Pekingese

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Pekingese

The Pekingese, known in its homeland of China as the 'Lion Dog', was developed by Chinese royalty as a treasured companion. This breed has many contradictory features; for while it is a very small toy breed dog, it is stocky and muscular, and displays sometimes-foolhardy courage in defending itself or its owners from any real or imagined threat. ‘Pekes’ may not be suited to households with other pets, as they often dislike the company of other animals, with the exception of other Pekingese.

The long, heavy coat requires a good deal of grooming, both at home on a regular basis, as well as by a professional groomer every few weeks. The breed has an extremely flat face, causing the eyes to protrude and be prone to injury, as well as creating a tendency to overheat in warm weather.

Pekes do not require much exercise, and are suited to apartment living. However, they have a tendency to bark, and training may be required to prevent this becoming a point of friction between neighbours. The breed has a dignified and haughty bearing, befitting its regal origin, but is affectionate and good-humoured with its owners. They are often wary of strangers, and so make good guard dogs. They dislike rough treatment as might be expected from young children, and will be relatively quick to bite if irritated. For this reason, they are not best suited to young families.

Most well-bred Pekingese are very healthy, and they have an average life expectancy of 12–14 years.

About & History

The origins of the Pekingese can be traced back over 2,000 years in China, and bizarrely, it has been proven to a very close genetic relative of the wolf. Legend has it that the first Peke puppies were the result of a marriage between a marmoset (a type of monkey) and a lion who had been shrunk by a deity at his own request. This would go some way towards explaining both the appearance of the Pekingese, as well as its sometimes fierce attitude, but is perhaps not an entirely factual story.

For many centuries, it was illegal for anyone other than Chinese royalty to own a Pekingese, a law enforced under penalty of death. The breed was highly prized as a status symbol and companion, and was developed to resemble the ornamental lions seen to guard many Chinese palaces. Specimens of the breed fell into Western hands for the first time when British troops in Peking (now Beijing) over-ran the Old Summer Palace and discovered five dogs in the company of a noble who had taken her own life. These five dogs were taken back to the UK and gifted to several aristocrats, including Queen Victoria herself. Several Pekes were later gifted by the Empress Dowager Cixi to the United States, while the Irishman Dr Heuston received two in return for introducing smallpox vaccination to China.

These early canine pioneers were later joined by dogs smuggled out of China, and by the 1890s, the number of Pekes in both the United Kingdom and United States had grown considerably. While the breed enjoyed great popularity in the mid-twentieth century, numbers are again in decline, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Appearance

Pekingese Large Photo

Pekes have a leonine appearance, accentuated by the thickened ruff of fur around the neck. They have a regal bearing, upright and dignified, with a clear understanding of their rightful place as royal companions. The breed has a long, trailing outer coat, which is somewhat coarse, and a dense, soft undercoat that requires care to prevent tangling and matting. The coat may be any colour, and indeed, great variation in colouration is seen in the breed.

Despite its small stature, Pekingese are very solid dogs, and the breed standard states that they should be ‘surprisingly heavy when lifted’. For such a small dog, the Peke is well muscled, with a strong neck and broad shoulders and back. The legs are short but well boned with ample muscle on the upper limbs. The breed has a ‘rolling’, slightly awkward gait. The tail is markedly curled over the back, and carries a long coat of hair also.

Apart from its spectacular coat, the facial features of the Pekingese are the most striking. The skull is wider than it is long with a very short muzzle. The eyes are bright, intelligent, and alert, and usually convey an air of suspicion when confronted by a stranger. They are dark, and protrude noticeably from the skull due to the unusual shape of the head. The ears are spaniel-like with very long fringes of hair, which may exaggerate their size. Pekes have black noses and lips, and the lower jaw is often markedly overshot, adding to their distinctive look. Wrinkling of the facial skin is common.

It is very important that none of these facial characteristics impair the dog’s quality of life. Excess skin folds may cause chronic fold infections and discomfort, or can cause partial collapse of the nostrils, exacerbating any respiratory difficulties the dog may experience in hot weather. Male Pekingese weigh up to 5 kg (11 lb) with females tending to be a little heavier, up to 5.4 kg (12 lb). American Pekes are heavier, but are disqualified from show competition if exceeding 14 lb in weight.

Character & Temperament

Pekingese are bold, confident dogs with a high opinion of themselves and their place in the world. As any Peke owner will attest, they are full of personality, highly intelligent, and often stubborn. Most prefer to assume the role of ‘pack leader’ for themselves, and they do not take kindly to harsh treatment. They most enjoy the company of calm, assertive people, and so often do not get along with children. In addition, Pekingese are quick to object with a snarl or a nip. While this is not likely to result in any severe injury, it does mean that a particularly strong-willed individual may be hard to train or correct.

While they are suitable lap-dogs, this is not an ‘ornamental’ breed. Pekes are famously protective of their people, and will defend their owners against all-comers. They tend to bond most strongly with one or two people, to whom they will be unfailingly loyal.

Trainability

Photo of Pekingese puppy

Training Pekingese can be difficult, as they are stubborn, intelligent and independently minded. Of course, it is possible to train any dog, but a Peke is likely to require significant coercion and bribing before he will consider responding to an owner’s command. Positive reinforcement is vital, so having a treat to hand is important to reward good behaviour. It is said, in fact, that Pekingese do not respond to commands, but rather consider suggestions by their owners! House-training can also be a drawn-out process and crate training may be considered for puppies. This involves providing a ‘den’ of sorts for the pup, in the form of a cage or kennel in which the pup can be confined, for example, overnight. This usually accelerates the learning process, and is well-accepted by most pups.

Health

As with many breeds which have had their shape significantly ‘engineered’, Pekingese are prone to a number of skeletal and skin disorders. Most are quite healthy little dogs.

  • Cataract – A common problem in older people, opaque cataracts may also be seen in elderly Pekes. These deposits within the ocular lens can significantly impair vision and removal may be considered.
  • Collapsing Trachea – The trachea is the large airway running down the neck, and it is composed of C-shaped rings of cartilage which support muscle and other soft tissues. Many Pekingese are affected to a greater or lesser degree by this condition, in which the cartilage rings and dorsal tracheal membrane may be sucked into the airway during rapid or vigorous breathing. Signs commonly include a honking cough, extending to collapse on exertion in severely affected dogs.
  • Facial Fold Dermatitis – While breeders have made an effort to eliminate this problem, many Pekes have a marked fold that extends over the muzzle just in front of the eyes. This fold then accumulates ocular secretions and other material, leading to chronic irritation and infection. These folds need regular, careful cleaning to manage the problem.
  • Haemolytic Anaemia – A condition of low red blood cells, and hence reduced tissue oxygenation as a result of immune-mediated destruction within the blood vessels, liver and spleen. Can be triggered by certain unusual infections, but often no underlying cause is identified.
  • Hypoplasia of Dens – Under-development of the dens, the second bone of the spinal column, is an uncommon condition, but is sometimes seen in Pekingese. This results in an unstable connection between the skull and spinal cord, which can cause dramatic clinical signs. Advanced orthopaedic surgery is required to correct the problem.
  • Inguinal/Umbilical Hernia – Failure of normal development of the abdominal muscles frequently causes Peke puppies to present with hernias. The hernia is a lump of variable size, usually soft, which contains fat or abdominal organs just below the skin. Inguinal hernias affect the groin, while umbilical hernias occur at the ‘belly-button’. Small hernias may require no treatment, but some do need surgical repair.
  • Intervertebral Disc Disease – Usually seen in older dogs, degeneration of the rubbery intervertebral discs, which normally perform a shock-absorbing function in the spine, can cause pain and loss of nerve function.
  • Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca – Commonly known as ‘dry eye’, this condition is the result of immune-mediated damage to the tear glands. Lack of lubrication then causes friction between eyelids and eyes, pain and scarring. Very treatable with medication, although in Pekes this is often exacerbated by exposure keratitis, due to a failure of the lids to close fully during blinking.
  • Lacrimal Duct Atresia – Failure of the tear ducts, which normally carry ocular secretions from the eye to the nasal chamber, to develop normally. Causes overflow of tears from the eyes, which may be an issue if the dog also has pronounced skin folds.
  • Luxating Patella – Common cause of lameness or a skipping gait. Due to the kneecap slipping out of its normal position in front of the knee joint.
  • Microphthalmia – Underdeveloped, small eyes can be encountered in Pekingese puppies.
  • Pannus – Infiltration of immune cells into the cornea at the front of the eye. The eye develops a pink to red discoloration and vision will be slightly affected due to loss of transparency. Can be managed with medicated drops.
  • Pigmentary Keratitis – Another condition affecting the front of the eye, in which dark pigment is laid down in the cornea. This is a harmless process, although if it progresses, it can cause some visual impairment.
  • Sertoli Cell Tumour – A type of testicular tumour seen in male dogs, in which excess levels of oestrogen are secreted. This can cause a range of signs, including hair loss and apparent attractiveness to other males.
  • Thrombocytopaenia – This can be seen as a component of haemolytic anaemia, and is a similar process, in which abnormal immune responses destroy a type of white blood cell responsible for normal clotting. This can lead to bleeding in response to minor trauma.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Pekingese are not especially tolerant of vigorous exercise, and require only a short period of lead walking each day. They will benefit from access to a garden, which they can patrol at their own pace. When indoors, most Pekes will enjoy spending most of their time in a comfortable position from which they can survey and supervise their surroundings.

Grooming

The hair coat of the Pekingese is very prone to tangling and knotting, and requires careful and thorough brushing at least twice a week. This process may take one to two hours on a weekly basis, which is quite a commitment, and may be one of the reasons for the breed’s falling popularity. Owners will also require the services of a professional groomer on a regular basis to clip where needed. As part of grooming requirements, many Pekes will need their skin folds cleaned regularly (see above).

Nails can be clipped at visits to the groomer, as they may overgrow and curl into the toes. Due to their overshot lower jaw, Pekes are likely to develop heavy tartar build-up on their teeth, leading to dental pain and tooth loss, and so brushing on a daily basis is very useful from a young age.

Famous Pekingese

Pekingese have a long and distinguished history. In relatively recent times, they have come to the attention of the Western media as a result of being owned by the rich and famous or through exploits of their own:

  • Sun Yat Sen, a Pekingese belonging to Henry Sleeper Harper that was one of only two dogs to survive the sinking of the Titanic
  • Looty, an aptly named Peke ‘liberated’ from China and subsequently owned by Queen Victoria
  • Manchu was given as a gift to Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth (daughter of Theodore Roosevelt) by Empress Cixi

Cross-Breeds

Pekingese are frequently crossed with other breeds to produce so-called ‘designer dogs’. One gets the impression that this is sometimes done as much for the amusing names that result as the notable qualities of the breed!

  • Bostinese – Cross between a Pekingese and Boston Terrier
  • Cheeks – Cross between a Chihuahua and Pekingese
  • Havapeke – Cross between a Pekingese and a Havanese
  • Peagle – Cross between a Pekingese and Beagle
  • Pekalier – Cross between a Pekingese and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Peke-a-Pap – Cross between a Pekingese and a Papillon
  • Silkinese – Cross between a Pekingese and a Silky Terrier
  • Yorkinese – Cross between a Pekingese and a Yorkshire Terrier

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