A member of the Spitz family originating in Japan, the Shiba Inu was originally bred for flushing small game and birds in mountainous terrain. With their alert demeanour and strong personality, the breed make for sturdy, feisty companions. Although Shibas are adaptable to diverse living situations, they require intensive socialisation efforts, and may be intolerant of young children. Their natural hunting instincts are strong, meaning they should not be left unattended with other small pets. Proper care of a Shiba Inu involves providing plenty of mental and physical stimulation, firm and consistent training, and a secure and spacious living space.
The breed has a dense double hair coat which does not require intensive grooming, and comes in four main colour varieties (red, sesame, black and tan, and white). Shibas are prone to several inherited diseases, and while most of these are very treatable, others are becoming less common due to careful screening of breeding adults. Behavioural problems are common if dogs are not given proper training by an experienced owner. They have a life expectancy of 12–15 years.
About & History
The Shiba Inu is an ancient breed originating in Japan. There is some debate about the precise meaning of its name, with ‘Shiba’ thought to mean either ‘small’ or ‘brushwood’, and ‘Inu’ simply meaning ‘dog’. They are not large dogs, and so their name may simply refer to their stature. However, their original purpose was to flush small animals, such as birds and rodents for hunters, and their natural environment of scrubby, mountainous terrain may well have inspired the hunters of antiquity to use the term ‘brushwood dog’ to describe the breed.
The Shiba Inu is described as a basal breed, meaning its history extends back to before the modern selective breeding efforts of the last two to three hundred years. For this reason, the breed exhibits certain behavioural characteristics that might be considered less desirable in a modern pet, such as the drive to roam and hunt. It is a member of the Spitz family, and the smallest of Japan’s six native breeds, the others being:
- Akita Inu
- Hokkaido Inu
- Tosa Inu
- Kishu Ken
- Kai Ken
It is now the most popular breed of dog in Japan, although it faced extinction in the years following World War II. A dreadful combination of casualties due to bombing, shortage of food, and even possibly killing of dogs for their dense coats, led to a precipitous decline in their numbers during the war, while an outbreak of Canine Distemper Virus shortly after the war ravaged the survivors. All modern Shiba Inus originate from only three distinct bloodlines as a result of this tragic history. Each of these blood lines have characteristic traits of personality and appearance – the combination of which can be seen in Shibas today.
Despite its ancient history, the breed was not widely owned or bred outside of Japan until the 1950s, when the first dog was brought to the USA.
The Shiba Inu has a dense, double coat with tough, long primary hairs, and a shorter soft undercoat. The hair on the tail is generally slightly longer, giving it a ‘fluffy’ appearance. The UK kennel club recognises four colours within the breed:
- Red (most common variety)
- Black and Tan
- Sesame (red with black tips to hairs)
Pale markings are desired on the inside of the ears, on the cheeks, and on the undersides of the neck, chest, abdomen, and tail. The American Kennel Club does not recognise the white colour in the breed for showing purposes. All of the colour varieties have a pale cream or grey undercoat colour.
The Shiba Inu is a small Spitz breed with obvious differences in the stature and build of males and females. Males should measure 35–43 cm (14–17 in) at the withers, and weigh around 10 kg (22 lb), while females measure 33–41 cm (13–16 in), and weigh in at 8 kg (18 lb). Both males and females are sturdy dogs, with strong bone structure and good musculature in the limbs, although females should have a more refined appearance without being ‘dainty’.
The tail should be carried high, either upright or curved toward the back, as is typical in a Spitz breed. The alert nature of the Shiba should be reflected in his facial expression, which is inquisitive and expressive. The dog should have a wedge or blunt triangle-shaped head when viewed from above,with well-developed cheeks, and tight lips. A black nose is preferred from a showing perspective. Shiba Inus have relatively small, slightly squinting eyes, which are almond-shaped and usually brown in colour. The breed’s ears are small and triangular, upright and scanning ahead for any sounds that catch their interest.
Character & Temperament
Shibas are often described as being “spirited”, “independent”, “bold”, and “fastidious”. From an owner’s point of view, this translates into a breed that is full of personality and intelligent, but often in need of guidance to keep them out of trouble. Because of their high prey drive, they are best suited to homes without other small dogs, and may be intolerant of young children. When stressed or upset, they can emit the characteristic “Shiba scream”. As a veterinarian, I have heard this many times when daring to administer an injection! When being left alone, Shibas must be kept in a very secure area, as their drive to hunt can lead them to scale walls or climb fences to escape their enclosure. The breed is most suitable for experienced, confident dog owners that can deal with this independent nature.
The perception of the breed as being fastidious comes from its cleanliness. Shibas dislike being wet or dirty, and like cats, take great pleasure in extended grooming sessions to keep their impressive coat in good condition.
Aggression, particularly dog-to-dog aggression, can be a problem. Most Shiba Inus will attempt to establish their dominance in dealing with other dogs, and this can be an issue around flash-points like feeding bowls and favourite toys. As with any other breed, they should never be allowed to display dominance towards their owners, and this must be enforced from puppyhood to prevent problems later in life.
Not lacking in intellect, the Shiba Inu is capable of learning complex tricks and behaviours. As with other highly intelligent breeds, like the Border Collie or German Shepherd, Shibas can derive great enjoyment out of challenging activities like agility or obedience classes, but need to be incentivised to follow tasks which they are set. Shiba owners are often heard to remark that their pet will only do things they consider “worth their while”.
Because of their dislike of being dirty, Shiba Inu puppies are generally easy to housetrain, and allowing access to the outside immediately after meals and sleep is generally all that is required to avoid house-soiling.
Shiba Inus are generally healthy, and despite coming from a small gene pool in the last seventy years, have remained free of many of the genetic diseases seen in other intensively-bred breeds. The Kennel Club classifies the Shiba Inu as a Category 1 breed, meaning it has no specific health concerns that are the subject of a screening programme. Nonetheless, the following is a list of conditions that may be seen in the breed:
- Atopic Dermatitis – Many Shibas suffer from chronic skin allergies as a response to environmental allergens. These allergens can include many common household and environmental agents, such as hair from other pets, mites, moulds, and plants.
- Pyotraumatic Dermatitis (‘Hot Spots’) – Another manifestation of allergic skin disease, hot spots are areas of severe dermatitis, which usually occur within a very short space of time, with exudation of pus and marked inflammation from a discrete area of skin, usually around the face or tail base.
- Cataracts – Accumulations of proteins or other substances in the lens of the eye can appear as pale or crystalline structures, and obscure the passage of light to the retina. Cataracts can be a developmental or congenital problem.
- Microphthalmia – Some Shiba puppies are born with abnormally small eyes, which are usually blind.
- Eyelid Disorders – Entropion (inwardly scrolled eyelids), and ectopic and abnormal cilia (eyelashes) are seen in Shiba puppies. These conditions can be corrected surgically, and should not cause long-term problems, but consulting a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist may be necessary.
- Vogt-Koyanagi-Harada-like Syndrome – Also known as Uveodermatological Syndrome, this is an unusual condition, in which the immune system attacks the body’s melanocytes (the cells that produce pigment in the skin and eyes). Loss of pigment results, which causes pallor of the nose, the haircoat, and eyes. Inflammation within the eyes can cause: uveitis, which appears as cloudiness; glaucoma, where the eyes become swollen and painful; retinal detachment and haemorrhage, with ensuing loss of sight. There is no cure for this condition, and treatment consists of topical and systemic corticosteroids.
- Hyperkalaemia – Abnormally high serum levels of potassium may be found on routine blood screening of Shiba Inus and other Japanese breeds. This is due to leakage of this mineral from the membranes of red blood cells. While this may be of no significance, extremely high potassium levels can result in cardiac arrhythmias. Eating onions and garlic can exacerbate hyperkalaemia.
- Patellar Luxation – Also known as “slipping kneecaps”, this condition is due to an abnormal hindlimb conformation, and may affect one or both legs. Shibas with patellar luxation will be seen to occasionally “skip” on the affected leg(s). Many are not painful, but some may require surgery.
- Hip Dysplasia – Strongly influenced by genetics, developmental problems of the hips can be seen in Shiba Inus, although it is not a very major issue in the breed as compared with others. Signs are first seen in growing pups, who may appear lame from 5 to 6 months of age.
- Primary Uterine Inertia – The breed can experience difficulties during birth due to lack of effective womb contractions. This may result in the need for Caesarian section.
- Behavioural Problems – Probably the biggest issue in the Shiba Inu, behavioural problems including dog-to-dog aggression, aggression towards other pets, poor recall, and destructive behaviour are common in the breed. Adequate training, exercise, and mental stimulation are crucial to keep these dogs happy and content as pets. Consulting a behaviourist at the earliest sign of a problem is vital.
Exercise and Activity Levels
As with any dog, regular exercise is very important to keep Shiba Inus fit, healthy and content. The breed requires around an hour of moderately vigorous exercise each day. This should ideally include structured play, for example, involving agility and obedience. Recall can be an issue, as they will pursue any small moving objects or animals, and so off-the-lead exercise should be reserved for enclosed areas where there is no risk of losing control of the situation. As lead training can be difficult, it is important to introduce a collar and lead at an early age, and patience and persistence are required to gain good lead control.
Shibas do not require intensive grooming. The nature of their double coat means that they are not prone to matting or accumulating clots of dirt in the hair. However, they can experience very heavy moults, which can be an issue for owners of indoor pets. A good-quality diet can contribute to somewhat lessened shedding, but brushing at least weekly is advisable to ensure the moult doesn’t get out of hand.
Because of their meticulous grooming habits, Shiba Inus rarely require washing except in specific circumstances. Dogs suffering from dermatitis (see above) will benefit from regular washing with a medicated shampoo to control bacterial overgrowth, and to adequately condition the skin.
It is a very good idea to introduce nail clipping and ear cleaning at an early age in Shiba puppies. As they have a fairly wilful nature, it can be difficult to introduce these routines in adult dogs of the breed, and this can become a major source of stress for pets and owners alike. In particular, Shiba Inus developing atopic skin disease will require regular ear cleaning, and an inability to perform this can lead to preventable, painful ear infections. Gentle, regular cleaning and handling of ears in puppies as young as 10 weeks is a really good idea, but be sure to use a suitable ear cleaner recommended by a vet.
Similarly, teeth-brushing is best introduced at an early age. While many owners are reluctant to rush their dog’s teeth, doing so greatly reduces dental infections, pain, and tooth loss in older dogs. Daily brushing is an easy routine to introduce to a young puppy, but may be extremely difficult in dogs over 6 months of age. Again, use only products suitable for dogs, as human toothpaste is likely to be extremely unpalatable and may cause digestive upsets.
Famous Shiba Inus
While the Shiba Inu may not have yet gained international celebrity status, there are some very well-known breed celebrities in its native Japan:
- Marutaro is a 9-year-old Japanese celebrity with over 2.5M Instagram followers.
- Bodhi is a professional clothing model.
- Mari-Chan is a comically aloof YouTube star.
- Shibao Inuyama is a star of Japanese news advertisements.
Some of the more popular Shiba Inu crossbreeds include:
- Husky Inu – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Husky
- Imo-Inu – Cross between a Shiba Inu and an American Eskimo Dog
- Pom-Shi/Shi-Pom – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Pomeranian
- Poo-Shi – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Poodle
- Schnu – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Miniature Schnauzer
- Shairn-Inu – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Cairn Terrier
- Shi-Pin – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Miniature Pinscher
- Shibadox – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Dachshund
- Shibos – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Boston Terrier
- Shocker – Cross between a Shiba Inu and a Cocker Spaniel