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The Imperial Shih Tzu – Everything You Need To Know - PawSafe

The Imperial Shih Tzu – Everything You Need To Know

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

The Imperial Shih Tzu

You may have first come across the name ‘Imperial Shih Tzu’ when searching for teacup breeds. With the breed’s popularity, you would be forgiven for thinking that the adorable pictures of Imperial Shih Tzu puppies popping up were no different from the standard Shih Tzu.

Over time, Imperial Shih Tzu breeders have bred a version of the Shih Tzu that is substantially smaller. You may also notice a price difference when you see an advertisement for an Imperial Shih Tzu for sale. 

This cute, miniature version of the breed is one of the most sought-after teacup breeds on the market.

But beware before buying; many teacups, micros, munchkins, dwarfs, or other tiny dogs come with problems related to unethical breeding practices and health problems.


The oldest artistic representations of the Shih Tzu can be seen in tapestries dating back over 2000 years. What we know about their exact origin is vague

It’s believed that the Shih Tzu was bred from the Pekingese and the Lhaso Apso. The Tibetan monks who produced them gifted them to Chinese royals.

Archeological evidence suggests that the breed may have a much longer history. Bones found in China date early versions of the Shih Tzu that date as far back as eight thousand years ago

Whether this is the case or not, they are considered one of the oldest dog breeds.

This would explain how the Shih Tzu made its way into the royal courts of these early dynasties. Their name, traditionally Shih Tzu Kou, translates to “Lion Dog.” They were revered in imperial courts and believed to be sacred, perhaps because of the representation of the lion in Buddhism.

The Imperial Shih Tzu is a teacup breed derived directly from the standard Shih Tzu. Their history is therefore interwoven. 

They are associated with Chinese royalty. Particularly the Dowager Empress T’zu Hsi. Empress T’zu Hsi regarded them as sacred. The Dalai Lama had gifted her a pair, and the dogs enjoyed their own palace under the Empress’s care.

During the Ming Dynasty, the Shih Tzu were considered the exclusive property of the royal court. Illegally owning a Shih Tzu was punishable by death. The same punishment applied to anyone who stole or intentionally harmed a Shih Tzu. 

Many royal families took breeding Shih Tzu very seriously. It was a matter of pride. During the centuries to follow, the breed would be refined. This was thanks to the ceremonial importance of breeding Shih Tzu with desired traits. These traits included fine coats and colors.

The first record of a pair of Shih Tzu in Britain appeared in 1928. 

They were brought into the country by the wife of the quartermaster general of the North China command. In 1933, a single Shih Tzu was introduced to Ireland by a Mrs. Hutchins. 

These three dogs were the first breeding pairs of what would become the Lady Brownrigg kennel. After that, it wasn’t long before the breed made its way to the US. The breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club as a member of the toy group.

The Imperial Shih Tzu is still essentially the same breed but derived from bloodlines that were smaller. They are, therefore, not officially a breed of their own. 

They are also too small to meet the breed standard for the Shih Tzu set by the American Kennel Club. This adds to the confusion regarding the two distinct sizes.

Physical Features of an Imperial Shih Tzu
HeightAround 6 inches
WeightLess than 7 pounds
Lifespan10 to 16 years
Colorgold, brown, white, black, black and white, and brindle
NoseBlack or brown

The Imperial Shih Tzu has most of the standard Shih Tzu characteristics, only scaled down to an adorable teacup size. They are recognized by their puffy mane and stubby faces. They are a tiny breed, fitting their ‘teacup’ title.

Their shared characteristics with their larger kin include the famously fine coat. Their coat is silky to the touch and grows fast. They come in gold, brown, white, black, black and white, and brindle.

The Imperial Shih Tzu does not get much taller than six inches. To classify as a teacup Shih Tzu, the dog should weigh no more than seven pounds. But they maintain the sturdy build of the Shih Tzu breed. 

They have brown eyes that may be lighter or darker depending on the coat.

The Imperial Shih Tzu often has a distinct underbite.

General Care of an Imperial Shih Tzu
SheddingLow shedding
ExerciseMinimal exercise. Only short daily walks or playtime or enough.
HousingGood for apartments. Housing should be proofed to avoid injury.
TemperamentPlayful, alert, extroverted, and intelligent.
TrainabilityModerately trainable.


The Imperial Shih Tzu has spikes of energy. But, because they are so tiny, they tend to wear themselves out quickly. They may be hyper-energetic for a bit and then go straight into a nap.


The Imperial Shih Tzu is categorized as a ‘toy’ breed, which essentially means it is a small lapdog. It is so ancient that most of the breed’s hunting instincts were bred out of them long before a Beagle ever caught its first rabbit. 

They are generally docile and tire out easily. 

The Imperial Shih Tzu has no real need for space and is well suited to tiny homes and apartments. They may even do better in smaller areas as these can be adequately secured and proofed to protect such a little pet. This is particularly true for smaller gardens. 

They are brave, perhaps even bold-natured, and their diminutive size doesn’t temper their enthusiastic personalities. This could be a cause for concern if you have other, larger dogs, especially dogs with a strong hunting instinct.

Dogs like the German Shepherd may be inclined to react aggressively to teacup dogs or hurt them by pure accident due to the size difference.

Food and Diet Requirements

The first-time Imperial Shih Tzu parents should always seek guidance from a vet. You may decide on premade or homemade food, but you should always consider your teacup Shih Tzu’s size and age.  

The best diet for your dog is always the best one for their age. Guidance from your vet will help you decide what your pet needs at different stages of its development. A diet appropriate for a puppy or young adult may not be ideal for an older one. 

They do best with a diet plan that breaks their meals up over the day. This helps their tiny tummies digest enough food to keep them happy and healthy. It also prevents them from becoming hypoglycemic.

First-time owners might struggle with restricting treats. This is important because they are prone to weight gain, which is a severe problem in such a small pup.

Many owners find that their Imperial Shih Tzu has food allergies. These can vary in intensity. Keep in mind that allergies can develop at any age.


In general, the Shih Tzu requires daily brushing. This is equally true for the Imperial. Because of their fine coat, their fur can mat and tangle if not regularly groomed.  

You need to use a fine, good-quality slicker brush and brush out the hair in layers. Their coat can knot close to the skin, so it is vital to be thorough.

To avoid eye irritation, the hair on the top of the head should be tied up in a top knot. The mustache and topknot may need to be brushed twice a day. 

It is recommended that you bath your Imperial Shih Tzu every three to four weeks. Be sure to use gentle dog shampoo. The eye area should be wiped clean daily.

Should you not have the time to maintain your Shih Tzu’s coat properly, you could opt for a shorter cut. The Imperial Shih Tzu will look adorable in any number of ‘puppy’ cuts. 

Teeth should be brushed frequently to avoid dental problems. Dental diseases in dogs can affect their heart and livers. 

Nails must be kept trimmed with a good quality clipper or grinder. Frequent ear cleanings are a must, as ear infections are common in this breed.

Do Imperial Shih Tzu Shed?

Despite their long and luscious coats, Imperial Shih Tzu’s do not shed as much as you may expect. They may leave a bit of hair on the couch now and then. Primarily they only shed at the start of summer.

Because of this, they are considered a relatively hypoallergenic dog.

The Health of an Imperial Shih Tzu

Severe Health ProblemsPatellar luxation
Heart defects
Blindness or eye problems
Collapsing tracheas
Respiratory issues
Liver Shunts
Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease
Cervical (dry) disc
Mild to Moderate Health ProblemsDental diseases
Hyper or Hypothyroidism
Digestive issues
Occasional Health ProblemsDeafness 
Seizures or epilepsy
Demodectic mange

The tiny Imperial Shih Tzu may be prone to many health challenges that are common to miniature or teacup varieties. The important thing is to stay aware of any problems your pet may face so that you can offer them the proper treatment.

Many of the health issues stem from problematic breeding practices. Breeders who breed micro dogs are known to breed runts, inbred smaller dogs, or breed dwarfs deliberately, amongst other questionable practices. 

All of this can have dire consequences.

Firstly, they are prone to misaligned teeth. Their tiny mouths mean that their tooth formation is affected, with the signs showing shortly after teething starts. 

In some cases, teeth will simply be missing altogether, with no signs of them coming in. The misaligned and missing teeth may require extra care in choosing their food. 

Another dental disorder common to the breed is periodontal disease. It is also called periodontitis; it is a gum disease affecting the soft gum tissue that helps support the bone supporting teeth.

Periodontitis is a rapid onset condition. This means that the total damage done happens shortly after the first symptoms. But the prognosis is good if it is caught early.

Renal dysplasia is a condition affecting the tissue surrounding the kidneys. It is more common in teacup breeds than in most other dogs. The problem with renal dysplasia in Imperial Shih Tzu is that it is hard to detect early on. 

Often it is only found after degeneration has already occurred. The disease does not lead to kidney failure directly. The first effect on the kidneys is inflammation. At this point, only a vet can diagnose the condition.

With their small body comes smaller organs. This makes blood sugar hard to regulate—particularly given that their diet involves them ingesting such small amounts of carbohydrates at a time. 

In severe cases, this may cause a seizure. Should you notice anything that looks as though your dog might be suffering from seizure-like symptoms, it’s a trip straight to the vet. Further drops in blood sugar levels could result in a potentially fatal coma.

Thus, the Imperial Shih Tzu has a rather unique form of diabetes, and it is crucial to keep that in mind.

Your Shih Tzu will likely have some minor respiratory problems. This is another common problem in teacup breeds like the Teacup Bichon Frise. Their smaller organs may cause nasal discharge, reverse sneezing, coughing, and wheezing. 

If any of these symptoms become severe or last for more than 48 hours at a time, it is best to visit your vet. Severe symptoms like fever and difficulty breathing may indicate lung failure.

Luxating Patellas are caused by problems relating to growth in teacup breeds. Luxating essentially means dislocating without impact or cause; this is where the knees may slide out of place.

Average Lifespan

The Imperial Shih Tzu usually lives 10-16 years on average.


Lapdogs are characteristically low-energy dogs. Bred for precisely what the name suggests, they have long since lost the drives that keep other dogs active. This makes them ideal for a laid-back family.

They do need some activity and stimulation. Fifteen to twenty minutes of walking in the garden or to the end of the street and back are more than sufficient. 

Should your Imperial Shih Tzu require a little more exercise, play is a perfect way to bond while keeping them active.

They should not be forced to do any strenuous activity. Even if your Imperial Shih Tzu is keen, too much exercise can cause respiratory distress.


Imperial Shih Tzus are very clever little dogs. But, training them will involve a lot of resolve on your behalf since they are great at charming their owner into doing things their way. 

It may sometimes be a little frustrating to get them to come around to the task at hand. Once you do, it’s an utter delight both for dog and doggy parent. This is because they are very socially attuned, and they respond to praise and rewards.

Leave any strict ‘disciplinary’ mindset behind for this one. They do not respond positively to being reprimanded. Should your pup nip or growl, don’t respond with negative reinforcement. 

Be firm. Whatever you do, don’t give in to your dog’s attempts to charm their way out of a task. If you do, you will struggle to get them to stop the behavior again. 

Early socialization is also recommended.

Make sure that any training classes you sign your pup up for are based on positive reinforcement. They should not involve any serious exercise.

How Much Does an Imperial Shih Tzu Cost?

The Imperial Shih Tzu can cost anywhere between $2,000 to $3,000 in the US. When looking for a breeder, make certain that they are reputable, ethical teacup breeders. 

Better yet, look for groups who specialize in rescuing Shih Tzus and adopt one from a shelter.

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe


Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.