Sunday, 24 April 2011

Shar-pei - will the wrinkles have to go?

© Tim Flach from his book "Dogs"
Breakthrough research recently published in PLoS Genetics has found a link between the Shar-pei's wrinkles and one of the breed's most serious health concerns - Shar-pei Fever.

Shar-pei Fever is an auto-inflammatory condition that experts estimate affects one in four of the breed. The fevers are transitory - usually lasting just a few hours - and feature a roaring temperature, aching joints and, sometimes, very swollen hocks. Shar-pei Fever is also known as swollen hock syndrome for this reason.

Although for most dogs the fevers are relatively benign and do not shorten their lives, it's thought that up to one in five dogs go on to develop amyloidosis - the build -up of amyloid in the dog's kidneys and, to a lesser extent, the liver, spleen and gastro-intestinal tract. It is the result of chronic inflammation and can be fatal. A lot of Shar-pei die, often young, because of it.

Now, after a 20-year hunt for answers, researchers have found that the fevers/amyloidosis are triggered by an excess of hyaluronon (HA) - the same substance that gives the Shar-pei its trademark wrinkles.  It could herald bad news for breeders who feel that a Shar-pei wouldn't be a Shar-pei without its wrinkles (although, in fact, the original dog didn't have them).

Hyaluronon is present in every tissue of our dogs' bodies (our bodies, too) and it performs many important functions, including wound-healing and helping to keep joints lubricated. Ironically, it's also used in medicine to treat inflammation, including rheumatoid and osteoarthritis and, by the cosmetics industry, to help smooth out wrinkles. In over-abundance, though, HA appears to have the opposite effect, resulting in the thickened skin folds found in the Shar-pei and - as researchers have just found - the predisposition to fevers/inflammation.

Production of hyaluronon is controlled by the HAS2 gene and the researchers found a segment of DNA near this gene that, in Shar-pei, was duplicated erroneously, sometimes multiple times - something not found in other breeds.  The researchers found that both hyaluronon production and the risk of Shar-pei Fever/amyloidosis went up with the numper of copies an individual dog had of this DNA segment, suggesting that this area is involved in regulating the production of hyaluronon.  Critically, the researchers found that the much less-wrinkly original "bone-mouth" Shar Pei has a slightly different version of this regulatory gene that does not predispose them to Shar Pei Fever.

The original Shar-pei
So is it just a case of breeding for less wrinkle? 

Well, it's a bit more complicated than that.

The researchers did indeed find that the mutation that predisposes for the fevers is found only in the Western Shar-pei (known as a "meat-mouth" due to the heavy padding round its muzzle). But, again, it is not just the mutation itself that causes the problem - it is how many copies of the mutation the dog has. The more copies a dog has, the more likely it is to develop Shar-pei Fever.

The researchers also found that some very wrinkled dogs had a low number of copies - and some much-less wrinkled dogs had a high number of copies.  In other words, you cannot tell just by looking at the dogs which ones are more likely to develop Shar-pei Fever.

The researchers do seem to be hinting that there could be some correlation between phenotype and Shar Pei Fever - and of course that insticintively makes sense:  more hyaluronon = more wrinkles.  But this has not yet been confirmed.

The good news is that there's a DNA test on the way - one that will reveal how many copies of the mutation an individual dog carries and, therefore, how likely it is to a) develop Shar-pei Fever itself and b) how likely it is to pass on the risk to its puppies. This will provide breeders with a wonderful new tool to breed away from Shar-pei Fever and the amyloidosis that kills.

It is good to see that the Shar-Pei Club of Great Britain has an encouraging statement re the research on its website. Although I found this bit worrying: "Although revealing that one of the breeds unique features in linked to risk for a significant health issue, the Club is resolute in continuing to work to produce Shar Pei which not only look beautiful but live long, happy and healthy lives."

Of course if they really meant this, they wouldn't be breeding such wrinkled dogs in the first place. Shar-pei Fever aside, the wrinkling also predisposes the dog to other health issues - including that most Shar-pei puppies have to have their eyes 'tacked' to prevent their eyelashes turning in and damaging their eyes. And, of course, those skin folds predispose the breed to bacterial and yeast infections.

The breed suffers many other health issues, too - and has a very small gene pool for which it is now paying the price. As the Chinese Shar-pei Cub of America admits: "the reality is that few make it to age 10" (although I am impressed by the Club's Longevity Program which aims to indentify longer-living lines in order to encourage breeders to use them).

Despite efforts by some breeders to prioritise health (and many have donated DNA to the research), the truth is that the breed is in a mess. As I wrote in my March column for Dogs Today magazine (pdf downloadable here): "The cost to the dog of so many genetic and conformation problems is just so high.... I don't think anyone who truly loves dogs should buy or breed Shar-pei - unless it is part of a comprehensive, international breed conservation plan targeted at minimising physical extremes and improving genetic health. I believe this is now needed urgently if the breed is to survive."

I would also like to see the traditional Shar-pei being promoted as a viable alternative. Still bred by a handful of breed enthusiasts, the  original "bone-mouth"  Shar-pei is an un-exaggerated dog that almost entirely outgrows its puppy wrinkles. It is by no means immune to health problems, but not those caused by excessive wrinkling. And, as the new research reveals, it appears to have a very low risk of a painful and very unpleasant death from amyloidosis caused by Shar-pei Fever.

For some helpful discussion on the new findings, led by key researcher Dr Linda Tintle, see this thread on The Chinese Shar-pei Information and Discussion Group


  1. Margaret Sierakowski24 April 2011 at 14:33

    How much more attractive and sound the original Sharpei looks without all those ugly wrinkles.
    A real dog instead of a grotesque

    1. Grotesque? Keep your rude opinions to your self If you have never owned a pei don't comment

  2. One of the most startling things is the way Shar Pei have gone within a period of 30 years from being a rare breed to worryingly common and also one of the breeds used to produce crosses which are fairly clearly intended to be "status dogs."

    See the shar pei cross section of dogsblog, for example.

  3. Margaret, your comment is of GROTESQUE is very harsh and very unfair. Although it is your opinion.

    1. Agree with you,GROTESQUE very harsh,

  4. Wow, how interesting! Not a breed I love much- mostly because they bring me out in a rash and because I've seen too many poor examples (as suggested rushed out and sold as alternative status dogs in the area I used to work). But one which I know many people love; lets hope the DNA test comes soon and we get a more moderate, more healthy stamp of dog as the 'norm'. Now, if they can just find the gene that makes me itch....


    Check out this "Chinese Edible Dog."

    It looks like a "transitional form" between a smooth chow and a sharpei.

    I've always felt that sharpei were nothing more than modified chow chows from the south of China.

    I think this image is the best evidence I've yet seen for this theory.

    It's really quite amazing what happened with the FCI and this breed. The Hong Kong patron country standard was scrapped for rather unclear reasons:

  6. I see the original type of Shar Pei (or Shar Pei crosses) around the streets in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, and fine looking dogs they are too. Tall, well formed, intelligent expressions, relaxed and graceful gait. Much healthier looking dogs (even the strays) compared to the "champions" you see in Western photos. I wouldn't like one of the Western Shar Peis, but I'd take one of the local strays!

  7. i have had shar pei all my life.The american type is very oporling in the breed and does not even meet the breed standard.And all my dogs have being the original shar pei and hopefully always will be.The american types always beats the original shar pei in the show ring and i think that it is very unfair.

  8. I have two 'western' shar peis and just to let you all know they are both completely healthy!!!!!! and certainly not grotesque

  9. Healthy or not, they are a far cry from the original, which was modified to appease the taste of a marketplace, and because of that SO many shar-pei have suffered. It's time for breeders to stick to the original design of dogs and to stop perverting them to suit people's tastes. Didn't Hitler try to do that?

  10. I lost one to Amyloidosis many years ago and she was a total bone mouth with very little wrinkling! Yes, it appears that excessive HA may be linked to copies of the mutated gene but it is too soon to make this statement. There is still a lot of research to be done. Some of my most wrinkled dogs lived long lives and succumbed to cancer. I had one bonemouth that lived to 16.

  11. Quite frankly, the abnormally straight rear of the original SP led to major problems with patella luxation and the rears on well bred dogs are much better now.

  12. I would like to know who did this research and from what blood samples the conclusions were drawn. Dr. Linda Tintle has been doing research on this very topic for two decades. and, the Chinese Shar-Pei Club of America, in an effort to find a genetic marker for Shar-Pei that might be predisposed to fevers and the oft-related amyloidosis has commissioned genetic studies thgrough various research institutions, including the University of Missouri, and it vseems strange that this study would have been undertaken without at least contacting the CSPCA.

    And, it's apparent that the autor of this article is not aware of teh fact that ONLY young puppies have a preponderance of wrinkles becaue their skin growws faster than their bodies and adults generally have very few wrinkles that include the one that frame their faces and well-padded muzzles and 3-4 shoulder wrinkles at the withers.

  13. If you click on the PLoS Genetics link at the top of the article, you'll see that Dr Tintle is a co-author of this research. She checked the facts for both this article and the Dogs Today article on Shar-pei that I wrote for Dogs Today (pdf link given above).


  14. Does anyone know why the gene makes copies? To me, that is the $100,000 question!!!!

  15. I have a bone mouth female fixed. who came to me via being dumped beaten. She was 6mths then she"s 9yrs old now. I Love her to death despite her ears,wrinkles&temperment. Not a people person at all! Told her when she came we"d grow old together an that we have.She's Family like one of my kids.

  16. i am a breeder and exibitor and we have being doing are hobbie for over 17 years and we have never had any problems with there skin. I have a original shar pei at the age of 14 3/4 and a meatmouth horsecoat shar pei at the age of 2 1/2 years old who we show and we are proud of as exibitors.

  17. We have owned Shar pei for over 25 years and have never found a better housedog and family pet. They are amazing to live with and permanently ruin you for all other more common breeds.
    We had a moderatly wrinkled, meat mouth Shar pei female that lived to be 13 and never had any fevers or Amyloid problems. She died of just old age.
    We just lost our almost 8 year old moderatly wrinkled, meat mouth girl to kidney failure last week due to Amyloidosis. She looked so much like our old girl that she could have been her sister, and we currently own her more heavily wrinkled, meat mouthed sister who is fine.
    Our daughter owned a son of our old girl who was very heavily wrinkled and he lived to be 12 and yet she just lost her bone mouthed, zero wrinkled 8 year old male to Amaloid last month.
    I'm not convinced that the amount of wrinkles are any indication of anything.
    With all the research that is being done, I believe that they will discover that the phenotype of a Shar Pei does not necessarily predict it's genotype as far as Amaloidosis is concerned.
    Most all the Western Shar Pei dogs came from a very small and concentrated genepool to begin with, so to say that the original bloodlines did not have this problem isn't easily defended. Hopefully, more research will help breeders to eliminate this problem and ensure the continued, healthy existence of these wonderful, smart, clean, loyal and very exotic dogs.

    1. Given that wrinkling is linked to FSF and FSF increases the risk of developing amyloidosis, by extension, wrinkling will increase the risk of amyloidosis.

  18. I have known several people now who own Shar Pei's, one man lost all of his (all western Shar Pei's, 3 in total) to Amyloidosis and they all suffered with Shar Pei fever...they were all offspring of Cruft champions (or the offspring of offspring of a Cruft champion). Another man we know had 2 Western Shar Pei's...both suffered with terrible Shar Pei fever, one at the moment is very ill (we aren't sure why) and the second was unfortunately shot on farmland (that doesn't have anything to do with this discussion though). However, one woman owns three of the traditional Chinese Shar Pei (all rescues), all are very healthy and do not suffer from Shar Pei fever.
    The current dog we have as well is a Chinese Shar Pei X German Shepherd and we have had no problems, while a friend has a Western Shar Pei cross and the dog suffers from Shar Pei fever, which I wouldn't have expected to be honest.

    Either way, I hope they find out more information soon and can sort out the problem. These dogs don't deserve to be suffering due to the obsession of humans sculpting their appearance to what they believe is beautiful, when no matter what a dog looks like they are beautiful.

    Plus I think some of us need to calm the f*** down with our obsession with the appearance of everything! If we did their wouldn't be so many health problems in our wonderful pets :/

  19. I am just losing my three year old chocolate shar pei through shar pei fever. He is and has always been my faithful and loving dog. I have had to make the distressing disscision to put my dog to sleep has I cannot watch him lose any more weght through not eating because his kidneys have failed. He has gone through alot of attacks through his three years of his life I just hope that this will be cured sooner has this poor breed of dog suffers alot of pain and agony. It is about time that shar oei breeders took more note of the breed and understood them more instead of just making money has they dont realise what heartache people and familys go through

  20. I just lost my 4 year old shar pei meat mouth. He was diagnosed (not sure if correctly) with shar pei fever 4 weeks ago. The skin on his back legs literally split open as we sat waiting for the vet. He lost ALL his wrinkles within a few days and looked like an original Chinese shar pei. He was on several melds and we took him for back leg bandage changes frequently. His lymph nodes in his neck were swollen. I read a lot on lymphodoma and I'm thinking he might have been misdiagnosed. I have not found anything about shar pei fever that describes my dogs symptoms. I am broken hearted.