What to Know about Japanese Chins

Medically Reviewed by Vanesa Farmer, DVM on May 15, 2022
7 min read

The size and temperament of the Japanese Chin make it a great breed for families or people living alone. They are active, but comfortable in apartments, and generally quiet and easy to train. If you are looking for a small, loyal, and entertaining companion, the Japanese Chin may be the breed for you.

The Japanese Chin is a tiny, aristocratic dog. They are well known for their catlike nature, thick luxurious coat and comical squishy faces.

Regal, yet approachable, the Japanese Chin is moderately popular in the United States. With a silky, straight hair coat, floppy ears, fluffy rear legs, and a perky feathered tail that dangles over the back, they look and act like royalty. They come in many colors — usually either black and white, red and white, or tri-colored.

The Japanese Chin is tiny enough to take anywhere. It’s a toy breed. The average Japanese Chin is eight to eleven inches tall and generally weighs less than twelve pounds. They have short muzzles, wide heads, and big, soulful eyes.  The Japanese Chin lifespan is ten to twelve years or more.

They are friendly and loyal to their own people, but tend to be standoffish to strangers at first. They can be sensitive and easily develop separation anxiety if not given proper attention. They do not do well with harsh training methods or negative reinforcement.

Japanese Chins are inquisitive and active, but don’t require large amounts of exercise. They enjoy slow walks with humans, where they can sniff, explore, and prance around, so they are good for apartments. It is not safe to let them off lead outside, as they can be stubborn and run off.

Japanese Chins are generally healthy dogs, especially if they came from a good breeder, one who follows the guidance of the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) and actively screens for common health problems of the breed. The OFA recommends screenings for knee, eye, and heart problems.  

Japanese Chins do not tend to drool much, are generally not big diggers or barkers, but do tend to snore due to their short muzzles.

With their thick, elegant coat, Japanese Chins look difficult to maintain but are actually quite easy to care for. Most Japanese Chins do well with weekly brushing, monthly baths, frequent nail trims and daily teeth brushing. You may need to trim the feet hair. In some individuals, the full hair coat may not grow in until they are two or three years old. 

Japanese Chins do tend to become overweight easily. They require a good quality dog food, with healthy treats that comprise less than ten percent of their total diet.  At least twenty minutes a day of exercise can help maintain a healthy weight. 

Japanese Chins do not do well in hot weather, largely due to their short muzzles, which interfere with effective panting and temperature control. They will need ventilation and fresh water always available. To be safe, they should stay indoors on very hot days.

The Japanese Chin is relatively easy to care for. To be healthy and happy, they have a few simple requirements:

  • a high-quality diet
  • plenty of exercise
  • daily brushing of the teeth 
  • weekly brushing of the coat
  • examination by a veterinarian at least yearly
  • following the veterinarian's recommendations for vaccines and parasite control   

About 80% of dogs will have dental disease by the time they are two years old, and that includes Japanese Chins. In fact, the toy breeds tend to be more prone to dental disease than larger breeds. Problems start with tarter and gingivitis, then progress to infections of the tooth roots. Tooth infection can affect other organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys, and joints and greatly shorten dogs’ lives. Daily toothbrushing can help, but also routine dental cleanings at the veterinarian are essential.

Many of the more frequently seen health problems in Japanese Chins are common in most small or toy breed dogs. Luxating patellas is a condition in which the knee cap pops out of place. If it is mild or in one knee, dogs will often be functional but may get arthritis later in life. In cases of severe arthritis, surgery may be needed.

Another condition common to small dogs, and Japanese Chins in particular, is degenerative mitral disease. This is a specific type of chronic heart disease. In this condition, which occurs most often in older Japanese Chins, the mitral heart valve becomes weak or thickened, so that the heart cannot pump blood effectively. Your veterinarian may hear a heart murmur, and further testing will be needed to determine how severe it is and to determine the best treatment.

Japanese Chins are brachycephalic, which is a term that describes the short face typical of this breed, and others such as bulldogs and pugs. These dogs often have tiny nostrils, and narrow or obstructed airways which can create some health problems. Some of these can be managed with healthy habits and others can be treated with surgery. Some of these health problems include:

  • respiratory problems, including snoring, wheezing, and lack of oxygen
  • exercise intolerance
  • heat intolerance
  • flatulence from swallowing too much air.
  • pneumonia, a lung infection, from inhaling food

Japanese Chins are prone to a few orthopedic and neurologic diseases that you should be aware of. Hip and elbow dysplasia, or an abnormally formed joint, will often cause pain and stiffness in those locations. Japanese Chins are also prone to instability of the first two vertebral bones, called the atlantal and axial vertebrae, which will look like a painful or stiff neck. For any of these conditions, your veterinarian will take x-rays, prescribe pain medications, and will likely refer you to a specialist if more intervention is needed.

Likely at least partially related to their short faces, Japanese Chins are prone to a few disorders that affect the eyes and associated parts. Cataracts, or cloudy lens, can eventually cause blindness but can be fixed with surgery. Entropion is when eyelids roll inward and lashes rub on the eye. Distichiasis is when extra hairs grow on inside of eyelid and rub on the eye. Both of these eyelid conditions can cause corneal ulcers, eye infections, and permanent damage if not resolved. They need to be repaired by a veterinarian.

Small and sensitive, Japanese Chins have often been described as cat-like. They do have a tendency to climb more than some other breeds and will often curl up on the back of the sofa or on a pile of pillows. They tend to groom themselves and ignore you if they don’t feel like listening. 

Due to their intelligent and delicate nature, they do require training and socialization beginning at an early age. Japanese Chin owners report greater success with training if you can make the dog think it was his or her idea. Due to short noses and sensitive necks, use a harness instead of a collar. 

Most Japanese Chin owners report that they are good with nearly everyone, from older people to children. However, they are a sensitive breed, so very small toddlers may run into trouble. As with all households, the children should be taught how to behave with dogs.

It is possible that most Japanese Chins are too smart for their own good. Feisty and bossy, they act like they own you! However, they are friendly and charming, and do well with other dogs, especially other Japanese Chins, so most people end up with more than one.

Despite the name, the Japanese Chin likely originated in China very long ago. The breed resembles drawings found on ancient pottery and art from the Far East, but over the centuries may have been mixed with other breeds such as the Tibetan Spaniel or Pekingese. 

For many years, the charming little dogs were gifts between emperors, pets of Buddhist monks, and gifts to traveling dignitaries. They were bred and revered as valuable little treasures. In the fifteenth century, with the increase in popularity of sea travel, the Japanese Chin began to make its way to the west, where they became a favorite of the western royalty.

In 1853, Admiral Commodore Perry gave Queen Victoria a couple of Japanese Chins when he returned from Japan. Ten years later, 1863, Queen Alexandra of Britain received a Japanese Chin as a wedding gift. She loved the breed so much she soon had many and took them everywhere with her. Thanks to these, and other famous aristocrats, the Japanese Chin became very popular with the royal family and the American upper class.

In 1888, a dog named Jap was the first Japanese Chin, then called the Japanese Spaniel, to be registered by the American Kennel Club. The breed has grown slowly in popularity since that time.

Today, with their comical antics and loyal nature, the Japanese Chin continues to rule the homes lucky enough to have found them. If you are looking for a small, bright dog with a big personality, the Japanese Chin may be for you.