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Looking at Both Ends of a Chihuahua

The Caninologist

It’s a good idea to look a Chihauhua in the mouth. The other end, too.

No, not there. But small-breed dogs tend to have more than their share of chronic mobility issues, often involving trick joints in the hindquarters. Those are among the special health concerns of little dogs.

I’ve been wondering about this ever since my daughter, Ella, decided to adopt Dave, a 1-year-old Chihuahua she fell in love with at the San Francisco SPCA.

Right off, Dave seemed special, a bug-eyed hummingbird of a dog, leaping up stairs and skittering around on feet that never seemed to touch the ground for more than a few microseconds.

I had a lot of questions just watching him bounce around my ankles. Do these creatures have special nutritional needs to maintain their constant state of motion? Are the specially formulated small-breed dog foods really necessary? How do you tell if you’re feeding a Chihuahua too much, considering that even an obese Chihuahua can still fit into a Size 7 shoebox.

Ella, a professional dog-walker at the moment, knows a lot about dogs. She insisted Dave was not overweight. She got some more questions answered when she adopted Dave.

The Caninologist demanded a second professional opinion. We set up an appointment for Dave at All Pets Hospital, a veterinary clinic in San Francisco where we’ve been taking Trixie, our 50-pound chow mix, for many years.

We knew the one thing Dave seemed to be in no hurry to do was shed his puppy teeth. I also detected distinct evidence of doggy bad breath. And I couldn’t make out Dave’s ribs too well, which I’d thought was a sign he was getting a bit heavy.

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Dr. Jayson Johnston, All Pets Hospital, examines Dave.

It didn’t take long for veterinarian Jayson Johnston to confirm that Dave will probably be needing dental work eventually to yank out the tiny dagger-like puppy canines on both sides of his mouth. Johnston said he often sees this in smaller dogs. Because the teeth are so crowded, there’s more chance for debris to build up, creating the same kind of tooth and gum troubles that plague middle-aged humans. These dogs may benefit more than most from being trained to tolerate regular brushing, starting at an early age. I can’t imagine Dave ever sitting still for his teeth to be brushed, but that will be Ella’s job. I don’t think too many Chihuahuas, or their handlers, will be figuring out how to floss or gargle, although it’s fun to picture it.

The other trouble common among dogs of this size is chronic dislocation of the kneecap, a condition known as a luxating patella. A trick knee is hardly unique to small dogs, and of course humans may experience the same problem after enough time on the tennis court. If untreated, it can lead to arthritic joints, considerable pain and even worse, including ruptured anterior cruciate ligaments and permanent lameness.

Sure enough, Dave showed the telltale signs of a mildly whacky patella in his right rear leg. He seems to skip once in a while, or extend his leg as if kicking at a bee chasing him, although it’s hard to tell in the blur of frenzied motion that is Dave’s usual waking state. Luxating patellas are segmented by grades of severity, from Grade I to IV. Dave’s appears to be a Grade II, Johnston said, meaning the patella can move spontaneously out of place, or can be manually moved, and rights itself without major damage or drama. It’s generally not a problem.

But it might get worse. That’s bad news, because the surgery ain’t cheap.

As for weight, Johnston judged Ella was right, noting that the best way to tell if a Chihuahua is too heavy is to feel for the ribs. They should feel something like the back of your fingers when you make a fist. I couldn’t see Dave’s ribs, but I could feel them. Nor was he spreading out too much in the haunches, which when viewed from above should show a nice taper.

As for special dog food?

“No need,” Dr. Johnston assured us.

Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime science reporter and journalism instructor who is allergic to cats. He lives in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco where he and some business partners will soon be opening a dog-friendly cafe.

Main article photo by: Carl T. Hall