The Pekingese’s flat face and large eyes are some of the breeds most obvious characteristics. The body is compact and low to the ground. Pekingese also have a muscular and durable body. The breed’s unusual rolling gait may have been deliberately developed by breeding to prevent the court dogs from wandering in ancient times.
The Pekingese has a median lifespan of 11.4 years in a UK Kennel Club survey.
The leading cause of death for Pekingese, as for many other Toy breeds, is trauma. Top leading causes of organ systems include neurologic and cardiovascular, e.g., congestive heart failure. When diagnosed early and successfully treated with medication, a Pekingese with this problem can expect to live many years. A heart murmur is a potential sign of a problem, and must be evaluated by a veterinary cardiologist. Very often, the problem does not surface until the dog is 6 or more years old, so it is very difficult to screen the problem in a pup.
The other main problems of the breed are eye issues and breathing problems, resulting from its tiny skull and flattened face, and skin allergies (and hotspots). An especially common problem is eye ulcers, which may develop spontaneously. Pekingese may also develop keratoconjunctivitis sicca (dry eye) progressive retinal atrophy, along with glaucoma in which pressure is placed on the eye, leading to fluid drainage in the eye. The leading cause of this is improper development of the eye’s filtration angles.
The Pekingese should not be kept outside, as having flattened faces and noses can cause them to develop breathing problems, making it difficult for them to regulate their body temperature in overly hot or cold weather. Their long backs, relative to their legs, make them vulnerable to back injuries. Care should be taken when picking them up to give adequate support to the back: one hand under the chest, the other under the abdomen. Short legs give some Pekingese difficulty with stairs; older dogs may not be able to go up or down stairs alone.
In an effort to address the breathing difficulties caused by the breed’s flat face, the Kennel Club (UK) significantly changed the breed standard in October 2008, removing the clause that the “profile [should be] flat with nose well up between eyes” and adding instead that the “muzzle must be evident”. This was in response to public opinion following the BBC programme, Pedigree Dogs Exposed. The breed standards of two other flat-faced breeds, the Pug and English Bulldog, were soon also changed.
The breed originated in China and could only be owned by members of the Chinese Imperial Palace.
During the Second Opium War, in 1860, the Old Summer Palace in Beijing was occupied by a contingent of British and French troops. The Xianfeng Emperor had fled with all of his court to Chengde. However, an elderly aunt of the emperor remained. When the British and French troops entered, she committed suicide. She was found with her five Pekingese. They were removed by the Allies before the Summer Palace was burnt to the ground.
Lord John Hay took a pair, later called Schloff and Hytien, and gave them to his sister, the Duchess of Wellington, wife of Henry Wellesley, 3rd Duke of Wellington. Sir George Fitzroy took another pair, and gave them to his cousins, the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and Gordon. Lieutenant Dunne presented the fifth Pekingese to Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, who named it Looty.
The Empress Dowager Cixi presented Pekingese to several Americans, including John Pierpont Morgan and Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth, daughter of Theodore Roosevelt, who named it Manchu.
The first Pekingese in Ireland was introduced by Dr. Heuston. He established smallpox vaccination clinics in China. The effect was dramatic. In gratitude, the Chinese minister, Li Hongzhang presented him with a pair of Pekingese. They were named Chang and Lady Li. Dr. Heuston founded the Greystones kennel.
Around the turn of the century, Pekingese dogs became popular in Western countries. They were owned by such arbiters of fashion as Alexandra of Denmark (wife of Edward VII), and Elsie de Wolfe, popular American interior decorator. Later, they were owned by Rumer Godden, who wrote in her autobiography that “I do not like dogs except very large ones and one or two with such character that they cannot be denied; Pekingese are not dogs but something more” and by Auberon Waugh, who on one occasion fancifully boasted that one of his dogs shared his love of The Daily Telegraph and hatred for The Sunday Times.