Perhaps the most iconic feature of the Chow Chow is its famous blue tongue. As one of two dog breeds in the world that have a blue tongue, the striking colour has brought many to speculate on its origin – from Ancient Chinese storytellers to scientists from the modern age. In this blog, we’ll go through some of the more famous stories, before looking at the science behind their tongue colouring.
Chow Chows were popular pets in Ancient China, known for their dogged determination as guardians. The Buddhist community in particular were fond of them, and this gave rise to two legends of the origin of their distinctive tongue. The two tales speak of a Monk with a Chow Chow for a companion. In the first, the Monk was painting the sky, and left their brush on the ground. Their dog picked up the brush and forever stained their mouth blue.
The second tells a story of friendship. An ill monk could not collect firewood to stave off the cold of a snowy Asian winter. Their faithful Chow went off in search of wood to burn, but could only find charred logs. As the dog brought back each log their mouth got darker and darker, until their tongue and mouth were permanently changed to a bluey-black hue.
The nature of the Chow Chow’s ancestor is a more likely source for its distinctive tongue. Many animals of the modern era share a blue tongue, like the giraffe. The most notable animal is the bear. Whilst many bears have a pinkish tongue, bears in colder climates, like the Polar bear, tend to have darker blueish tongues. As the Chow Chow is native to cold, mountainous parts of China, this has led many to believe that it has a bear-like ancestor. The Hemicyon (Literally ‘half-dog’) was a member of the Ursidae (Bear) family that existed some 16 to 13 million years ago; a prolific hunter that often roamed Asia during the Miocene period. Thanks to the Chow Chow’s many bear-like qualities such as its unusual 44 teeth, a trait shared with the Hemicyon, some believe that it has a bear for an ancestor. The pigment, and its general bearishness, could potentially be a result of this ancestral history.
The scientific facts
The origin of their tongue pigmentation has never been conclusively solved. Whilst the Hemicyon is a likely explanation, the link between the two has never been proven. We cannot yet say why the Chow Chow has a blue tongue, but we do know what makes it blue! Like our own skin, the skin colour of a dog’s mouth is defined by the type of pigmented cells within it. Pigmentation causes many breeds of dog to have spotted tongues, like the Pomeranian and Siberian Husky. However, only two breeds of dog are known to have fully blue tongues and mouths. Both the Shar Pei and the Chow Chow have extra pigmentation in their mouths that causes them to develop the iconic shade when they are around 8 weeks old.
That’s all there is to know about the famous blue tongue of the Chow Chow. Tales from the past and ancestral links to ancient species have been used to explain its origin, but no one has definitively proven why the Chow Chow’s tongue is quite so beautifully blue.