The Shar Pei – Qualzucht?!

by Sandra LindbergDecember 2, 2022

Wuff is a dog magazine, that published an article about the Shar Pei in the light of the ongoing Qualzucht debate. Qualzucht is a German term that literally translates to “torture breeding”.  

Pete Wedderburn explained the English translation and meaning on his website very well. In the following English translation of this article, I will keep the German term Qualzucht. 

The Shar Pei, or how a once proud, beautiful working dog became a molossoid couch potato under suspicion of being a Qualzucht.

Skin ailments, ear infections, eye ailments, severe bouts of fever, swollen joints, kidney disease, allergies… These are the things that spring to mind when most people think of a Shar Pei. Many Shar Pei owners have experienced one or the other of these conditions. All of these diseases are the reason why the Shar Pei too has become the focus of allegations of being a Qualzucht.

That’s why we should speak very openly. About the Shar Pei specific diseases and the underlying genetic changes that make this suffering possible. About the unspoken agreement to tolerate this potential suffering, hidden behind the pretense of preserving a rare breed. About ethics in Shar Pei breeding. We should be talking about the evolutionary impasse we have sent this very old breed into in just 50 years of pedigree breeding. Also about the serious phenotypic and genotypic changes that the Shar Pei experienced during this time. Above all, we must openly ask ourselves whether there is still an ethical way out and a future for the breed.

Originally from China, the Shar Pei came to the US in 1973 via Hong Kong and later also to Europe. The phenotype and the genotype have changed at all of these stations. The originally slim, agile, medium-sized and compact working dog, which was defined above all by its extremely short and harsh fur, was excellently adapted to the climatic conditions in southern China thanks to its additionally heavily pigmented skin. A primitive dog that saw its first major change in the 1900s, after rural outskirts of Hong Kong also fell to the British Crown Colony, geographically separating this Shar Pei population from China for nearly 100 years. Since in China itself almost exclusively local dogs were available for breeding, the phenotype has changed only slightly there. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, breeders used the newly available European breeds such as mastiffs, bulldogs and pit bulls to breed the local dogs to be stronger and more aggressive and thus more profitable for the then-popular dogfighting. The first attempts at breeding back began in the 1960s. The high potential for aggression, the very small number of dogs available and the difficult economic situation in the outskirts of Hong Kong posed great challenges for the Shar Pei enthusiasts.

In the early 1970s, one of Hong Kong's Shar Pei breeders, Matgo Law, asked American breeders for help. A short time later, the first dogs traveled to the US and from there spread further around the world. The first health problems had already been noticed at this point, but were not documented and did not lead to any breeding consequences. The appearance has continued to change over the years. The short, harsh fur grew longer and softer. The wrinkles, which a Shar-Pei actually only has as a puppy and should only be present very moderately on the forehead and on the withers on the adult dog, were so popular that they were now desired on the adult dog as well. New colors were also bred in.

Today, SPAID (Shar Pei Autoinflammatory Disease) is the most well known and feared diagnosis for Shar Pei owners. Dogs affected by this auto-inflammatory disease suffer from recurring, very high fever episodes as well as inflamed joints, ears and skin. Symptoms develop very suddenly, often in less than an hour. A Shar Pei with a fever attack usually looks very ill and is often not even able to get up. He can also suffer from abdominal pain, breathing difficulties, mild nausea and diarrhea. The main problem of these inflammations are not these obvious symptoms, which put a heavy strain on the dog, but the invisible processes taking place in the organs. Affected Shar-Pei deposit protein fragments in their organs, which are permanently damaged as a result. This condition, known as amyloidosis, leads to early death from kidney failure in many Shar Pei.

However, not every Shar Pei affected by SPAID always shows all symptoms and is often not perceived as ill from the outside, since ear and skin infections are unfortunately regarded as a normal condition of the breed. Some Shar Pei who have died of kidney failure at a young age have never shown any apparent severe SPAID symptoms. Many dogs suffer very silently and unrecognized.

All excuses?

Underlying this affliction are genetic changes that we know about and have been able to test for for a number of years. We can recognize single and double carriers as well as homozygous non carriers and thus have the necessary tools to prevent further suffering, since only single and double carriers can get sick. But that's exactly what didn't happen. Instead, campaigns with slogans like "Controlled pedigree breeding is no Qualzucht" try to make us believe that health is paramount. How can that be if breeding continues with genetic trait carriers and potential suffering is simply tolerated?

The reasons often given by breeders are varied. The most tragic reason is the fact that less than 10% of all dogs tested for SPAID so far are homozygous non carriers. The trivialization by breeders is another factor that weighs heavily. It is not uncommon to hear that the dogs being bred are single or double carriers, but do not show any symptoms and come from healthy and long-lived lines. Another argument used by breeders is that environmental conditions are primarily responsible for the development of SPAID symptoms and it is therefore up to the owner if a dog falls ill.

It is also often said that breeding with homozygous non carrier dogs would limit the genetic diversity of the dogs too much and thus encourage other diseases. A genetic diversity that is almost non-existent from the outset, as almost all Shar-Pei here descend from very few dogs from Hong Kong. In recent years there have also been breeders who continue to breed with carriers with the aim of obtaining more non carrier puppies. But potential suffering is also tolerated in these transitional generations, as single and sometimes double carrier puppies continue to be born. It is therefore not surprising that no breed club website in the German-speaking area refers to the serious health problems.

Shar Pei in a genetic impasse

We urgently need to address the issue of ethics in Shar Pei breeding. We must recognize that the Qualzucht allegations are justified as long as we breed from trait carriers whose offspring may experience pain, suffering, harm or fear as a result of the expression of those traits. We have sent the Shar Pei down a genetic dead end from which there is hardly any ethical way out.

The Shar Pei has also experienced some turbulent times in China. Many historical events of the last century have almost made the Shar Pei extinct there. Only in and around the small town of Dali, in the southwest of Guangzhou, did the Shar Pei survive and are still proudly bred according to old traditions. This primitive and original type of Shar Pei is now known as the Dali Shar Pei. It was awarded the status of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Dali City in 2019. However, the real situation in China is much more tragic. Since the 1990s, the Shar-Pei type from Hong Kong, with all its diseases, has also become very widespread in China. Breeding from these dogs has been heavily promoted for many years and has meant that the original Shar Pei is now almost unknown in many regions.

The Dali Shar Pei Club, founded in the 1990s with the aim of protecting the original Shar Pei, had just counted under 200 dogs in the region in 2022. Shar Pei, who are far from being a Qualzucht, but who are facing a very uncertain future due to the current difficult economic situation. This small population will not lead the western Shar Pei out of a dead end. Here it would be just a drop in the bucket, in China it would spell the end of an ancient, culturally cherished breed.

Does the Shar Pei still have a chance?

The sad state in which the Shar Pei has been here since it was bred as part of the "controlled pedigree breeding" is our doing. We bear full responsibility for this. If we actually put the health of the breed first and stopped sweeping the obvious problems under the rug or putting it down, that would be a big first step. If we stopped hoping for more testing options that might reassure us how great and healthy our dogs are, and instead used all available options effectively and consistently, that would be another step in the right direction. If breeders would immediately pull the emergency brake, the Shar Pei might even have a chance.

But first we have to acknowledge that the Shar-Pei has become a Qualzucht, because individual exceptions do not change the condition of the entire population. We have to stop playing down SPAID and all other breed-typical problems. We need to stop applauding dogs at shows whose nostrils are now little slits and folds of skin hanging even over the joints of their legs. We must stop tolerating the breeding of puppies who can barely open their eyes on their own and whose folds around the eyes need to be sewn up lest an entropian damage the cornea at just a few weeks of age.

We persuade ourselves and others to preserve a rare, old breed through »controlled pedigree breeding«, that, however, hardly has anything to do with its origins. Apart from the name, the molossoid couch potato we know has little in common with the once proud, beautiful working dog of the rural population in southern China. It is our responsibility what we pass on to future generations of breeders and dog owners.

The author

Sandra Lindberg lived in China for many years and learned to appreciate and love the Shar Pei there. Today she lives in Switzerland with her husband, four Shar Pei and another Chinese dog. Protecting the endangered original Shar Pei in China is very important to her. In her position as International Spokesperson for the Dali Shar Pei Club in China, she develops strategies with scientific help to ensure this protection. For her, the Shar Pei is more than just a dog, it is a living piece of Chinese culture.