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Shar-pei Special Needs and Cautions

Date Published: 01/01/2001
Date Reviewed/Revised: 09/30/2016
Photo Courtesy Deposit Photos

Famous for its wrinkles, the Chinese Shar-Pei has gone from the rarest dog breed listed by the Guinness Book of World Records to its current status of popularity. This breed is famous for its aloof temperament and its medical issues; still, most Shar pei owners would not trade their breed for any less controversial one.

The following discussion is meant to assist people who are considering adoption of a Shar-Pei. The Shar-Pei is a unique animal with unique needs and may not be suited for the first time dog owner or for a family that requires a low maintenance dog. The Shar pei is not a breed to adopt lightly; you must be prepared for an extra time commitment and even extra veterinary expenses.

Temperament

The Shar-Pei is famous for possessiveness of its family but is not always socially accepting of strangers. Proper socialization at an early age is crucial and individuals should be purchased from breeders who have bred for temperament if possible. What does this all mean? It means that this is a breed that tends to be aggressive towards strangers if not trained otherwise. This is not a breed that is naturally friendly or solicitous to unfamiliar people. The Shar pei is classically reactive to undesired manipulation whereas another breed might be highly tolerant naturally.

This can create a problem when people visit or if the dog is to be around small children (especially children the dog does not know.) If you will be adopting a puppy, will you have time to socialize the puppy properly? If you are considering an adult dog, it is important to obtain information about the dog’s temperament. Have there been problem situations?

  • Will the dog try to bite the veterinarian?
  • Will the dog allow you to clean its ears, inspect its skin folds, pick up its feet and look between its toes?
  • Can the dog be trusted should a stranger to try pet it? What if a small child darts up out of no where to pet the dog?
  • If the dog is chewing on something it should not, will you be able to take the object away?

Of course, many Shar-Pei individuals are tractable and affectionate but it is important to know this breed's natural tendencies. If you already know you will not have time to spend on socialization and conditioning, you may want a breed that requires less attention.

Coat Quality and Wrinkles

There are two types of coat textures recognized by the American Kennel Club for the Shar-Pei: "horse" and "brush." The horse coat is very short and many people are sensitive to its texture, developing itchy rashes within minutes of contact. In fact the name "Shar pei" actually means "sand skin" in Cantonese because of this phenomenon. Obviously, if you or a family member has this reaction, the horse-coated individual is not for you. The brush coat is a bit longer and smoother.

There is a third coat, “bear,” which is longer, softer, and tends to have less trouble with skin infections. Unfortunately, the AKC considers coats longer than one inch (at the shoulder) to be a disqualification in the show ring.

The skin wrinkles are the hallmark of this breed. Since this was originally a breed used in fighting and guarding, the excess skin allows the dog to effectively turn around in its own skin if it is grasped or bitten by another dog. Wrinkles are possible to this extent because of a mutation creating excessive mucin in the skin tissues. It is this mutation that leads to an assortment of inflammatory problems as will be described in succeeding sections. In selecting an individual for health reasons, it is best to choose a dog with limited wrinkles if possible.

Eyelid Problems: Entropion

The excessive facial wrinkles that make this dog what it is can create excessive tissue around the eyelids. When the eyelids, especially the lower lids, are very puffy, the haired skin will actually rub on the eyes. The pain leads to squinting which compounds the problem. The eye can be ulcerated and the cornea can pigment leading to permanent blindness. Excessive moisture or watering around the eyes are sign that a problem exists. This condition is called entropion and is very common in the Shar pei. 

If the animal in question is a puppy, eyelid tacking can help tremendously by pulling the lid into a more normal position, resolving the pain and eye damage. As the puppy grows, the eye opening enlarges and the problem may greatly improve naturally. Many dogs will need one or more eyelid revisions in adulthood. Entropion is a painful condition and should not be ignored or considered part of the breed.

Skin Fold Infection

The enclosed spaces between the Shar-Pei's wrinkles form excellent incubators for staphylococci and other bacteria. Skin fold infections may result. In this condition, which usually involves the folds around the muzzle, skin becomes red and moist and soon begins to smell. Regular grooming is vital to this breed, as is inspection and cleaning of the skin folds. Brushing stimulates the production of important skin oils that are protective. Choosing a less wrinkled individual may be helpful in avoiding this problem. Special products may be needed to clean the skin folds on certain individual dogs. See your veterinarian if you think your dog needs assistance with this situation.

Demodectic Mange

The Demodex mange mite lives inside the hair follicles of all normal dogs. In some unfortunate individuals, especially short-coated breeds such as the Shar-Pei, these mites proliferate and cause extensive skin inflammation. If your Shar-Pei develops any kind of skin disease, your veterinarian will probably include a skin scraping for mites in the testing performed. Due to the unique nature of Shar-Pei skin, often skin scrapes are not adequate for diagnosis and skin biopsy is needed to detect the mites (especially true with skin disease on the feet and between the toes).

Hypothyroidism

Current estimates suggest that one Shar-Pei in five is deficient in thyroid hormone. Thyroid hormone is important as it controls the metabolic rate for every cell in the body. Without thyroid hormone, everything just slows down, and the effects on the skin become most obvious. Hair loss with dandruff and pigmentation are common and often there is a "water line" pattern, a clear line of demarcation along the body below which the skin is irritated and above which the skin is normal. In general, this condition is not itchy but as the immune system is also slowed down, secondary infections that are itchy may result. If your Shar-pei develops skin disease of any kind, your veterinarian will probably want to check a thyroid level to make sure hypothyroidism is not involved.

Infection Between the Toes (Pododermatitis) and Short-Coated Dog Pyoderma (Skin Infection)

The short hairs of the Shar-Pei (as with other short coated dogs) may impact inside hair follicles leading to follicle rupture and skin infections. This situation may or may not be confined to the feet. The short, bristly fur of the Shar pei with or without ingrown hairs may be responsible for this common syndrome. There are many possible causes of infection of the feet, including allergy, stress, demodectic mange and more. If your Shar-Pei has itchy feet, it is likely that some sort of testing will be needed to sort the possible causes out.

Ear Infections

The Shar-Pei's ear canal is often too narrow for the veterinarian to examine. This sets up a perfect incubator for all sorts of microbes and makes treatment almost impossible. Ear surgery may be required to control the infections. It may be helpful to attempt to prevent ear infections with weekly use of a good ear disinfectant. Ask your veterinarian about the best products.

Familial Shar-Pei Fever (Also Called Swollen Hock Syndrome)

This genetic disease causes episodes of fever up to 107⁰F, lasting one to two days. Joint swelling, especially the ankles (hocks) commonly accompanies the fever and, if that were not bad enough, the condition is associated with a malignant protein deposition (amyloidosis) in the kidneys that commonly leads to kidney failure.

Typically the fevers begin in puppyhood or adolescence though many dogs do not fit this age pattern precisely. All Shar-Pei individuals should be regularly screened for protein loss in their urine though the condition is more likely to occur in dogs with more pronounced wrinkles.

The disease is similar to a human condition called familial Mediterranean fever. Currently Cornell University offers a blood test to identify Shar-Pei carrying the gene for this disease and determine an individual's risk of developing this disease. Treatment is available but hopefully early identification of carriers will eliminate this disease from the breed.

Owning a Shar-Pei requires genuine commitment as this breed has special needs. As an owner, you must be prepared for frequent visits to the veterinarian plus daily grooming and observation. If you have any questions regarding your Shar-pei, do not hesitate to discuss them with your veterinarian.

Shar-Pei Websites

Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America



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