Chihuahuas: Anatomy of an unlikely athlete - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

Chihuahuas: Anatomy of an unlikely athlete

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Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:49 pm | Updated: 3:57 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

The first Saturday in May is always Kentucky Derby day, when the year’s top racehorses compete in the storied Run for the Roses. But forget pretty hats and mint juleps — the biggest races in this town are the Chandler Chihuahua Races.

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The first Saturday in May is always Kentucky Derby day, when the year’s top racehorses compete in the storied Run for the Roses. But forget pretty hats and mint juleps — the biggest races in this town are the Chandler Chihuahua Races.

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More than 100 halfpint pups will break from the starting gates, running in heats of six at a time for a first-place prize of $500 and a medal.

The races are part of Chandler’s 13th annual Cinco de Mayo Festival, a celebration with live bands, folklorico dancers, Mexican food and hordes of tiny canines in costumes, tremulously awaiting the 4 p.m. crowning of the festival’s King and Queen Chihuahua.

As for the dogs entering the races?

“Chihuahuas just don’t do that. The whole idea of them racing is funny because it’s so incongruous,” says John Carr, a veterinarian at Warner Vista Animal Hospital in Gilbert who routinely treats dogs for Arizona Chihuahua Rescue. “I tease my Chihuahua owners all the time that they’re kind of like little ornaments; we put them on our arms to make us look better.”

We asked Carr and two others who work with Chihuahuas on a regular basis to clue us in on the anatomy of these unlikely athletes. So study up, choose your wagers carefully, and get dressed down for a day at the races, Southwestern style. Just watch where you step — the field is fierce but fragile.

Cranial structure

Chihuahua owners will tell you whether their dog is an “apple-head” or a “deer head,” says Billy Griswold, veterinarian at Priority Pet Hospital in Gilbert.

“Apples” have a bulbous skull, bug eyes and button noses, while “deer heads” have longer, slimmer faces.

“From a race standpoint, deer heads might be a little more aerodynamic,” says Griswold.

But either way, Chihuahuas sometimes have a soft spot in their skull, like a newborn baby’s, that never fully closes.

“If those dogs are going to be athletes, they might benefit from some kind of protective gear, like a helmet. If you could find a helmet for a dog,” says Griswold.


Darling as they are, Chihuahuas are prone to tartar and gum disease. It may not be an impediment to speed, but, says Griswold, “Wheaties won’t invite you to be on the box if you don’t have a great smile.”


“Their smooth, smooth coats would offer little wind resistance,” says Griswold, adding that short-coated dogs might have an advantage over those with long, silky tendrils that blow in the wind and create more drag.


“They have very big ears; those have got to be good for something,” says Carr. “Maybe similar to a wing, they could provide some lift and help them move a little faster.”


“They’re super fast. Just try catching one,” says Jena Scott, a volunteer with Arizona Chihuahua Rescue who has fostered scores of tiny dogs since 2006. “I had one that was found in the middle of the desert with a broken leg by some guys out riding quads, and they had to chase her for a mile — with a broken leg — before they caught her.”

Griswold concurs. “From an athletic standpoint, Chihuahuas’ rear legs tend to be quite muscular, like a sprinter’s. Similarly, their dainty feet are reminiscent of the ‘tippy-toe’ running style that sprinters sometimes use.”

But there’s a catch.

“Along with most toy breeds, many have ‘trick knees,’ or medial patella luxations, a condition in which the kneecaps pop in and out of place and can cause knee pain,” he says.


“A lot of them think they’re 200-pound Rottweilers,” says Scott. “We had a 5-pound Chihuahua returned to us because she was beating up her new owner’s 150-pound mastiff. They decide they want to be the king, and they’ll make big dogs believe it.”

Carr agrees. “Young ones especially are sort of macho. They look wimpy, but they don’t act that way. They have a vigorous streak that’s remarkable for their size.”

With bluster like that, who needs to run anywhere? The competition may just forfeit with their tails between their legs.

Cute factor

When braggadocio goes bust and speed sputters, you can’t top sheer cuteness.

Take Maui, a 3-pound black-and-white puppy that Scott currently fosters.

“She literally looks like a stuffed animal. She has these fuzzy little limbs and this adorable face. It’s the cutest thing you’ve ever seen.”

Racers with that kind of cute factor might slide into first place on the gushing from the sidelines alone.

Heat tolerance

“Most of them seem to like the heat,” says Scott, so she doesn’t foresee a warm day being a big problem for the short, 50-foot races on grass. “They’ll lay in the sun, on the pool deck or a lounge chair, even when it’s 100 degrees outside. They’ll crawl underneath a comforter and snuggle next to you. They’re like little hot potatoes.”


“If they want something, they’ll figure out how to get it,” says Scott. “I’ve had them eat through a lot of things in order to get at what they want. They can be pretty stubborn.”

That quality could be good if a Chihuahua decides he wants prize money on Saturday; bad if he decides the starting line is the perfect spot for a nap.


“They have little, skinny tails. Their tail wouldn’t be much good for steering, but they could possibly use it to affect the dog behind them, or maybe as a self-imposed riding crop to urge themselves on,” says Carr.

Contact writer: (480) 898-6818 or

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