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Get to Know the Chinese Shar-Pei: A Dog With a New Wrinkle on Life!

From ancient origins to the brink of extinction to worldwide fame, the Shar-Pei has seen it all.

Caroline Coile  |  Nov 17th 2014


Once hailed as the rarest dog in the world, the Chinese Shar-Pei is now one of the most recognized. But there’s a lot more to him than just a face seriously in need of wrinkle cream.

Dogster Community member Hannibal.

Dogster Community member Hannibal.

More interesting things about the Chinese Shar-Pei:

  • The Shar-Pei may be confused with the Chow Chow, but the Shar-Pei has shorter hair, more wrinkles, a much shorter tail, and a longer, deeper head.
  • However, the Shar-Pei is probably related to the Chow Chow, which is also an ancient Chinese breed. Both breeds have a blue-black tongue.
  • According to DNA studies, the Shar-Pei is among the 14 most ancient AKC breeds.
  • Shar-Peis may have been around since 200 B.C.
Dogster Community members Jake and Bailey.

Dogster Community members Jake and Bailey.

  • In the early 1900s, the dogs were used by Chinese farmers as guard dogs and wild-boar hunters; they were also used for dog fights.
  • During the Communist Revolution, the Shar-Pei population became almost extinct. A Hong Kong businessman named Matgo Law gathered many of them, and he also appealed to Americans through a dog magazine to save the breed.
  • When a subsequent Time magazine article named the Shar-Pei as the world’s rarest dog, people from around the world took interest in saving them. The Guinness Book of World Records also named them as the world’s rarest dog.
Dogster Community member Bozley.

Dogster Community member Bozley.

  • Initially, around 200 Shar-Peis were brought to America. These dogs form the foundation of most of today’s American Shar-Pei population.
  • The breed was AKC recognized in 1992 as a member of the Non-Sporting group.
  • The Shar-Pei is now the 54th most popular AKC breed, down from 40th a decade ago.
  • The loose skin seen in puppies gets tighter as they grow, so adults are less wrinkly.
  • Shar-Peis have a range of wrinkling. Those retaining the thick lips around the mouth are referred to as “meatmouthed.”
Dogster Community member Hannibal.

Dogster Community member Hannibal.

  • The excessive wrinkling is the result of an excess production of the substance hyaluronic acid, distributed throughout the dogs’ skin. This excess production is in turn caused by the over-activation of a gene called hyaluronan synthase 2. This gene can have many copies in a dog’s DNA; the more copies a dog has, the more wrinkled he is.
  • This same gene is responsible for the periodic high fever known as Shar-Pei fever. It doesn’t last long, but it comes and goes and can sometimes damage the kidneys. The more copies a dog has of the mutant gene, the higher his risk for Shar-Pei fever. The Shar-Pei is now being used as a model for inherited periodic high fevers in humans.
Dogster Community member Bruce.

Dogster Community member Bruce.

  • “Shar-Pei” means “sand coat,” and all coat types are very rough and harsh.
  • The Shar-Pei has two coat types: horse and brush. The brush coat is up to an inch long and is most common. The horse coat is shorter and stands off from the skin, so it’s very prickly in one direction but smooth in the other. Sometimes mention is made of a longer bear-coat type, but this is not a correct Shar-Pei coat.
  • The skin of some people can become irritated when they stroke a Shar-Pei’s coat backward.
  • The Shar-Pei is described as having a “hippopotamus head.”
  • It’s not true that you must dry between the wrinkles after bathing or clean them with a cotton swab, as is sometimes claimed.
  • Only one Shar-Pei has won the Non-Sporting group at the Westminster dog show, in 2011. None has yet to win Best in Show there.
  • A Shar-Pei puppy named Roly has been used for years in Australian and New Zealand television commercials for Purex toilet paper.
  • Owners include Steve Wozniak, Ray Liotta, and Jonathan Knight.

Do you own a Shar-Pei? Have you spent time with one? Let’s hear what you think about this fascinating breed in the comments! And if you have a favorite breed you’d like us to write about, let us know that, too!

Interested in other breed profiles? Find dozens of them here.

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About the author: Caroline Coile is the author of 34 dog books, including the top-selling Barron’s Encyclopedia of Dog Breeds. She has written for various publications and is currently a columnist for AKC Family Dog. She shares her home with three naughty Salukis and one Jack Russell Terrier.