Maltese Dog Guide: Everything You Need to Know
Little dogs typically have big personalities, and that’s no coincidence. When your only job description is to be a charming companion to the humans in your life, it pays to have pizzazz. And when it comes to the Maltese, that wow factor goes beyond mere attitude. With its head-to-foot mantle of pure white hair that contrasts with its dark, round, black-rimmed eyes, this breed is as delightful to look at as it is to interact with.
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Those long, silky locks have beguiled a number of celebrity owners, from Elvis Presley to Elizabeth Taylor. But don’t let the Maltese’s stratospherically high glam factor fool you. This is an eager and adventurous breed that’s just as well-suited to a bare-bones studio apartment as a suite at the Plaza. And its appeal has staying power that few breeds can rival. The Maltese is verifiably one of the oldest toy breeds in existence, harkening to the ancient Romans and beyond.
The Name Game
Many breed names include geographic hints about their origins, from the Afghan Hound to the Welsh Terrier. But like the Australian Shepherd — which is actually American-made — there are exceptions. To that anachronistic list, we have to add the Maltese.
It’s understandable to think from its name that the Maltese comes from the island of Malta, that speck of land due south of Sicily. But that’s just not so.
“Maltese,” it turns out, comes from the Semitic word “màlat,” which translates as “refuge” or “harbor.” So, more generally speaking, the ancestors of the Maltese dog were found in seaside towns across the central Mediterranean. Like the captains and sailors who frequented those busy ports, the adventurous Maltese is always ready to tag along with his owner to explore the big world that awaits.
Maltese History: A Royal Crush
While the Mediterranean area spans several countries, Italy is the nation that formally lays claim to the Maltese. This little white dog was, after all, a favorite of the upper classes of ancient Rome. Conveniently sized for tucking in a toga, the Maltese soon became the indispensable companion of Roman noblewomen, who would never venture away from home without their pint-sized partners. (Maltese didn’t just appeal to the women of the ancient world, of course. Emperor Claudius I was said to have kept one as a pet.)
Many fanciers play up their breed’s ancient roots without much evidence. However, in the case of the Maltese, this isn’t just modern-day mythologizing. Around 370 BC the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote about a breed of lap dogs, called “canes melitenses” in Latin. That “Melitaie Dog” was frequently depicted on ancient ceramics, its long, plumed tail carried gracefully over its back, just as the Maltese does today.
From Ancient Times
At least one ancient Roman, “bedewed with tears,” wrote a touching epitaph to his 15-year-old lapdog more than two millennia ago. “So now, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses nor will you be able to lie affectionately 'round my neck …” the inscription on the marble tomb read. “You readily matched a human with your clever ways; alas, what a pet we have lost!”
As the centuries progressed, so did the Maltese’s association with aristocracy and the upper classes. Originating as it did with seafarers, the Maltese was predestined to travel. The breed soon spread to nearby France, where it captured the hearts of Marie Antoinette and Josephine Bonaparte. It also conquered England, where no fewer than three monarchs — Henry VIII, Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Victoria — made the little white dogs their canine courtiers. Maltese became ubiquitous in Renaissance paintings of well-bred ladies, perched alongside them on embroidered pillows or nestled in velveted laps.
Once the Maltese became the “comforter dog” for aristocrats, the dogs were given a medicinal role. Placed on whatever body part was ailing, they were believed to transfer their innate healing powers. While we can’t speak to the Maltese’s metaphysical abilities, the body heat generated was certainly restorative, to say nothing of the benefits of lying in close proximity to such a loyal and loving companion.
Popularity of the Maltese Breed
Today, the Maltese ranks 37th among all of the 197 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. While that’s impressively high, it is a significant drop from a decade ago, when the Maltese held the 22nd spot. The toy dogs currently above it on the list include the Poodle (number 6), Yorkshire Terrier (number 13), Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (number 17), Pomeranian (number 23), Pug (number 29), and Chihuahua (number 34).
Some toy breeds have a Napoleon complex. They overcompensate for their small stature by overreacting to perceived threats, nipping first, and asking questions later. By contrast, the Maltese as a whole is remarkably even-tempered, greeting strangers enthusiastically and embracing life with zest and joy.
This natural exuberance is also a cause for caution, however. Owners of Maltese should take care that their dogs do not injure themselves in their eagerness to explore all the world has to offer.
The Maltese is also remarkably gentle and affectionate, having retained the qualities that made it an unparalleled lap warmer for millennia.
The Maltese is a true toy dog, weighing in at under seven pounds, with four to six pounds being ideal. But that doesn’t mean that less is more.
Beware of any breeders who market their Maltese puppies as “teacups.” Rather than being rare miniature versions of the breed, these undercooked examples are a health emergency waiting to happen. Because of their metabolic instability, “teacups” are perpetually at risk for hypoglycemia. That’s a serious condition in which blood-sugar levels crash, resulting in seizures, coma, and even death.
No one can predict with complete certainty how a puppy will turn out as an adult. Even so, seeing both parents can give you a reasonable range of expectations as to size and temperament.
Breeding: The Waiting Game
Given its small size, it should be no surprise that the Maltese is an excruciatingly slow-maturing breed. Eight weeks is the age at which many breeders of larger breeds allow their puppies to leave for their forever homes. However, at that age most Maltese are still not weaned, have not had their teeth come in, and are just beginning to interact with their littermates. Puppies at this age can become stressed from any change of environment and go off their food. That can lead to the hypoglycemia we mentioned above, which can be life-threatening.
As a result, Maltese breeders wisely keep puppies for a minimum of another four weeks, until they are 12 weeks old. This is so critical that the American Maltese Association — the national club that is the steward for the breed in the U.S. — requires its members to sign a code of ethics that stipulates they will keep puppies in their care until at least 12 weeks of age.
Housebreaking a Maltese
Toy dogs have a reputation for being difficult to housebreak. Taken in context, that’s a bit unfair. Maltese puppies have correspondingly small bladders. So, they naturally need to eliminate with greater frequency than puppies that are double and triple their size.
In this respect, the 12-week rule works on the new owner’s behalf. During that final month with the breeder, the puppy gains more bladder control. That can cut down on the number of “oopses” once the puppies go to their new homes.
That doesn’t mean, however, that owners can cut down on their vigilance. Eagle-eyed supervision and consistency are absolutely required. Housebreaking a Maltese, like most other Bichon-type dogs, is not impossible. But it is more challenging than with larger-sized breeds.
One consolation: The Maltese’s small size means that training the dog to eliminate on indoor “pee” pads is a feasible backup plan.
The Maltese has a single coat, meaning it has no undercoat, which has prompted some to categorize the breed as hypoallergenic. In fact, no breed of dog is completely free of the dander that causes allergic reactions in humans. But the Maltese has relatively less dander than most breeds. So is the Maltese hypoallergenic? It’s as close as a dog can get.
Maltese Haircuts and Coat Care
A hallmark of the Maltese is its pure white coat. (Some dogs may have light tan or lemon shades on their ears, though a completely white dog is the ideal.) Just as important as color, however, is texture. To withstand all the primping to come, the Maltese coat needs to be silky and straight — never curly, woolly or cottony.
The Maltese’s practically ground-sweeping coat looks like a lot of work, and that’s because it is. Preparing a Maltese for the show ring can take hours of bathing, combing, brushing, blow-drying, rubber-banding, straightening, and trimming.
Even if you don’t have a star turn at Westminster in your future, keeping a Maltese neat and tidy requires daily brushing with a pin brush or steel-tooth comb to smooth out tangles and prevent matting. Spraying as you go with some watered-down coat conditioner will make the process smoother and prevent damage to the hair. As a final flourish, the hair over the eyes can be placed in a topknot — with the requisite bow, natch! — or trimmed into the doggie equivalent of bangs.
As for bathing, the Maltese’s coat should be brushed beforehand to remove all tangles. (Given the breed’s small size, the kitchen sink outfitted with a non-slip mat works just fine as a tub and will be much easier on your back.) Choose a shampoo that is specially formulated for white dogs, as well as a detangling conditioner designed for dogs with long coats. Gently towel-dry, then blow-dry the coat, brushing as you go. While letting the coat dry naturally is arguably easier, it is more apt to matt and frizz.
Do Maltese Shed?
Maltese do shed, but thanks to their lack of undercoat, not as much as other breeds. However, their long, white coats may easily become dirty. Between grooming concerns and the possibility of tear stains, these lovable dogs need plenty of attention, even though your vacuum cleaner may thank you.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, find an experienced groomer who is familiar with working on Maltese. As stunning as a mature, properly maintained Maltese coat is, some owners opt to trim the dog down into a more manageable “puppy cut.”
Like other white-coated breeds, some Maltese can develop tear stains — reddish-brown discoloration under the eyes. A veterinarian visit will rule out any underlying condition that can produce excessive tear production. Wiping the area under the eyes with a clean cloth several times a day to keep it dry can help minimize the discoloration.
Dental Care: The Whole Tooth
Like many toy breeds, Maltese can develop dental issues. After all, their miniaturized mouths have to accommodate a full complement of teeth. That crowding leaves them susceptible to periodontal disease and tooth loss. Daily brushing with a toothpaste formulated specifically for dogs is a must, as are regular dental cleanings.
It is not unusual for Maltese to retain their baby teeth, particularly their canines, resulting in a double set of teeth. Those obstinate puppy teeth can trap food and cause the incoming adult teeth to grow in misaligned. Some Maltese may need veterinary intervention to extract them.
Keep a close watch on your puppy during teething time, as the discomfort can lead to a lack of appetite and reduced eating.
Maltese Lifespan and Health Issues
Little dogs can develop big health problems if they are not bred and reared responsibly, and the Maltese is no exception.
How Long do Maltese Live? Maltese are very long-lived dogs, routinely reaching a life span of 12 years and beyond. But as with any breed, some health conditions have been noted.
Joints and Heart
Before they breed, reputable Maltese breeders typically test their breeding stock for luxating patellas. That’s commonly known as a “trick knee” that can spontaneously dislocate. They also test for heart problems such as PDA (patent ductus arteriosus). Checking for these defects significantly reduces the likelihood that the dogs will pass them on to their puppies. Breeders can also do a bile-acid test on their puppies to identify liver problems that can be present at birth, including liver shunt and microvascular dysplasia, or MVD.
Recently, cases of granulomatous meningoencephalitis, or GME, have surfaced in the breed. An aggressive autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system, it manifests with seizures, tremors, and wobbly gait, and the prognosis is not usually positive.
White Dog Shaker Syndrome
Like all small white breeds, the Maltese has been known to develop white dog shaker syndrome. This condition manifests as generalized head and body tremors. Because the condition is responsive to steroids, it is believed to be autoimmune.
Any breed with a hanging ear can develop ear infections due to a lack of air circulation. Keep your Maltese’s ears clean and carefully trimmed, and watch out for warning signs, including head shaking and scratching, and smelly discharge.
Training a Maltese
The Maltese is an intelligent and affable breed, willing to please its owner. Harness this good nature by using positive reinforcement when training. Reward the dog for what he is doing correctly, rather than punishing him for what he’s done wrong. (And chances are, unless your correction is instantaneously administered, the dog won’t have a clue what he’s being punished for anyway.) Keep the training sessions short and positive, and reward the dog with whatever he values, whether it’s a treat, a toy, or perhaps even just a lot of praise. Every dog has different motivations — just like people — and finding what motivates yours is the key to successful training.
All dogs need socialization, so once your puppy is vaccinated, consider joining a local puppy playgroup or group training class. Ideally, try to find one that is geared to toy dogs, or that at minimum groups dogs by size during any off-leash play sessions. Being frightened or injured by a super-sized playmate is not going to make your Maltese feel confident in the presence of larger dogs.
If at all possible, request to preview the class, without your dog, before signing up. That way you will get a good idea of the trainer’s philosophy. You’ll also learn the breeds and sizes of the dogs enrolled, and whether the class will be a good fit for your puppy.
A final word on treats: Make sure they are appropriately bite-sized, which in the case of the Maltese is smaller than a pea. Factor in the calories that you dispense during training sessions to ensure that your Maltese doesn’t get too “fluffy.”
Speaking of food, it goes without saying that every dog needs a high-quality, balanced diet. But with small breeds such as the Maltese, that goes double. That’s because maintaining adequate body weight and blood-sugar levels with this breed is critical. Feeding a premium-quality dry or wet food is essential.
If you decide to home-cook for your dog, be sure to have your diet plan reviewed by a veterinarian to determine that you have the correct balance of nutrients. The absence of important vitamins and minerals, such as calcium, can lead to serious and entirely avoidable medical complications.
Play: No Kidding
Many toy dogs are not fond of children. You probably wouldn’t be either, as even a toddler looks like a towering skyscraper from their low-down perspective. But not the unflappable Maltese. He adores youngsters who share his sense of adventure and joy of life.
Unfortunately, however, roughhousing — no matter how unintentional — can seriously injure a four-legged playmate. Even older children should always be supervised when playing with Maltese, and should never hold one any distance from the ground. Instead, they should sit on the floor before the dog or puppy is placed in their lap. (Adults should be mindful as well. Fearless Maltese think nothing of flying unexpectedly from their owners’ arms. Keep a tight grip any time the dog is held or carried.)
Very young children, no matter how gentle, can seriously injure even an adult Maltese. For this reason, many breeders will not sell a Maltese to families with children under a certain age. Don’t take that personally. It’s for the dog’s safety.
Similarly, while a Maltese usually get along fine with other canines, consider size before allowing any off-leash romps. A large dog can seriously injure a Maltese with just a misstep, to say nothing of a body slam. And even a smaller-sized dog with a strong hunting instinct can be triggered to chase and possibly seriously hurt a Maltese if its prey drive is ignited.
Of course, Maltese are not the only toy breed on the planet (though their diehard fans will tell you otherwise). In your search for the right breed for your family and lifestyle, you may come across other opinions. Here’s how some of them compare to the Maltese. But keep in mind that all these breeds require just as much of a grooming commitment.
Though the Yorkshire Terrier has a similarly long and silky coat, its color is obviously a huge difference. While the Maltese is of course all white, the Yorkie has a signature blue-and-tan patterned coat. Yorkies are about the same size as the Maltese, and both have a similar life expectancy. Perhaps because of its terrier roots, the Yorkshire Terrier is not always as tolerant of children or other dogs.
The Bolognese — named for the city of Bologna in Italy, not the spaghetti sauce! — is a long-ago cousin of the Maltese. When the ancient “cane melitenses” traveled to northern Italy, the nobility there developed it into a slightly larger dog. The main differences are coat and temperament. While still white, the Bolognese coat is fluffy, stands off the body, and forms long flocks. The Bolognese typically has a lower energy level and is a bit more reserved with those outside his circle. And because the Bolognese is not yet recognized by the AKC, finding a breeder can be a challenge.
Like the Bolognese, the Bichon Frise owes its existence to the Maltese. It found its way to France in the 14th Century thanks to sailors who brought back small white dogs from the Canary Islands. The Bichon is also taller and significantly heavier than the Maltese — almost double the weight — making it more suitable to households with multiple pets and children. While the Maltese has a single coat, the Bichon’s is double, with a soft and dense undercoat and a textured and curly topcoat. Together, they give the Bichon its signature “powderpuff” appearance.
Similar to the Bichon Frise in its more independent personality and larger size, the Shih Tzu comes from a completely different world — the royal palaces of China. The Shih Tzu requires as much grooming as a Maltese, and its double coat comes in basically any color. One major difference from all the breeds listed here is the Shih Tzu has a foreshortened muzzle and undershot bite.
Coton de Tulear
While the Coton de Tulear is frequently mistaken for the Maltese, it is significantly larger — like the Bichon, almost double the weight. All white like the Maltese, the Coton can have some shadings of light tan in its cotton-textured coat, which is what gives it its name. Like the Bichon, it might be a better choice for individuals or families whose lifestyles require a more robust companion.
Finding Your Maltese
Resist the temptation to buy your Maltese from a pet store or internet site that advertises Maltese puppies for sale. Most of these dogs are mass-produced in puppy mills, and you have no idea of their background or heritage.
Instead, the best source for a Maltese puppy is a reputable breeder. Easy to say, but what exactly makes a breeder reputable? Among other things, reputable breeders perform appropriate health tests of breeding stock. They have in-depth knowledge of the ancestors of your prospective puppy. They will require you to sign a contract that stipulates, among other things, that you will spay and neuter the puppy at an appropriate age. They’ll also require that, should you no longer want the dog, it must be returned to the breeder. All your interactions with a reputable breeder should give you the distinct sense that he or she will be there for you as a resource for the entirety of your dog’s hopefully long life.
Finding a Maltese Breeder
The ideal starting point for finding a reputable breeder is the American Maltese Association (www.americanmaltese.org), which offers a breeder list.
If you prefer to adopt, there are a number of Maltese-specific rescue groups nationwide that foster and rehome Maltese and Maltese mixes. The American Maltese Association also has its own rescue program (www.americanmalteserescue.org). Maltese breeders do an excellent job of taking care of their own, thanks to that return-to-breeder clause in their contracts. So animal shelters and local rescue groups do not see many Maltese in need of new homes.
How much you will pay for your Maltese puppy depends on where you live. In those parts of the country where the cost of living is high, puppy prices follow suit, and you can expect to pay $2,500 and up for a puppy. Elsewhere, where the costs of veterinary care and other expenses are not as high, the going price might be less.
But cost should not be the determining factor in helping you locate a happy, healthy Maltese puppy. In fact, many pet-store puppies are priced higher than their home-raised counterparts that come from a reputable breeder. Don’t think about the purchase price of the puppy as simply a fee for your impossibly cute white bundle of fur. Instead, you are also buying the breeder’s expertise, knowledge, and support. When you buy a Maltese from an established, reputable breeder who is breeding as much to advance the breed as to cover costs, you are gaining a resource for the life of your dog. And that, quite frankly, is invaluable.
A Helping Hand
Need veterinary advice on your new Maltese puppy going forward? Schedule a video consult with the professionals at FirstVet to get advice and tips on any health and care concerns you have for your puppy.