Tibetan Spaniel

Catharine Hennessy
Dr Catharine Hennessy (DVM, North Carolina State University)
Photo of adult Tibetan Spaniel

The Tibetan Spaniel is an ancient breed, believed to have originated in Tibet at least 2,000 years ago. These intelligent small dogs are not true Spaniels, as they have never been used as sporting or gundogs. Instead, they served as watchdogs, and prized companions for the monks in the Buddhist monasteries in Tibet and elsewhere. This special breed is friendly and confident, and is an ideal family dog well-suited for most home environments.

Due to their breeding as companion animals for monks, Tibetan Spaniels (also called “Tibbies”) thrive when they are part of a family and are loyal to an attentive and loving owner. These dogs are good with children, other dogs, and cats. They shed their undercoat twice a year, and require only occasional brushing. While they do not need extensive exercise, they are not happy when left alone for long periods of time. Tibbies are a long-lived breed, averaging 13 to 16 years.

About & History

The oldest pictures of dogs that appear similar to Tibetan Spaniels have been found on bronzes from 1,100 B.C. in China. It is unknown exactly when and how the breed developed, but the origin has been attributed to Tibet. Considered an independent state since 217 B.C., this region is primarily Buddhist and contains numerous monasteries. The Tibetan Spaniels were companion dogs for the Lama masters and monastic monks, and were regarded as “little lions”, referring to their loyalty and status. During the day, these small, watchful dogs would sit on the walls around the monastery and watch for intruders or predators. While too small to be guard dogs, their persistent barking would alert the monks and the much larger Tibetan Mastiffs of danger.

Tibetan Spaniels were not originally sold, but rather gifted from monasteries to palaces in China. It is likely that the dogs were bred in Chinese villages with other small breeds, such as Lhasa Apso, Japanese Chin, and Pekingese dogs. Dogs were often given back to Tibet, perpetuating the breed and introducing new genetics. The breed was brought to England in the late 1800s, and a breeding program was started there. Only one dog survived from this line. In the 1930s, it was introduced again and breeding continued. It was recognised in 1960 by the Kennel Club. The first documented dog came to the United States in 1965, although there were likely individuals present previously. It was officially recognised as a breed by the American Kennel Club in 1984.


Tibetan Spaniel Large Photo

Tibetan Spaniels are well-proportioned and balanced, and only slightly longer than tall at the withers. They are small dogs with an intelligent and alert expression. The head is slightly dome-shaped and small in proportion to the body, but is carried high and proud. The eyes are oval or almond, dark brown in color, and are set apart but forward. The ears are set high, pendant-shaped and feathered. The muzzle is medium in length and the jaw should either have a slight underbite (preferred) or an even bite.

Tibetan Spaniels have a short, strong neck and the back is level. The forelegs are slightly bowed, and the feet are hare-shaped (long third digit). The hindlegs are strong and straight when seen from behind, and the stifles are large. The tail is curled and carried high over the back, with rich pluming. Tibbies have a double coat (keeping them warm in the high, cold Tibetan monasteries). The outer coat is silky, lays flat, and is moderately long. The undercoat is soft and fine. The forelegs are feathered, and the hindlegs and tail have a dense, long coat. The neck has a “mane” of longer hair, which combined with the high head carriage, gives these dogs a regal appearance. The feet are feathered both on the bottom and between the toes, but this is the only area that may need clipping. The remainder of the coat should be left natural.

Male and female Tibetan Spaniels are similar in size and appearance, but females often have a little less coat and “mane” than males. These dogs are ideally 25 cm in height, and 4 to 7 kg in weight. The coat can be any colour or combination of colours, with solid, patterned and parti markings. When running, the tail and head are typically carried high. These dogs are quick and move freely in a straight line. They can often be found lounging watchfully in high places (windowsill, top of the couch or on the bed), continuing their breed behaviour as watchdogs.

Character & Temperament

Tibetan Spaniels are highly intelligent, happy and confident dogs. They are sensitive and respond to changes in their owner’s moods. They can adapt to life in an apartment, as well as a large home, but they thrive when family members are present. They are not happy left alone for long periods of time. They can be shy with new people, but are never aggressive, and rarely nervous. Even though they are very attached to their owners, Tibbies are confident and curious dogs and will wander off to explore, and may ignore commands to return.

Tibetan Spaniels make great family pets, and do well with children, cats and other dogs (if socialised early). Since they are watchdogs, they will bark in alarm, but generally not excessively. While they can be reserved and even aloof around strangers, early introduction to a variety of people in different settings will help minimise this.


Photo of Tibetan Spaniel puppy

Tibetan Spaniels are very easy to train. Due to their intelligence and natural attachment to their family, these dogs are eager to please and respond well to gentle discipline. Once trained, they have excellent recall and are amiable and loving companion dogs for life.


Tibetan Spaniels have a long life span of 13 to 16 years, with few major heritable conditions. Breeding of these dogs has been limited, and as such, minimal breed-related issues have surfaced.

Ocular Diseases

Tibetan Spaniels have two notable genetic eye conditions.

  • Cherry Eye, or prolapsed third eyelid, is a condition that causes the third eyelid in the corner of the eye to protrude and become red. Sometimes, this will resolve and recur spontaneously, but may require surgery to correct.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy is a cause of progressive blindness in Tibbies and many other small, purebred dogs. It generally starts as night blindness and progresses to total blindness over a few months to years. Breeding dogs should be screened yearly by a veterinary ophthalmologist to identify affected individuals.

Portosystemic Shunt

This rare condition occurs when a blood vessel leading from the gastrointestinal tract bypasses the liver. Metabolic byproducts that the liver normally clears build up in the blood stream and cause a variety of symptoms, including poor growth, neurologic signs, and sensitivity to medications. The symptoms are often worse after meals. In some cases, this can be surgically corrected, and may be somewhat manageable with diet.

Orthopedic Conditions

As with many small breeds, Tibetan Spaniels can have luxating patellas. This condition causes the knee cap to slide out of place and can lead to persistent lameness. Surgery may be required to correct this, but in many cases, keeping the individual thin can minimise the lameness. Many dogs are affected by hip dysplasia, and Tibbies are no exception. While not common in this breed, it can occur, and individuals should be radiographically screened for this condition prior to breeding.


Umbilical, inguinal and scrotal hernias can occur in Tibetan Spaniels. These conditions are usually not life-threatening and are easily correctable during neutering.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Tibetan Spaniels do not require a lot of activity to be content. But, they do enjoy walks and exploring outside with their family. Due to their breeding and history as monastic watchdogs, Tibbies love to sit on the top of the couch or in a windowsill, surveying the outside world. When considering this breed as a pet, remember that they thrive when the family is present, and are not happy left alone for periods of time, regardless of activity level.


Tibetan Spaniels have a double coat, with a fine, dense undercoat, and a silky, flat outer coat. They require brushing once a week, but debris may need to be removed from feathers daily after being outside. They shed twice a year, and only need occasional baths. The hair between the toes and on the bottom of the feet may need to be trimmed to help with traction and to prevent matting.

Toenails will need monthly trimming if not naturally worn down, and ears should be checked weekly for dirt and wax and cleaned if needed. Daily tooth brushing is optimal. Overall, for a breed with a medium length coat, Tibbies are relatively easy to maintain.

Famous Tibetan Spaniels

There are no famous Tibetan Spaniels to date, although they were highly regarded by their Buddhist monk companions historically, and were often used as priceless gifts.


Cross-breeding of Tibetan Spaniels was likely common in the early years of breed development when individuals were gifted to palaces in China. However, today there are no commonly identified cross-breeds.

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