Canine Chic

Tiny and portable, toy breeds are a fashion accessory.

They're also little dogs with big needs.

Family Matters

August 29, 2004|By Elizabeth Large | By Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Call it the Paris Hilton Effect. The hotel heiress and her Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, have made teeny tiny dogs the latest celebrity fashion accessory. If it barks and you can stick it in your purse or carry it in your arms, consider yourself on the cutting edge of a trend.

When Tinkerbell disappeared recently and Paris offered a $5,000 reward for her return, it made the national news. So did her reappearance. But The Simple Life starlet isn't the only one whose miniature dog has become a media hit. You can hardly open an issue of People magazine without seeing celebs like Britney Spears with their toy dogs. (Britney was shopping at Whole Foods in Santa Monica, Calif., with Lucy, her Maltese, on one arm.) Skater Kristi Yamaguchi owns a toy fox terrier named Piston. Jessica Simpson, Justin Timberlake, Mariah Carey, Mira Sorvino, Kelly Osbourne and tennis star Venus Williams all have much-photographed petite pooches.

"The style of the times is small dogs," says Bash Dibra, a New York dog trainer whose celebrity clients include J-Lo, Madonna, Neve Campbell and Ron Howard's daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard. Dibra is the author of Your Dream Dog (New American Library, 2003) and several other books. "These dogs have a brave heart, and they're a loyal friend."

It's not exactly a scientific poll, but Screensavers.com reports that toy dogs are now more popular than perennial favorites golden and Labra-dor retrievers. The free site, known as something of a pop-culture barometer, bases this surprising statement on 20,958 downloads of 56 different dog screensavers. Its two top dogs are the Shih Tzu (which weighs in at 10 to 16 pounds) and the Chihuahua (2 to 6 pounds).

"I love the toy dogs," says Lori Chambers, 42, of Parkton, who owns a 7-pound Yorkshire terrier named Maggie May. "They're small physically but they have attitude."

The American Kennel Club says that the popularity of small breeds has been rising slowly but steadily, but the golden retriever is still at the top of the list for purebred registrations. The question is, though, whether most people are going to register a dog they plan to carry around in their purse. And when it comes to teacup dogs -- the really tiny ones you have to raise your voice several octaves to talk to -- they aren't a separate breed at all. Any toy breed can have its teacups. And the AKC isn't very happy about them.

"They're being bred smaller and smaller because there's money in it," says Gail Miller, the AKC's director of media relations. "[A teacup] is thought to be rare, so they can charge a lot."

The cost seems inversely proportional to the poundage. People routinely pay thousands of dollars for teacups and some toy breeds, while you can get a lovely golden retriever -- 55 to 80 pounds -- for $300.

Cute, but risky

There are two ways to produce a teacup dog. (No, they don't actually fit in a teacup, unless you have a very large teacup. These are dogs that usually weigh 2 pounds or less.)

Reputable breeders let nature take its course, and with luck there's a runt of the litter. Unfortunately, more and more teacups are the result of inbreeding. With them you have to calculate the cost not only in terms of purchase price but also vet bills. They are often unhealthy little puppies, and even the genetically OK ones are as fragile as premature babies. Until they're full grown they can suffer from hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, unless fed every three hours or so.

"They are very, very cute, but just be aware that medically you can be getting into something expensive," says Dr. David Tayman, owner of the Columbia Animal Hospital, who warns about dental disease (tiny dogs often have poor bites as a result of inbreeding) and heart and respiratory problems.

Mary Kay Koontz, 55, of Glen Arm knows all about it. She now has a healthy Havanese named Theo -- at 14 pounds a bruiser compared to her family's last dog, a miniature Maltese who weighed 2 1/2 pounds "max."

"We found out later there must have been a lot of inbreeding to make him that small."

One morning they came downstairs to find Scooter, their little dog, "totally lethargic" and clearly in distress. They rushed him to the vet's.

"We were so attached to the little buddy," says Koontz, "we went ahead and had the surgery [their veterinarian had recommended], but the vet just closed him up. He said his organs were all messed up." Scooter was a year old when he died.

Screening owners

Even physically healthy teacup dogs demand special attention.

"Some of these little dogs are really needy," explains Arizona-based breeder Wanda Jones, who calls her business Tucson Tea-Cups. "They panic easily."

They also need to be watched out for. They can break a leg jumping off a sofa, and they are so small they don't have much in the way of an immune system.

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