Shar-Peis Are a Genetic Nightmare
I’m going to get this out of the way. I don’t particularly like Shar-Peis. Sure, I’ve met a few who had winning personalities (and more who didn’t), but my dislike is primarily based on the fact that much of what makes them “unique” is caused by genetic abnormalities.
Shar-Peis are hardly the only breed in which this is true (don’t get me started on English Bulldogs), but when I see all those wrinkles, the veterinarian in me can’t help but worry about what else is going wrong inside.
First… the wrinkles. They develop because of a condition called mucinosis. A genetic abnormality causes Shar-Peis to produce excessive amounts of hyaluronic acid, which accumulates under the skin, causing it to become thick and wrinkly. Shar-Peis are at higher than average risk for skin problems because their skin is weaker than normal. Also, all of those damp and dark crevices under the wrinkles are the perfect breeding ground for yeast and bacterial infections.
Recurrent skin problems are annoying but not often life-threatening. The same cannot be said for a related genetic disorder that plagues many of these dogs: Shar-Pei fever. I diagnosed one of the sweetest Shar-Peis I ever knew (wouldn’t you know!) with this condition a while back. She was a fairly classic case — a female (they’re more than twice as likely as males to come down with Shar-Pei fever), young (the average age at onset is around 4 years, though early flare-ups often go undiagnosed), and presented with an unexplained high fever and swelling around the hock joints.
After ruling out other causes of her symptoms, I diagnosed her with Shar-Pei fever. Unfortunately, I also had to warn her owners that there was a pretty good chance that her kidneys would fail in the future, and that is exactly what happened.
The culprit behind Shar-Pei fever is an overabundance of inflammatory cytokines (substances secreted by immune cells). These cytokines produce intermittent fevers, but more importantly, also cause the body to overproduce a protein called amyloid. Amyloid gets deposited throughout the body, but does the most damage in the kidneys and sometimes also the liver, eventually leading to organ failure.
I kept my patient comfortable during her recurrent fevers with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory. I also put her on colchicine, which can decrease the amount of amyloid the body produces. I think the colchicine did her a lot of good since she lived happily for several years before her kidney function started to decline.
Now, all Shar-Peis don’t come down with Shar-Pei fever, and those who do don’t always develop kidney failure, but the odds are still pretty depressing. A recent estimate indicates that approximately 23% of all Shar-Peis within the United States have Shar-Pei fever that is affecting their kidneys.
The secret to managing a dog with Shar-Pei fever is to get them on colchicine at the first sign of trouble and do everything possible to reduce inflammation within the body. This should include excellent nutrition, the use of nutritional supplements that can help decrease inflammation (e.g., omega-3 fatty acids and anti-oxidants), keeping them at an ideal body weight, promptly treating any health conditions that arise, and monitoring kidney function and other parameters on a regular basis.
With the assistance of a dedicated owner and knowledgeable veterinarian, some dogs with Shar-Pei fever can live long and healthy lives, but you might want to reconsider your choice of breeds if you’re thinking of letting a new Shar-Pei into your home and heart.
Dr. Jennifer Coates