Shar Pei

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

The Shar Pei is a long-established breed of dog from China, and was rescued from extinction by an intensive breeding programme in the United States in the 1970s. This programme involved breeding from a relatively small number of dogs exported from their homeland, and resulted in the exaggeration of the skin folds so characteristic of the breed. They were traditionally used as guards and for dog fighting, for which roles it needed to exhibit suspicion of strangers and aggression toward other dogs – traits very much still seen in today’s Shar Peis.

Shar Peis need intensive socialisation as puppies and throughout life to manage these traits to a level that they do not pose a problem, and the breed does not generally tolerate other dogs in the same household. Nor are they suitable pets for young children. However, they are extremely loyal and devoted to their owners, who must be confident and experienced dog owners to manage the breed’s strong personality. Due to excessive folding and wrinkling of the skin, many puppies require early surgical intervention to relieve discomfort around the eyes or other areas. Shar Peis are prone to numerous health disorders, and are not especially long-lived, with an average life expectancy of 9–11 years.

About & History

Though it cannot be stated with certainty, the weight of available evidence points to the Shar Pei as being one of the basal dog breeds, predating the modern breeds developed since the nineteenth century. Depictions of “wrinkled dogs” in works of art and literature can be traced back over 2000 years in the southern Chinese provinces. One of the Shar Pei’s unique features is it’s blue-black tongue, and it seems likely the breed was developed along the same lines as the Chow Chow, another ancient Chinese breed, and the only other dog consistently seen to exhibit this pigmentation in the mouth. Its name translates as “sandy skin” – a reference to the coarse feel of its short coat.

For such a long-established breed, relatively few historical records exist. The general consensus is that these dogs were used to guard important buildings and artefacts, and for the popular pursuit of dog-fighting in the south of China. Over time, they gained popularity with the nobility, and were promoted to palace guards and protectors of royalty. The traditional appearance of the Shar Pei was quite different to the breed standard of today, with the Chinese distinguishing the two lines as “meat-mouth” (the Western variety) and “bone-mouth” (the traditional variety). Dogs fitting the bone-mouth description have far less exaggeration of the facial folds and doming of the nose. These exaggerated characteristics are largely the result of the near-extinction of the Shar Pei in China in the 1970s, when a widespread cull by the ruling Communist party resulted in a drastic reduction in their numbers. A citizen of Hong Kong by the name of Matgo Law succeeded in exporting around 200 of these dogs to the United States, where their cause was taken up by a number of breeders who established most of the modern bloodlines. Such close breeding, coupled with dubious selection decisions, resulted in the wrinkled facial features of the modern breed.

Appearance

Shar Pei Large Photo

The Shar Pei is a compact, stocky dog that is alert and intelligent in its demeanour. The head is broad and flat, with a pronounced stop between the crown and the wide, strong muzzle. Skin folds around the forehead and eyes give the breed a frowning expression, even when relaxed. The ears are very small in relation to the dog’s proportions, triangular in shape, and fold forward. The eyes are medium in size, almond-shaped, and vary in colour depending largely on the dog’s coat colour. The mouth has large teeth and pigmentation of the gums, lips, and tongue, all of which should be blue-black, though some Shar Peis have more of a lavender colouration. The cheeks are quite well padded due to abundant subcutaneous tissue, but must not impair the bite.

The neck and back are muscular and lean; some excess skin around the neck is permissible, though folding of the skin should be absent from the ears to the shoulders, where some wrinkling is permitted. An ideal specimen should be as long from the withers to the buttocks as he is tall from the ground to the withers, with a chest half as deep as this measure, giving a pleasing proportion to the dog’s shape. The ribs are well sprung, and the abdomen has a slight tuck. The fore and hind limbs exhibit moderate angulation at the joints, lending a powerful, athletic appearance, and are clearly well muscled. The tail is thick at the base, where again some wrinkling is often seen, and tapers to a thin tip.

The coat consists only of primary hairs, the soft undercoat being absent, and is short and extremely coarse, feeling bristly to the touch. The hair can be any solid colour: mottling or patchy markings are not accepted in the breed standard. Males are taller and more muscular, standing around 50 cm (20 in) tall at the withers, and weighing 23–25 kg (51–55 lb), while females average 45 cm (18 in) and 20–22 kg (44–48 lb).

Character & Temperament

Shar Peis are warm and affectionate toward their owners, from whom they do not like to be separated. They are suited to indoor living, as their exercise requirements are not too onerous, and they enjoy the interaction and stimulation that living in close proximity brings. They are extremely loyal and brave, and will spring to the owner’s defence when required. However, they are reserved and suspicious in the company of strangers, preferring to stay out of reach and resenting attention from those they do not know.

This trait must be managed with patience and positive reinforcement throughout the dog’s life to prevent issues with aggression arising. Likewise, most are intolerant of other dogs, and will default to aggressive behaviour at the slightest provocation. For most Shar Peis, interactions with unfamiliar dogs should be kept to a minimum when out walking. They prefer the company of adults or older children, and dislike the advances of younger children, whom they might find unpredictable. For this reason, they are not an ideal choice of dog for young families.

Trainability

Photo of Shar Pei puppy

The breed is moderately easy to train. Shar Peis are intelligent dogs, and most learn to be very well-mannered once the owner is patient and persistent with training. Socialisation is the most important form of training, requiring a concerted effort, and should be started early, with friendly approaches by strangers, accompanied by treats and plenty of praise in response to a calm response by the pup. Any growling or other signs of aggression or fear should be redirected and ignored. Recall training can also be difficult, as the breed’s drive to pursue other dogs or smaller animals can be very strong, and so Shar Peis should not in general be allowed off-lead in areas with other pets.

Like other Oriental breeds, such as the Shiba Inu for example, the Shar Pei is a very clean dog, and housetraining is usually a fairly simple process for the breed.

Health

Shar Peis suffer a number of common health problems, in addition to several more unusual ones that are seldom seen in other breeds.

  • Amyloidosis – Heavy deposits of amyloid, which is composed of a particular type of protein, may be laid down in the liver, kidneys, spinal cords, and other organs of older Shar Peis. This condition is also seen in other breeds, although it is thought to be strongly linked to Shar Pei fever (see below). Amyloidosis is a progressive disorder, and causes dysfunction of the affected organs.
  • Atopic Dermatitis – This is a form of allergic skin disease, and is seen in many Shar Peis from one year of age, or even younger in some cases. Hypersensitivity to inhaled allergens causes irritation and infection of the skin, particularly around the ears, eyes, paws, and perineum. The breed’s folded skin provides numerous sites for bacteria and fungi to thrive, which makes atopic dermatitis particularly challenging to treat in this breed.
  • DemodicosisDemodex mites are normal inhabitants of the skin of most mammals, who manage their numbers through immune defence. Shar Peis and several other breeds mount ineffective responses to these mites, allowing them to proliferate and cause skin irritation and hair loss. Thankfully, several effective treatments are now available to treat this form of mange.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – Abnormal development of one or both elbow joints, which usually manifests as pain or lameness in young growing dogs. Several forms of dysplasia may be seen, some of which are amenable to surgical treatment if identified and addressed at an early stage. Pups born to parents with certified good elbow scores are less likely to be affected.
  • Entropion – Because of the marked skin folding seen around the face and forehead of most Shar Peis, many suffer this condition, whereby inward folding of the eyelids causes hairs to abrade the surface of the eye. This causes discomfort and inflammation, and if left untreated, can eventually cause blindness. Surgical treatment is required, and is usually very effective.
  • Fold Dermatitis – The warm, damp, and sheltered environment between skin folds is an ideal location for the growth of many micro-organisms. Especially if combined with atopic dermatitis, this can result in the establishment of a deep-seated skin infection that can be hard to clear without extended courses of antibiotic or antifungal treatment. Shar Peis with marked folding should have their folds wiped daily with dilute antiseptic to prevent this condition occurring.
  • Glaucoma – Increased pressure within the eye, caused by impaired drainage of fluid from the anterior chamber. Normally occurs in older animals, and may require removal of the eye for pain relief.
  • Hip Dysplasia – Similar to elbow dysplasia (see above), hip dysplasia is the abnormal development of the hip joints in young, rapidly growing dogs, and may cause a gradual onset of lameness from five months of age. Many dogs outgrow this painful phase, while some will be permanently restricted without major surgical intervention. Prospective owners should insist on seeing hip scores for both parents before acquiring a Shar Pei puppy.
  • Immunoglobulin A Deficiency – Immunoglobulin A (IgA) is a large protein molecule that is secreted in bodily fluids (e.g. tears, saliva), and plays a major function in the immune system, combating bacteria and other pathogens at the body’s external surface. IgA deficiency is an inherited condition, in which the impaired immune system allows frequent or recurrent infection of sites such as the mouth, causing severe periodontal infection, or the eyes, resulting in recurrent bouts of conjunctivitis.
  • Intestinal Malabsorption – Reduced absorption of nutrients from the small intestine resulting in severe watery diarrhoea. Can occur as a result of inflammatory processes such as gluten intolerance, or may have no apparent underlying cause. Affected dogs usually have ravenous appetites while rapidly losing weight.
  • Mucinosis – Seen almost exclusively in Shar Peis, due to accumulations of thick, jelly-like material within the skin, especially around the face and head. This results in obvious thickening and swelling of the skin and variable levels of itching.
  • Otitis Externa – Chronic ear infections due to bacteria or yeast are extremely common in the breed. The folded ear flaps and narrow ear canals mean that moisture and debris tend to accumulate. Regular checking and cleaning of the canals can help manage the problem.
  • Shar Pei Fever – Characterised by recurrent bouts of waxing and waning high temperatures, accompanied by swelling and fluid accumulations in the lower extremities. Palliative treatment with anti-inflammatories provides some relief during episodes, but unfortunately, many affected dogs later go on to develop amyloidosis (see above).

Exercise and Activity Levels

Most Shar Peis have fairly moderate energy levels, and while they are happy wandering around the home or garden, do not require a lot of structured exercise. Around half an hour to an hour of lead walking per day will suffice for most, although indoor-only dogs living in a small space will benefit mentally and physically from more than this. Some tend to overheat in warm weather, and may therefore need to be walked early in the morning or late in the evening, when temperatures have cooled.

Grooming

The short, coarse coat is quite easy to care for, with weekly brushing sufficing to keep it clear of dead hair or dirt. Because of their skin folds, Shar Peis do need regular bathing, around once every 8–12 weeks, after which they need to be dried thoroughly. Failing to completely dry the skin folds can easily allow a fold infection to become established, which can be difficult to clear.

Because of their propensity to developing ear infections, Shar Peis should have their ears checked and cleaned regularly. Because the ears are extremely sensitive and easily injured, it is important to use a suitable commercial ear cleaning solution for this job.

Famous Shar Peis

Their unique, photogenic appearance has made a couple of Shar Peis huge social media stars:

  • Paddington has a huge Instagram following because of his posts featuring him dressed in amusing outfits
  • Tonkey Bear competes with Paddington for Instagram followers

Cross-Breeds

Many breeders have experimented with crossing the breed with other pedigrees, to produce mixes including the following:

  • Chow Pei – Cross between a Chow Chow and Shar Pei
  • Cocker Pei – Cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a Shar Pei
  • Shar Cat – Cross between a Shar Pei and Australian Cattle Dog
  • Sharmation – Cross between a Shar Pei and Dalmation
  • Sharp Eagle – Cross between a Shar Pei and Beagle
  • Walrus – Cross between a Shar Pei and Basset Hound

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