Clients’ little dogs can have big issues

It is important to tell owners of small dogs their little dogs need training and socialization every bit as much as big dogs do

Little dogs can have big attitude and need training and socialization every bit as much as big dogs do.
Little dogs can have big attitude and need training and socialization every bit as much as big dogs do.

Toy dog breeds are adorable, portable, lovable, and as every veterinarian knows, prone to certain health and behavioral issues. While you, as a veterinary professional, know this, your clients who have small dogs may not.

To help clients get off to a good start with their little dogs, below is a list of the important points companion animal experts at veterinary colleges recommend telling proud new owners of toy breed dogs.

Dental care is crucial for toy breed dogs

While good dental care is important for dogs of all sizes, it is absolutely essential for little dogs, which are five times more likely to be diagnosed with periodontal disease than larger dogs, according to a 2021 study1 in Veterinary Journal.

“Dental disease is such a pervasive problem. Across the board, pet owners aren’t as aware of dental health and teeth brushing,” says Ilana Halperin, DVM, DABVP, assistant professor of clinical medicine and epidemiology at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Explain to toy dog breed owners their dogs are prone to dental disease due to a combination of genetics and overcrowding of teeth in their tiny mouths.

“Our smaller dogs were bred to have a tinier form, but their teeth did not become proportionally smaller,” Dr. Halperin says.

Urge owners of toy breeds to start dental cleanings at age one in line with American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) dental care guidelines,2 suggests Steve B. Thompson, DVM, DABVP, clinical associate professor, small animal primary care at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“Regular dental cleanings start at age one and every four to six months. If the individual dog has good health genetics, then extend the next dental cleaning two to three months longer,” Dr. Thompson says.

If clients balk at frequent dental cleanings for their small dogs, Thompson suggests telling them untreated periodontal disease can lead to tooth and bone loss, systemic inflammation, and damage to the kidneys, lungs, and other organs.

Little dogs can get too big

Obesity is an issue for dogs large and small; in fact, up to 51 percent of companion dogs in the U.S. are overweight, according to Banfield Pet Hospital’s 2020 Veterinary Emerging Topics Report.3 The manner in which pet owners treat their small dogs exacerbates the risk, notes Lena Kaplan, MS, DVM, a clinician at Small Animal Community Practice at Cornell University.

“Some owners do see them as a different type of companion than an 80-lb dog,” Dr. Kaplan says. “And they hoover on the floor; if people drop food, the small dogs are right there.”

In addition, owners often overestimate the amount of food their toy breed dogs actually need, notes Amy Nichelason, DVM, DABVP, a clinical assistant professor of primary care at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary medicine.

“The amount of food that small breed dogs need to eat is really little,” Dr. Nichelason says. “A lot of times people overfeed their dogs … by controlling their weight, we can control a lot of other issues, but it is hard [for owners] because it looks like so little food.”

She suggests telling clients to use a measuring cup for kibble, as well as to substitute vegetables for high-calorie treats. Veterinarians can also suggest toy breed owners feed their pets canned food, which is less calorically dense than dry food.

Toys dogs are prone to orthopedic injuries

Another key point for owners of toy breeds to know is their little canines are prone to orthopedic injuries, such as patellar luxation and intervertebral disc degeneration, veterinarians say.

Remind clients to bring their little dogs in for an examination if they notice their dogs skipping a step when walking, Halperin suggests.

“Pet parents may not even be aware of patellar luxation and think it’s normal for their dogs to skip a step,” Halperin adds.

In addition, remind owners to be careful when carrying their little dogs and let them walk whenever possible, suggests Kaplan, who says, in her practice, she treats many small dogs with limb fractures incurred by falling or leaping out of their owners’ arms.

Kaplan also suggests encouraging owners of toy breeds to acquire pet stairs or ramps for their dogs to use so they do not injure themselves jumping on and off furniture.

Specific conditions

It is advisable to space vaccinations for toy breed puppies over two visits to reduce the risk of a possible vaccine reaction.
It is advisable to space vaccinations for toy breed puppies over two visits to reduce the risk of a possible vaccine reaction.

Toy dogs are also especially susceptible to certain conditions, such as mitral valve heart disease, tracheal collapse, and vaccine reactions.

Mitral valve disease comprises 70 percent of heart disease in dogs, and the majority of those developing it weigh less than 20 lbs, according to a Journal of Veterinary Cardiology study.4

Tell owners their small pets are at a higher risk of mitral valve disease and suggest they schedule an echocardiogram for their dogs before it undergoes surgery, says Gregory Griffenhagen, DVM, MS, DACVAA, an anesthesiologist at Colorado State University of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, and associate editor of the Journal of Small Animal Practice.

“It is more available and owners are more willing to pay for it,” Dr. Griffenhagen says. “It’s really blossomed over the past 10 years. Sending those large files over the internet is nothing now.”

In addition, instruct owners of toy breeds to use a harness when walking their dogs to reduce coughing caused by a collapsing trachea, Thompson suggests.

He also recommends telling owners of toy breeds to space their toy breed puppies’ vaccinations over two visits to reduce the risk of a vaccine reaction because small dogs are at a higher risk of vaccine reactions.5

“Toy breed dogs aren’t any more sensitive to lepto vaccines than other vaccines,” says Thompson. “They are more sensitive to getting many vaccines at the same times. [However] newer vaccines have reduced the adjuvant in the vaccines so total volume of two vaccines may be the same as getting just one in the past.”

Anesthesia is safe

Owners of small dogs may be especially anxious about their little dogs being anesthetized for a dental cleaning or surgical procedure. Reassure worried pet parents that anesthesia is safe for small dogs and tell them special care will be taken to keep their dogs warm since small dogs are more prone to become cold, the veterinary experts suggest.

“Large studies in the past have not really shown any difference in post-operative outcomes based on body weight,” Griffehagen says.

Socialization and training

Additionally, it is important to tell owners of small dogs their little dogs need training and socialization every bit as much as big dogs do. Toy dog breed owners tend to overlook or dismiss behavior problems that would not be tolerated in large dogs, the veterinary experts say.

“Owners tend to treat them more like people, not animals,” Nichelason says. “Some of that training and socialization during their puppyhood goes by the wayside.”

“Sometimes owners feel like it is normal for little dogs to be scared of new people or, because they can get away with a little dog that isn’t s well socialized, that it’s not as scary or dangerous to have a little dog barking or nipping,” Halperin notes.

At the same time, however, it is important to stress that little dogs should not run loose to fend for themselves with a group of large dogs at a dog park or dog daycare, she adds.

“That free-for-all situation can be overwhelming for small dogs,” Halperin says.

Finally, of course, tell your patients to enjoy their delightful little companions.

As Dr. Thompson notes about the joys of small dogs, “They are lapdogs. They want to be held. They want to be with someone.”

Julie A. Jacob is a communications consultant and freelance writer. She lives in Wisconsin with her two poodles, Valentine and Teddy. 


  1. Wallis, C., Saito, E.K., Salt, C., Holcombe, L.J., Desforges, N.G., “Association of periodontal disease with breed size, breed, weight, and age in pure-bred client-owned dogs in the United States.” Vet Journal, September 2021.
  2. “Preventing periodontal disease.” American Animal Hospital Association.
  3. 4th annual Banfield Pet Hospital Veterinary Emerging Topics (VET) Report.
  4. Parker, PhD, Heidi G., Kilroy-Glynn, B.S., “Myxomatous mitral valve disease in dogs: Does size matter?” Journal of Veterinary Cardiology. Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2012, Pages 19-29.
  5. TizardBVMS, PhD, DACVM (Hons), DSc (Hons), Ian R., “Chapter 10 – Adverse consequences of vaccination.” Vaccines for Veterinarians. 2021, Pages 115-130.e1.

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