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Chihuahuas: Why shelter kill rates are so high for much-loved dog breed

Chihuahuas have one of the largest breed representations in animal shelters across the United States. When Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes are surrendered, they have a pretty dim future with very high euthanasia rates and high return rates after an adoption. For such a popular animal, why are the kill rates so high? Even in Wyoming shelters, the numbers of Chihuahuas and Chihuahua mixes are high. In states such as California, the Chihuahua shelter population sometimes outstrips the numbers for all other breeds combined. As you might expect, there are a number of different reasons for that statistic. It's impossible to pinpoint all of the problems without in-depth study, but here are five of the top contributing factors.

A purse can help keep a Chihuahua safe in high-traffic situations, but persistently carrying it in one will cause behavior and health problems
Ray Devlin via Wikimedia Commons

Lack of training or socialization

Chihuahuas are small and inconspicuous, and as such may be treated as "less than a dog." A huge number of Chihuahua owners bought into the Hollywood "handbag dog," thinking that it would be neat to have a cute little dog that you can carry around everywhere in your purse. Not only can this treatment lead to health problems through lack of exercise, it takes the focus off of basic manners training. If your dog isn't trying to pull the leash or jump up on people, it's easier to think that you don't need to train. As the dog matures, this can lead to problems with aggression, nervousness and unacceptable home behaviors.

Still other Chihuahua owners forgo socializing because they're afraid that their tiny dog could be injured outside of the home. This is a legitimate concern, but there are a number of ways to safeguard your dog without keeping him locked in your home indefinitely.

Top choice for backyard breeders

Because of their small size, Chihuahuas are often targeted for breeding by people who don't really know what they're doing. This could be the dog lover owner who thinks that papered cutie needs a litter before she's spayed, or someone who wants to make a little extra cash on a dog that won't eat very much. They're also easier to keep in numbers than larger dogs, so many owners may have two or more Chihuahuas as house pets. If a male and female are unaltered, there's an extremely high chance of "unplanned" puppies. Add to that, the Chihuahua is a popular dog, so many breeders expect their puppies to be bought up quickly, and may or may not do appropriate checks on the buyers.

Many home breeders don't understand the delivery risks for a litter of Chihuahua pups, and may see the price tags on these itty-bitty bundles as reason enough to try. Pregnant Chihuahuas are dumped in shelters with some frequency, possibly when owners discover the chances of their Chihuahua needing to deliver by C-section.

Problems with the landlord

Explanations from surrendering owners range anywhere from, "We knew we weren't allowed dogs, but didn't think this would count," to, "The landlord changed the terms of our lease and we're no longer allowed dogs." Add to that, dogs that suffer from a lack of training, appropriate exercise and mental stimulation are more likely to be destructive or overly vocal. Even in a home with dog-friendly lease terms, a dog that barks excessively or tears up the home can't be tolerated. If you don't understand why a dog barks or destroys things, it may seem much easier to surrender the "bad dog" and get another one.

Lack of breed research before purchase or adoption

This is a problem with virtually any breed, but especially breeds that are the unfortunate victim of fads. Chihuahuas are possibly the most well-known fad dog out there as the result of their appearances in popular culture, including movies and commercials. Too many potential dog owners buy or adopt based on what an animal looks like, or some preconceived notion about how it should act. Without the proper research, many owners are also not aware of common health problems in the breed, or the best care to avoid costly vet bills.

Don't risk a bad fit - do your research first. These dogs have good things and bad things about them, so you need to know if it has the traits you want in a dog, and lacks those that you really don't want. Knowledgeable breeders, small dog veterinarians and legitimate breed organizations are good sources of information; beware of bad information, which is all over the internet and offered by enthusiastic but ill-informed individuals.

Personality that doesn't mesh well with a shelter environment

Once a Chihuahua is surrendered to a shelter, they have a surprisingly low successful adoption rate. When possible, shelters work to get the dogs into foster homes or adoptive homes within the first day or two after surrender. A shelter is a large, noisy place, and a Chihuahua's diminutive size and potentially nervous personality cause high levels of stress very quickly.

An animal that stresses in the shelter often acts out, giving potential adopters a false impression of unapproachability or aggression. Stressed animals are also more likely to bite, especially if they have little or no previous socialization and manners training. Once stressed, the Chihuahua will have an even more difficult time adjusting to a new home, and is often returned for destructive behavior or persistent indoor voiding. Given a couple of weeks to adjust, the Chihuahua can make a successful transition into a new home, only then revealing a very different personality than the one likely seen in the shelter.