As you walk down the street, you spot a dog covered in golden wrinkles. Right away, you know it must be a Chinese Shar-Pei. No other breed sports trademarked wrinkly coats. As you watch the loose fur slip over the dog’s body as they walk beside their owner, you wonder if they’d make a good match in your household. They’re the perfect medium size for most homes, after all. Before you start stocking up on dog supplies, though, read through this quick guide on Shar-Peis. While those wrinkles are adorable – especially on puppies – these dogs have a few quirks you need to know about.
Wrinkled and Blue
In Mandarin, Shar-Pei translates to “sand skin.” And if you run your hand along those short, bristly hairs, you’ll understand why. You can find three different coats on a Shar-Pei, though the AKC officially recognizes only the first two:
- Horse Coat: Extremely short, lifting a “hair” above the skin
- Brush Coat: A touch longer, but no more than one inch along the legs
- Bear Coat: The fluffy version, with hair extending more than an inch
The hair stands up against masses of loose folds of skin that form wrinkles from their heads down to their curled tails. They possess shortened snouts, making them a brachycephalic breed. That’s right – a member of the group that includes Bulldogs and Pugs. When it gets hot, they struggle to move air through their compressed airways. And since they have bluish-black tongues, people who aren’t used to the breed may jump to unexpected conclusions and think their dog’s suffocating. (The Chow Chow is the other dog breed to share this trait)
Chinese Shar-Peis: Ancient Wrinkly Dogs
No one knows exactly how old the Shar-Pei breed is, but they think the dogs date back 2000 years to the Han Dynasty in China. Wrinkly dogs served multiple purposes: guard dog, hunter, and even herding dog. Life stayed good until around 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established. Communist regimes frowned on dog ownership, eradicating many breeds. But a few Shar-Peis managed to hang on in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In May 1971, Dogs published an article highlighting rare dog breeds. They featured a picture of a Shar-Pei with the caption, “one of the last surviving specimens of the breed.” Matgo Law, the owner of the Down-Homes Kennel in Hong Kong, stumbled onto the article. He owned Shar-Peis, and he felt determined to see the breed survive. He wrote a letter to Dogs stressing the importance of saving the breed. They published his letter in the April 1973 issue. Over 200 people in the United States responded, wanting to purchase Shar-Peis!
Shar-Peis joined the AKC Miscellaneous class in 1988, and they joined the Non-Sporting Group in 1991 – the 134th breed to join the AKC.
History’s Dark Side
Unfortunately, the sudden influx of Shar-Peis into the U.S. came with a slippery slope. Everyone fell in love with those adorable wrinkles, but no one had any real experience with breeding. The original Shar-Pei featured few wrinkles; you might even dismiss them as a different dog entirely. Instead of working to preserve the best quality of life, people aimed to make dogs as wrinkly as possible – to horrible results.
In 2011, scientists discovered a genetic link between the wrinkles and the condition Shar-Pei fever. Shar-Pei fever, or swollen hock syndrome, causes fevers between 103-107F. The dogs develop swellings in their hocks (the region below their knee), making them reluctant to move. They can also show vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty breathing, and abdominal pain. Severe cases develop kidney, liver, or spleen complications. Typically, dogs develop Shar-Pei fever at 18 months, but adults CAN end up affected. And the original Shar-Pei model, with fewer wrinkles? DON’T get Shar-Pei fever.
Bringing a Shar-Pei Home
Shar-Peis retain the devotion they developed guarding their homes and livestock all those years ago. As such, people often incorporate them into their homes. They have medium, compact bodies that work well in apartments or the country. However, you need to keep some things in mind before you add one to your family. They aren’t the sweet, bouncy dogs those wrinkles might suggest. If you don’t have the time to invest in training and socialization, Shar-Peis aren’t the dogs for you.
Everyone loves loyalty and devotion. However, Shar-Peis add stubbornness to that list. They continue to make fantastic guard dogs, but you need to work hard to train them. They’re suspicious of EVERYTHING they don’t know: people, other animals, strange leaves. You have to start the training process from day one and continue reinforcing it throughout their lives to prevent undue aggression. Unfortunately, Shar-Peis did have a period where they were used for pit fighting, so if you don’t stay on top of things, you CAN find yourself living with a tyrant. Inexperienced owners should NEVER bring a Shar-Pei into their home.
And while you might think a Shar-Pei puppy rolling around on the floor with your kids is an adorable picture, Shar-Peis aren’t the most child-friendly breed. They do okay with older children, but they lack the patience to handle younger kids. Rather than cope with frustration (on both sides), consider a different breed if you have young ones about.
They ARE intelligent dogs. Of course, that can translate to them outwitting you if you aren’t careful. Socialization from day one is key. Establish yourself as the boss, or you’re going to find yourself fighting a losing battle. If you’re interested, Shar-Peis do well at obedience and tracking. You’ll get those keen minds working – in a constructive manner.
Caring for a Shar-Pei
Those short bristles make grooming a cinch. Shar-Peis are one of the cleanest dog breeds you’ll find. You don’t need to worry about frequent baths (actually, it’s discouraged), and they aren’t the biggest shedders, either. You DO need to keep an eye on the wrinkles, though. Folds like to trap dirt and debris, which can lead to skin issues.
However, there IS a caveat. Shar-Peis release oil onto their skin, which causes allergic reactions in certain people. (I develop hives LOOKING at them) And, no, you can’t bathe them frequently to strip the oil away. That isn’t healthy for the dog.
Exercise varies depending on the dog. In general, though, you’re not getting a jogging partner. Remember – these are brachycephalic dogs, so they can only move so much air through those smushed airways. You might find a Shar-Pei who loves long daily walks, though. Or you could have a slower pup who wants a quick walk to the park and then long snoozes on the couch. You’ll need to see what your dog prefers and go from there.
Major Health Concerns for Shar-Peis
When it comes to health, the breeding boom in the 1970s didn’t do Shar-Peis any favors. If you plan to add a Shar-Pei to your life, have pet insurance or a savings account ready to go. Shar-Peis are prone to the following health conditions (in addition to the dreaded Shar-Pei fever):
- Cutaneous Mucinosis
- Elbow and Hip Dysplasia
- Eye Issues:
- Patellar Luxation
- Osteochondrosis Dissecans (OCD)
Always look for a reputable breeder if you choose to purchase your Shar-Pei. They’ll have performed the screening for the worst of these conditions through the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). The Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America is aware of the genetic links, and they’re doing their best to foster responsible breeding practices. Now that the breed isn’t experiencing such a surge in popularity, it’s easier to handle.
Adopt, Don’t Shop
With so many health and behavioral problems, Shar-Peis often find themselves turned over to rescue groups. Rather than purchasing a puppy (yes, I know – they’re cute), consider getting in contact with one of these amazing Shar-Pei rescues. They work tirelessly to find homes for wonderful dogs. And, often, they’ve spent fundraised money to perform eye, elbow, or knee surgeries, so the dogs feel comfortable and happy. You can never go wrong supporting a good cause!
Wrinkly and Loyal
Who doesn’t love a wrinkly face? Chinese Shar-Peis have a distinctive look that many people find enchanting. You need to have the strength of will to battle their stubborn streak, though. Not to mention the intelligence to match wits with their crafty minds. They’re not a breed meant for everyone, and you’ll need to have a lot of care (and finances) for their possible health concerns.
If you’re up to the task, though, all of those wrinkles could find the best home snuggled up beside you.