Xoloitzcuintli: the History of One of Nature’s Most Unusual Dog Breeds

Descended from hairless dogs prized by the Aztecs and Maya, and revered as guardians of the dead, the more than 3,000-year-old Xoloitzcuintli (pronounced sho-lo-eats-queent-lee) is recognized as one of the oldest and rarest dog breeds on the planet. Also known as Mexico’s national dog, the hairless Xolo has smooth, close-fitting skin that’s thick to the touch.

Their hairlessness is the result of a genetic mutation. The unique animals come in three sizes, and there is even a coated variety with short, flat fur. Either type can be born in varying shades of black, grey-black, or slate, and liver, red, or bronze.

xolo dog
Photo: Photo: Pixabay/alektas

God of Fire

Described as a relatively strong, sturdy animal, the Xoloitzcuintli takes its name from the Aztec deity Xolotl, the god of fire or lightning that escorts the deceased through the Underworld, and “itzcuintli,” the word for dog in the Nahuatl language (a form of Aztec). These dogs of Xolotl were also thought to have healing powers and played a significant role in PreColumbian life. Researchers believe the Xolo’s ancestors may have accompanied early migrants traveling out of Asia, developing into the breed we see today, at least 3,500 years ago.

The same mutation that causes hairlessness is thought to be responsible for the animals’ unusual lack of premolars. From an archaeological standpoint, this distinctive dental trait makes identifying them relatively simple compared to other early canines.

Xolos in Art

Frequently found in ancient Mesoamerican art, Xoloxs were often depicted with pointy ears and wrinkled skin as a way to showcase their hairlessness. The most common findings are small ceramic vessels known as Colima dogs. In Colima, as well as nearby Nayarit and Jalisco, archaeologists have estimated that over 75 percent of Preclassic burials (ca. 300 B.C to A.D. 300) contain Colima dogs, which might have been viewed as canine guides for the departed to navigate to or through the Underworld.

Photo: R. West

Brink of Extinction

Considered a natural breed, meaning they weren’t bred or crossbred for looks or traits, their numbers were drastically reduced during the colonization of the Americas, with the animals driven nearly to extinction at one point. European chroniclers like Christopher Columbus and Spanish missionary Bernadino de Sahagún even wrote about them. The latter went on to describe how the Aztecs’ reverence extended to wrapping them in blankets to keep them warm on chilly nights.

Making a Comeback

In recent years, their numbers have grown, with estimates as high as 30,000 Xolo dogs worldwide now (most are in Mexico). While they still produce dander, they’re becoming popular with allergy sufferers and people who are drawn to their highly unusual, almost exotic look.

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