Shar-Pei (Chinese Shar-Pei)
Shar-Pei (Chinese Shar-Pei)
Between their wrinkled bodies, blue-black tongues, and unique "hippopotamus" muzzles, a Chinese shar-pei is easy to spot. But there's more to the shar-pei than looks: This is an intelligent, independent pup with a desire to please her family—and keep them safe.
Shar-pei owners need to provide plenty of early socialization and training so the dog's instincts, cultivated through centuries of being bred to stand vigilant, are properly channeled. If you're prepared to take this on, along with a laundry list of health issues shar-pei can be prone to, you'll be rewarded with a loyal friend for life.
Beneath all those folds (and more folds) of skin, you'll find a full grown shar-pei to be a medium-sized dog with a square, compact body. Her coarse, sandpapery fur comes in just about any solid or sable color, only excluding white. Her coat can also be three lengths: short (or brush) coat, shorter (known as horse coat), or long (a bear coat shar-pei).
Her head, which is a little on the large side, features eye-catching attributes: A broad "hippopotamus" muzzle; small, flat-lying, triangular ears; a blue-black tongue; and small, dark, slightly sunken eyes complete this pooch's picture. On her other end, she has a high-set tail that curls around and over her back.
Speaking of pictures, those photo-ready wrinkles are most abundant when shar-pei puppies are around 14 weeks old. Unlike humans, as they get older, these dogs grow out of their wrinkles, at least to some extent—some remain quite wrinkled, while others end up with just a few folds at the neck like a built-in necklace.
Given this wrinkly makeup, you could think of the shar-pei as a bit comical. But her regal stature, unmetered loyalty, and reserved air command respect more than laughter … once she's out of the roly-poly puppy stage, anyway.
When it comes to the typical shar-pei temperament, she's often described as surprisingly "cat-like."
"They might come and cuddle, but they'll only do it on their terms," says Karen Wiegandt, a shar-pei enthusiast who has bred, shown, rescued, and fostered the breed for 25 years.
B. Lee Parker, an AKC Breeder of Merit in Columbia, Miss., has worked with shar-pei since 1986. She adds that while they may be standoffish to strangers at first, they can be extremely loving with their people. "Breeders have really worked on the shar-pei temperament," she says. "Now, the puppies [generally] love everybody. But when they get older and know who their family is, well, they might not really like anybody else."
This is a quirky dog who's highly intelligent—and who often prefers to make her own choices rather than blindly follow a command. This strong will, paired with her alert nature and tendency to be wary of outsiders, means she does best with an experienced dog owner.
"Shar-pei generally bond closely with their owners and can struggle to understand that grandma or college friends aren't a threat," Kayla Fratt, dog behavior consultant at Journey Dog Training says. "Careful socialization with shar-pei puppies can help them understand that strangers are nothing to worry about. They'll also benefit from careful socialization with appropriate dogs—especially adult dogs that won't bully or play rough with them," she says.
If you bring home an adult shar-pei, Fratt recommends using the all-powerful treat to help socialize her.
"With older dogs, asking strangers to ignore your dog [while you] toss treats to them can help your dog learn to trust strangers and let their guard down," Fratt says. Training a shar-pei requires consistency, patience, kindness, and ample positive reinforcement. You won't see changes overnight—especially if you're working with an adult dog.
Though shar-pei love their humans deeply, that doesn't necessarily mean they want to snuggle—often, they just want to have you in their sights so they can make sure everything is A-OK.
"You'll never shower alone once you have a shar-pei," says Parker. "They'll lay right at the door until you're done."
If you have a fenced-in yard, be prepared to end up with a path forged along the perimeter. "All of mine have made territorial passes around the backyard," Wiegandt says. "We call it the pei-trol."
Though she's always alert, a shar-pei has low to moderate exercise needs and can be perfectly happy in an apartment as long as she gets a walk or two daily, which can make her a good fit for seniors. Because shar-pei can be suspicious of humans who aren't their family and aren't exactly enthusiastic about canine company, Parker doesn't consider the dog park an ideal playground.
But don't take that to mean shar-pei don't enjoy engaging in fun activities with their people! Historically, they were adaptable "peasant dogs" who worked as hunters, herders, and guardians, and they remain versatile today. Long walks and even hikes can make a shar-pei's day, although it's not unusual for her to have an aversion to water—Weigandt says many won't even like stepping in puddles.
"They can do Frisbee, agility, obedience," says Parker. "They love to run and chase a ball. They like to do what you're doing."
Be careful about taking your shar-pei out in hot weather. Although their faces aren't as smooshy as, say, the bulldog, this is a brachycephalic breed with a short nose and tongue, which makes them extra susceptible to the heat.
If you introduce your shar-pei puppy to cats, other dogs, and children, she can live well alongside anyone. Bringing an adult shar-pei into a home with other animals or kids might be trickier. If you're considering getting a full-grown shar-pei, work closely with the breeder or rescue as well as a trainer who's familiar with the breed. Typically, these grown pups are best in homes with adults who appreciate their independence and with children who are old enough to respect their boundaries and not pull on those wrinkles.
For the most part, shar-pei are a wash and wear breed, Parker says. However, they're prone to a litany of skin, ear, and eye issues, so owners need to watch for any changes in these areas—not in just how they look, but also how they smell.
Ask your veterinarian for guidelines on proper ear, skin, and eye care. You can make these regular evaluations a positive experience by rewarding your dog with treats for allowing you to handle her paws and clean her ears. Feeding her high-quality food can help to mitigate some of these issues, too, so be sure to discuss options with your veterinarian. Understanding your pup's nutritional needs will also help you keep her from becoming overweight or obese, which can be an issue for the shar-pei.
Wiping her coat and paws down after outdoor playtime, especially when pollen is high, can help keep allergies at bay; otherwise, an occasional bath (make sure to clean between the folds!) and a quick brush with a rubber curry or grooming mitt should do the trick. That bristly coat doesn't shed much, but an adult shar-pei will blow coat a couple of times a year—and you'll be well aware when it happens. Trim her nails once or twice a month (if you hear nails clicking on the floor, they're too long) and introduce her to the joys of teeth brushing early (like, during puppyhood), if possible.
Owners will need to use plenty of positive reinforcement and consistency during training, because as brainy as a shar-pei is, she's also wildly willful and you'll need to earn her respect if you want her to follow your commands and cues. That said, once she's bonded to her person, she's eager to please.
"They're an intuitive dog and sensitive to their owner's emotions," Wiegandt says. "They're very loyal to you and respectful of you, and never want to let you down. It's like their whole goal in life is to help their owners!"
The typical shar-pei lifespan is 8-12 years. However, as with all breeds, shar-pei are prone to certain health issues—and, unfortunately, the list of conditions to look out for is long, says Maggie Brown-Bury, DVM, veterinarian at Veterinary Specialty Centre of Newfoundland and Labrador and former president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Veterinary Medical Association.
"They for sure have the hip, elbow, and patella concerns," Brown-Bury says. "They can also develop primary lens luxation, a genetic disease that can be hard to test for. The age of onset is 3–6 years, so some dogs may become breeding dogs before it is known they have this. So the CERF/CAER exam is important for sure, but you should also ask about family members—if parents are young, did their parents develop anything later in life?"
Shar-pei fever (also called shar-pei autoinflammatory disease, or SPAID) is a breed-specific illness in which the dog can experience periodic fevers and swollen hock joints as well as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, and shallow breathing. Major advances have been made in testing and treatment for this issue, but while careful breeding and screening can reduce your pup's risk, shar-pei fever is not eradicated and treatment is pricey.
Another breed-specific condition is a skin disorder called cutaneous mucinosis, which is treated with steroids. Other concerns Brown-Bury notes include ear disease due to those tiny ear canals, allergies, breed-specific renal amyloidosis (which causes kidney failure), esophagus issues, cobolamin deficiency (which causes GI problems), a variety of skin conditions including pemphigus foliaceus (a nasty immune mediated skin problem), and bloat/GDV. Many puppies will require eyetacking due to entropion, and both retinal dysplasia and glaucoma are also common.
Mast cell tumors are frequently seen in shar-pei, so any and all lumps should be checked out by a vet, Brown-Bury says. And you'll need to keep tabs on those black tongues, too, as they get malignant melanoma of the tongue more often than other breeds.
Although not every health condition can be addressed by breeding, it's vital that you get any puppies from reputable shar-pei breeders who can show you the parents' health records, provide the necessary screenings and certifications for your puppy, and who will be available to answer questions once you take your shar-pei puppy home.
The shar-pei wasn't recognized by the AKC until 1992, but the breed has been around for centuries in southern China. Statues from the Han Dynasty, around 200 B.C., show a wrinkled dog that resembles a shar-pei, and a more definitive mention shows up in a 13th century document describing the dog, according to the Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America.
Today, the shar-pei might be one pricey pup, but it's believed that they started out as Chinese peasants' dogs, working wherever they were needed—hunting, herding, and guarding livestock and land.
After the People's Republic of China rose to power in 1949, the number of dogs as a whole dwindled, according to the CSPCA, and only a few shar-pei remained. By 1973, the breed was nearly extinct. That's when Hong Kong businessman Matgo Law began reaching out to the international community to save the breed. As a result, Life Magazine ran an issue in the late 1970s with a shar-pei on the cover, and soon dog fanciers in the U.S. were eager to own what the Guinness Book of World Records had named "the world's rarest dog breed." Their $3,000 per puppy price tag only served to make them a true status symbol.
By the following year, the official breed club held its first meeting, and the U.S market for shar-pei puppies boomed. The craze eventually slowed, and the shar-pei has been a reasonably rare-but-beloved breed in the U.S. ever since.
- The literal translation of shar-pei is "sand skin," which tells you a lot about what to expect when you pet their rough, sandpapery coat.
- In China, where the breed originated, the blue-black shar-pei tongue and wrinkly skin were believed to frighten away evil spirits.
- In 1983, a pair of his and hers shar-pei puppies were listed as fantasy gifts for $2000 a piece in the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book.