice these little powerhouses! My clients that are Shih Tzu owners are so proud of them and love to tell you funny and unusual stories about the things they’ve done.

One of the most common questions I get from these owners are “How Long Will My Shih Tzu Live?” The answer to that question, based on information from the AKC (American Kennel Club) is 10-18 years.

I believe that Shih Tzus can routinely live to the upper end of this range and longer. In this article I will explain how to keep your Shih Tzu healthier so it lives to a very, very old age.

How To Pick The Healthiest Shih Tzu Puppy

Having a healthy Shih Tzu starts first and foremost with picking the right breeder. There are two ways you can go about finding a quality breeder:

  • Use the AKC site to find one
  • Go through the American Shih Tzu Club to find a reputable breeder
  • If you’re not wanting an adult, check out a local Rescue!
  • If you’re lucky enough to already know and love a Shih Tzu, find out who the breeder of the litter was. That’s a great start.

If you’re getting a Shih Tzu from a rescue organization, try to find out the medical history of the dog as completely as possible. Understand that, while problems can emerge at any time, chronic health conditions that have been dealt with (successfully or unsuccessfully) for years are going to be your responsibility going forward.

What Diseases Can Shih Tzus Suffer From?

The most common diseases that can affect any Shih Tzu include:

  • Dental Disease
  • Luxating Patella
  • Corneal Diseases

Shih Tzus are a pretty hardy little breed. I find them to be pretty healthy in my area.

Dental Disease

Dental disease is the most common problem I see in my Shih Tzu patients. Some of it isn’t their fault. It’s a small mouth area and there’s a lot of teeth that have to fit in there. Do you own a Shih Tzu? Look in their mouth right now and see the pre-molars that are actually situated almost perpendicular to the rest of the teeth.

Shih Tzus have a hard time chewing due to the small size of their mouth so it’s hard for them to keep the plaque and tartar off manually. They also seem to be more genetically predisposed to acquiring more plaque and tartar than many other dogs.

Over time the tartar will work its way up the root of the tooth, pushing the gum away and causing the tooth to begin to loosen in the mouth. It’s highly unusual for a Shih Tzu in my practice to not lose teeth as they get older for this reason.

The best way to prevent tartar in your Shih Tzu will be to “brush” their teeth daily. By brushing, all I mean is to put a bit of dog-specific toothpaste on your finger and then rub that toothpaste along the outside part of your dog’s teeth. You don’t need to force the mouth open. In fact, it’s easier and faster if they hold it closed.

You’ll likely need to start getting your Shih Tzu used to this as soon as you bring their home the first time as they are quite stubborn and will be difficult later in life to train for brushing. In any case, in a perfect world, do this daily and it’ll only take you about 15 seconds total. Get as close to perfect as you can.

Patellar Luxation

This is a condition in which the kneecap (it can be just one knee or both of them) doesn’t sit properly in the groove of the femur. Shih Tzus are prone to this condition because their leg bones are frequently somewhat curvy.

That curve in the leg puts a lot of stress on the side of the knee and, over time, there’s pressure for that kneecap to move medially (towards the other leg). In some dogs the kneecap will freely move from a very young age (as early as 4-6 months) whereas in other dogs it comes on over time as they age.

The luxation can freely move in and out of position or it can move out (luxate) and then get stuck. The more problems this luxation causes, the more likely that only surgery will fix it.

Corneal Diseases

There are three issues that can affect the cornea of a Shih Tzu:

  • Trichiasis
  • Corneal Ulcers
  • Dry Eye (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca/KCS)


Most pet owners have never heard of this term but it’s something that they’ve seen and not realized it. Trichiasis is a condition in which something outside of the eye is touching the eye. This is not distichia where something on the eyelid (or within the eye) touches the eye.

Triachiasis is usually a chronic condition that occurs when hair around the eye is not being properly trimmed. Many times when Shih Tzu puppies are brought into my clinic I have to instruct owners on the importance of having a groomer keep that area clean and short.

Is this what causes the chronic tearing/staining seen around the eyes of Shih Tzus? It can be part of the cause. The other factors that cause increased tearing include the “buggy” nature of the eyes to begin with and a narrowed or closed-off nasolacrimal duct down to the nose.

Corneal Ulcers

While these are common in many breeds of dogs because of incidental trauma to the eye, Shih Tzus can be more prone to the “buggy” nature of their eye position. If your dog won’t open an eye and is tearing a great deal, take them to the vet. Their eye is hurting.

If they have too dry of an eye, they can also be prone to corneal ulcers from just having an unhealthy corneal environment.

Dry Eye (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca/KCS)

There are two symptoms that occur when KCS develops in a dog:

  • Chronic mucous-like discharge (from the eye’s attempt to moisturize the eye in any way it can) from that eye
  • The cornea itself begins to turn black (pigmentary keratitis) from the chronic irritation that the cornea has due to being dry or being rubbed on continuously.

Dry eye/KCS is easily detected using a Schirmer Tear Test. An STT involves small pieces of special paper inserted into the corner of your dog’s eye that measures how much moisture is being produced.

Treatment of dry eye is important if you want to preserve your dog’s vision. They can become blind from this condition (aside from the fact that it’s also painful) over time as the pigmentary keratitis worsens.

How Can I Get My Shih Tzu To Live Longer?

Healthy Weight

There is no “magical weight range” for a Shih Tzu. Each dog is different and their optimal weight will vary based on their height and the amount of muscularity. Typically you should feel or see an hourglass shape when touching or looking at your Shih Tzu from above. Bigger shoulder/chest, narrower waist.

Shih Tzus that are overweight will be less likely to exercise and more likely to develop arthritis. The longer this is allowed to go on, the more likely that the muscles will weaken and your dog will struggle later in life with getting up and simply walking around.

If your Shih Tzu is overweight, and you can’t get the weight off with reducing their diet, have a thyroid screen done. A hypothyroid dog can not lose weight unless they get proper thyroid supplementation.

Good Dental Health

This is where you can make the most difference in your Shih Tzu’s health. It’s going to be difficult at first to introduce your dog/puppy to having their teeth brushed. However, with patience and time, any dog can learn to adjust to having their teeth brushed.

If, after all else has failed, you simply can’t apply toothpaste to your Shih Tzu’s teeth, then at least make sure they are getting a professional teeth cleaning at your veterinarian’s office when they need it.

Proper Grooming

Most pet owners might not think that not grooming your dog properly could harm or shorten your dog’s life. However, that’s not the case with Shih Tzus. Dogs that don’t get regularly groomed can suffer from skin infections, ear infections, obesity, and chronic pain from mats and tangles.

If you can’t afford (or don’t have a good groomer near you) to groom your Shih Tzu regularly, try doing it yourself. There’s a great video here that shows exactly how easy it can be to keep your little one groomed properly.

Preventative Medicine/Wellness Exams

I’m a veterinarian so of course I’m going to tell you that regular wellness exams at the vet is extremely important. A good vet can spot conditions sometimes earlier than even the most dedicated owner can.

When your Shih Tzu reaches 5-6 years of age, there are two things that you should consider doing:

  • If you haven’t already had it done, have the vet run some bloodwork to check out all the internal organs. Primarily we are screening for kidney and liver disease, but there are literally hundreds of disease conditions that can be picked up by basic lab tests. Start doing this every year to catch issues early.
  • If there’s any level of dental disease and you haven’t already had a dental cleaning done, do one now. It will hopefully get ahead of more chronic issues down the road.

In The End

I think every Shih Tzu should have a good chance to live a good, long life. 14-16 years should be doable for just about any dog. Hopefully yours will be this fortunate.

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