Genetic Jumping Bean?
It is difficult to imagine an evolutionary relationship between the Chihuahua and the Grizzly bear but the bear family divided into the wolf, coyote, jackal and fox sub-species. The fox cannot interbreed with the wolf, coyote or domestic dog but the Chihuahua dog shares an astounding number of zoological and historical characteristics with the Fennec Fox, a tiny little desert creature billed as the “world’s smallest canine.”
The fennec fox (found in North Africa, the Sinai Peninsula, southeast Egypt, and the Arabian desert) averages only 1 to 1.5 kg. Unable to agree on species classification because of features that do not conform to the fox family, scientists finally assigned the fennec fox a separate genus, fennecs zerda, or Vulpes zerda.
The fennec fox has huge ears which help dissipate heat and enable him to hear his prey before it hears him. Naturalists theorize that the oversized ears serve as shade during the rare times the nocturnal fennec is exposed to sunlight. Heavy dew produced by cold offshore currents collect on the back of the ears, which explains how the tiny creature can survive indefinitely far from any known source of water. With his oversized ears, the Chihuahua is every bit as appealing as the fennec fox which sadly, is now on Appendix Two of the Cites list.
Is/was there ever a genetic connection between the fennec fox and the Chihuahua? No one knows. Scientists would say they are two different species and cannot interbreed. They probably never heard of a mule. A cross between an ass and a horse? Impossible! They said the same thing about the Bengal Cat, a cross between domestic cats and the Asian Leopard Cat. (see below)
The Chihuahua’s large luminous eye is quite different from any other dog breed but characteristic of desert dwellers such as the Arabian horse and the camel. Many Chihuahuas today have remnant “eyebrows” and long lashes as are found in such desert animals.
Although most AKC breed standards call for “up on toes” thick foot pads, the Chihuahua’s long narrow feet are more suited for digging and running on sand.
Fennecus zerda also has long, thin, flat feet that enable it to scoot over the shifting sands from Morocco to Egypt to the Sinai to Arabia.
The early Chihuahua had the same long toes and narrow feet but we do love to tinker with nature’s design! We show folks decided that a small and dainty foot with the toes well split up but not spread would look better in the show ring even though photos of early Chihuahuas show a distinctive “hand-like” foot with long, thin finger-toes.
Another unusual characteristic is the Chihuahua’s over-sized ears “flaring to the sides” also as shown in the Fennec Fox (below). The are many dog breeds with naturally erect ears but NONE as proportionately large and off-standing.
Chichis are said to need other Chihuahuas in order to live happily. Notably, unlike any other fox, the fennec lives in groups of eight to ten. The Fennec fox has weak dentition, a very rare condition in a wild species. ChiChi owners attribute their breed’s poor dentition to the foreshortened muzzle. The fennec fox above displays the huge ears, the big round eyes, and the petite muzzle associated with the Chihuahua breed.
Look closely at the fennec fox’s untypical muzzle. He has razor-sharp little teeth. Most “toy breeds” have tiny teeth but the Chihuahua has tiger teeth and he can (and should) gnaw a raw beef bone! Give him a small rib bone every few days and skip the dental bills with which Toy Breeds are often plagued.
The Chihuahua has terrier-like qualities (highlights from the Chihuahua Breed Standard) for a very good reason. He had to find dinner and he needed alert, swift-moving determination to survive out there.
Given opportunity, the Chihuahua seeks precisely the same food as does the fennec fox; vegetation, little rodents, lizards, and insects. Any Chihuahua owner will describe their irresistible, irrepressible urge to chase and eat bugs! But let’s cease to speculate because there are fascinating facts on record.
The Foxy Chihuahua
The fennec fox was in fact, successfully crossed with the Chihuahua in the 1980s. The result was a less nocturnal, more social and thus, more marketable “fox”. The miniature fox was popular with exotic animal sellers – and the college kids who were paid to carry, feed, and fondle the kits around the clock.
Crossing species, as in the horse-donkey which produced the mule, is irresistibly possible. In the 1970s, the Asian Leopard was discovered to be immune to feline leukemia. The University Of California was researching childhood leukemia and working with cat breeder Jean Mill, they imported Asian leopards to achieve the said-to-be impossible feat of combining different chromosomes to create smaller leopards that could be handled for research. The spectacularly spotted result became the Bengal, a popular show cat, and house kitty. Photo courtesy BobsDenBengals.
So come, let’s have a look at some of the theories and facts that contribute to the appeal of the world’s smallest dog. Some breed historians think the ancestor of the Chihuahua was a hairless dog that existed in Mexico, Central, and South America. Folklore surrounding the Xoloitzcuintli has become confusingly interwoven with that of the Chihuahua but we don’t believe them to be related.
The rectangular head shape of all hairless dogs is absolutely unlike the Chihuahua’s unique skull. Hairless-type dogs have long, round, whippy tails whereas the Chihuahua has a flattened, stiff, furry tail and the long claw-like feet of the early Chihuahua are not seen in any other breed.
There are plausible theories that place the breed’s ancient roots in Egypt or the Sudan, from which it migrated or was taken across the Bering straits, though the Mediterranean countries and thence to Malta. Physical evidence connects the Maltese “pocket dog” to the Chihuahua.
The easily verified characteristic shared by the pocket dog and the Chihuahua is the soft spot in the skull known as molera. The cranial gap closes in other canines just as it does in the human infant but in most purebred adult Chihuahuas, the molera can be easily detected.
Digging Chihuahua History!
As with all speculation, there are interesting glitches. A major “oops” in the theory that dogs came to the Americas by way of Chinese sailing vessels is that small dogs of North America were revered by the earliest humans as evidenced by Indian Knoll, a two-acre site in Kentucky U.S.A. Dr. William Web found 21 small dogs interred in graves dated 3000 B.C. The Kentucky dig provides irrefutable evidence that dogs were domesticated in North America long before they could possibly have arrived on Chinese vessels making port in Mexico.
There is more. As recorded in the authoritative publication Walker’s Mammals of the World, Fifth Edition, Volume II, the oldest documented remains of domestic dogs, dating from 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, were found respectively, in Idaho (NW United States) and in Iraq which borders Turkey and Arabia.
The Toltec’s Techichi is a more recent ancestor of today’s Chihuahua, as represented by carvings in the monastery known as Huejotzingo, situated between Mexico City and Puebla, constructed by Franciscan Monks circa 1530. The Toltec reign gave way to the Aztecs who seem to have adopted the Techichi, using them for religious sacrifice. The Aztec used rattles such as this Moche rattle with a startlingly perfect Chihuahua head on one end and a small human head on the other!
As staying alive became easier, the people had more time to spend on such matters as breeding dogs. Archaeological evidence shows that progressed from an edible interest to spiritual significance, and finally, to the ultimate luxury of providing nothing more than companionship.
So we have come full circle, developmental history having brought us back to Mexico and the southern United States. Perhaps the Chihuahua’s ancestors, transported on Chinese trading vessels, originated in the Egyptian desert and were related to fennec zerda, the little “dog” that is so unusual it has its own species classification.
Wherever he came from, the smallest domestic dog thrived in northern Mexico and the southern United States.
Chihuahua Spirit Dog
The many dialects of the First Americans afford little in the way of written descriptions. Native Americans trace creation and history though the spoken record, relying on The Story Teller to pass the past from one generation to the next. One story clearly relates to the Chihuahua.
It was believed that not only could the little dog be a companion in this world but that the sins of the master were transferred to the dog so his human could gain safe passage to the other world.
Writing of the little dog’s spiritual assistance, Fray Bernardino de Sahugun said the deceased were burnt, encircled by clothing and belongings but “he who had nothing went bare and thus suffered greatly.” So it was that the little yellow dog “… bore the dead one across the place of the nine rivers in the land of the dead.” Knowing the utter and complete devotion of the Chihuahua, that is believable.
In the Aztec religion, the color of death is yellow. So “the little yellow dogs” were sacrificed in order to precede their masters to the other side where they waited to aid them across the ninth river. The Story Teller speaks of “a yellow one that wore a strand of slackly spun cotton for a collar. It is told he takes the dead across the ninefold river to Meitlantecutli. There the waters are wide, dogs are the ferrymen, and when he recognizes his master, he leaps into the water in order to take him across.”
When one experiences the love and loyalty of a Chihuahua, it is easy to understand how a highly developed culture could believe that such a dog would gladly assume the sins of its beloved person.
The Mexican Chihuahua
Perhaps that is why Montezuma II, last of the Aztec rulers, is said to have had hundreds of Chihuahuas in his palace. More recently, General Santa Ana, (the dictator of Mexico who sold northern Mexico to the United States in 1848) also kept large numbers of golden fawn Chihuahuas. They went with him into battle, no doubt to guide his soul across the ninth river should he be slain. Many Chihuahuas were in his camp when he was finally captured in 1836.
The theory that places the Chihuahua’s development in Europe with the assumption that it arrived in the New World in the arms of Spanish explorers totally ignores recorded history. The Spanish had a singular use for dogs during that time. When there was no local game or injured horses to be slaughtered, they raided Indian settlements for food which included the small dogs kept for sacrifice or as pets.
Hernando de Soto wrote that dogs were a major source of meat for his troops during exploration of the southern United States. The Spaniards not only decimated the Indian population from the Florida peninsula to Mexico, they wiped out thousands of domesticated dogs.
It makes sense that the Native American camp dogs most often sparred were baby-eyed Chihuahuas. Larger camp dogs and those with less soulful expression were slaughtered first. Of this we can be certain, every Chihuahua owner is deeply grateful that the littlest dog escaped the voracious appetites of the Spaniards!
The Modern Chihuahua
The first record of the Chihuahua as a breed occurred about 1884 when enterprising Mexicans began selling them to tourists in the border markets. The first Chihuahua to be officially registered was a dog called Midget who entered the American Kennel Club stud book in 1904 along with three others. By 1915, thirty Chihuahua were registered in the States and that number jumped to over 25,000 by the early seventies!
The breed has always been popular with celebrities such as Spanish-born band leader Xavier Cugat and Miss Lupe Velez, a famous actress of the 1930’s shown here with her tiny Chihuahua, little King. She fed him with an eye-dropper (at left), no doubt because it was the “dramatic” thing to do.
The great opera star Enrico Caruso was seldom seen without his pack of Chihuahuas and even at the height of the financial depression, the famed Florence Clark (pictured right) won prizes with her Chihuahua champions in the 1934 Westminster Kennel Club show in New York.
The Chihuahua is one of only a few breeds that moved into England from the United States. By 1897, a Chihuahua was formally exhibited at the Ladies Kennel Club Show. UK (United Kingdom) registration privileges followed in 1907 which would appear to be a meteoric rise to fame except that it was seventeen years before the next Chihuahua was registered!
Less than one hundred Chihuahuas were recorded by the beginning of WWII. The low breeding population was critically impacted by the bombing and devastation which followed. By 1949, there remained only eight Chihuahuas accounted for in Great Britain.
As post-war families recovered, many Brits turned to dogs for solace and with food and furnishings still scarce, a logical pet choice was the Chihuahua. Easily fitting in cramped quarters during the rebuilding, cheap to feed, the littlest dog filled the empty arms and hearts of those who had suffered terrible losses.
Numbers climbed rapidly and by 1953, there were 111 Chihuahuas registered with The Kennel Club.
In America, the Long and Smooth coats were shown together until 1952 when they were separated into two varieties for the show ring. They are still interbred in the States, resulting in both coat varieties in the same litter. Well over 20,000 Chihuahuas are AKC registered each year. They are extremely popular because they are such wonderful companions and easy-to-care for “lapdogs.”
Whether breeding or judging the Chihuahua, we hope you will bear in mind his developmental history and evolution. He is a clever little dog, gigantic in heart and personality. Clearly driven by strong survival instinct, he “pancakes” to prove it!
Flattening on the floor is not cowering – “pancaking” is retained instinct unlike that of any other breed. In his genetic memory this littlest canine remembers dodging hawks swooping overhead. The Chihuahua is the world’s smallest dog but he has a huge brain and his extreme intelligence allowed him to survive and thrive against all odds.
Indeed, the Chihuahua is a survivor. He charmed the Conquistadores and escaped the cooking pot. Blessed with the brains of an elephant, the personality of a teddy-bear and in-born devotion to humans unsurpassed by any other dog breed, the world’s littlest dog stands tall.
portions excerpted from TFH Books international edition of The Chihuahua
Highlighted words are defining characteristics used in the Chihuahua Breed Standard
by Barbara J. Andrews, TDP Science And Advisory Board