Mal-Shi

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
 
Photo of adult Mal-Shi

This adorable little dog is the hybrid result of crossing purebred Maltese and Shih Tzu parents. Like other designer dogs, the Mal-Shi was developed in the hope of combining the positive traits of its parents, while toning down any physical or behavioural flaws. Though prospective owners must understand that this is not always how hybrids work out, most Mal-Shis have the playful nature and low-shedding coat of the Maltese, and the affectionate, loyal, and watchful tendencies of the Shih Tzu, making them a very popular and versatile choice of pet. As a true companion dog, the Mal-Shi should never be forced to endure isolation, and can be prone to separation anxiety.

This is an energetic dog, but needs only short daily walks. It will happily play with people or other pets if given access to a small garden, but is adaptable enough to be suitable for apartment living. Because of its cheerful disposition and intelligence, it is renowned for being easy to train, and it is extremely sociable, making socialisation training a breeze for most. Although the coat sheds only very lightly, it requires considerable work, as it is prone to tangling, and owners must be prepared to brush it daily, as well as visiting the grooming parlour on a regular basis. As with other hybrid dogs, first-generation crosses in particular are susceptible to many of the health problems seen in the parent breeds, and anyone considering the purchase of a pup should insist on seeing recent health certificates from both parents. Despite this, the Mal-Shi is generally a healthy dog, with a life expectancy of 13–15 years.

About & History

The Mal-Shi is believed to have been first bred in a deliberate and organised manner in the United States in the 1990s, although it is a more popular cross in Australia than anywhere else in the world at the present time. Like the Poodle hybrids that had gone before it, such as the Cockapoo, it was conceived as a low-shedding breed that might appeal to an increasingly allergic pet-owning population. This is, indeed, a consistent trait in Mal-Shis, who tend to shed very little, though the concept of a non-shedding coat is a fallacy, as all haired animals must turn over some hair throughout the year.

As well as acquiring this desirable coat characteristic, the Mal-Shi tends to have a steadier temperament than the Maltese, which can be somewhat sensitive and snappy when distressed, and while the Shih Tzu can suffer from breathing problems associated with its short and narrow upper respiratory tract, the Mal-Shi is generally not afflicted to the same extent. The Shih Tzu’s bulging eyes may also be considered something of a design flaw, as they are prone to trauma and drying, and this feature is far less pronounced in the Mal-Shi.

However, for all these positive features, it must be understood that this, like all other cross-breeds, can also inherit negative physical and behavioural characteristics from both parents. Cross-breeding is the equivalent of a genetic lottery, and one can never be certain which traits will come to the fore. When choosing any puppy, it is important to observe the behaviour of both the puppies and parents, and to be prepared to walk away empty-handed if the offspring appear to be unsociable or unhealthy.

Appearance

Mal-Shi Large Photo

Unlike pedigree dogs, hybrids do not have to conform to a breed standard, and some variation in appearance is natural and to be expected. However, the Mal-Shi is always a small dog, standing around 25–30 cm (10–12 in) tall at the withers, and weighing between 3 and 6.5 kg (7–14 lb). It generally has a very soft and silky, wavy coat that can grow to 8–10 cm in length if left untrimmed. Though most are predominantly white, patches and facial markings are common, and the Mal-Shi can potentially inherit a wide range of colours, including:

  • White
  • White and tan
  • Black
  • Black and white
  • Brown
  • Brown and white
  • Black and brown

It has a domed skull with small ears set on high that generally sit folded forward to the side of the head. The almond-shaped eyes are usually a shade of brown and should not protrude. The Mal-Shi may inherit its Maltese parent’s underdeveloped tear duct and exhibit some dark tear-staining on the face. The muzzle is a relatively short, blunt wedge, and should have good-sized nostrils so as to avoid the respiratory problems that beset the Shih Tzu. It may have short legs, but they should be reasonably straight when viewed from front to back, as deviations in alignment are a common cause of joint pain in middle age and beyond.

Character & Temperament

There are many complimentary adjectives that can be used to describe the Mal-Shi’s temperament. It is a cheerful, alert, fun-loving dog with plenty of personality. It loves its owners, and usually inherits the Shih Tzu’s protective nature, ignoring its small size and showing courage in the face of danger. This, combined with its naturally alert nature, makes it a surprisingly good watchdog. It will raise the alarm when it feels justified, but is not likely to bark without provocation. On the other hand, it is also an extremely sociable dog that loves meeting new people, and will quickly drop its guard once it has been introduced to a visitor.

It is a very affectionate hybrid, and thrives on company. The Mal-Shi must be treated as a family member, and should not be left alone for long periods, as it is prone to separation anxiety when isolated. For those owners needing to leave their dog unattended for an hour or two on occasion, having a second dog for company can be a good option, as the Mal-Shi mixes well with other pets. Most are very good with children, although their small size means that young, boisterous children can unintentionally inflict injuries.

Trainability

Photo of Mal-Shi puppy

The Mal-Shi’s easy trainability is another reason this cross continues to grow in popularity. It is a highly intelligent dog, and usually eager to please its owners, although the Shih Tzu’s innate stubbornness does sometimes carry through. When speaking of hybrids, it is necessary to generalise to some extent, but it is true to say that the vast majority are very pliable. Owners who introduce basic training to their puppy from around eight weeks of age will see a rapid progression in the dog’s responsiveness and obedience, though it is never too late to start training.

Pups that are slow to house-break may benefit from crate training, in which they are given a secure space, such as a cage, within the house to call their own. Leaving the pup in this cage at night almost always greatly accelerates the training process. However, it is important to introduce the cage in a positive and incremental manner, rather than simply locking the pup inside at its first appearance.

Health

Most Mal-Shis are very healthy, though the assumption that a cross-breed will be healthier than its pedigree parents does not always hold true. Just as its appearance and temperament are variable and depend on which particular genes are inherited, some pups will have the misfortune to inherit one or more health problems that are prevalent in the parent breeds, which include

  • Atopic Dermatitis – A form of allergic skin disease.
  • Elbow Dysplasia – Can take several forms, all of which are developmental deformities of the growing elbow joints. This is often inherited from the parents, and breeding Shih Tzus should be screened for the condition by x-ray examination.
  • Hip Dysplasia – An inherited growth deformity of the hip joint that can cause lameness from around six months of age. Like elbow dysplasia, this can be detected radiographically, and all breeding dogs should be hip scored for this reason.
  • Hypothyroidism – A hormone deficiency that arises in middle age as a result of immune-mediated destruction of the glandular tissue of the thyroid. Hair loss, weight gain, and lethargy are the major signs.
  • Patellar Luxation – Dogs with a bow-legged conformation of the hindlimbs may suffer dislocation of the kneecap from its normal position when walking or running, and exhibit a characteristic, intermittent three-legged gait.
  • von Willebrand’s Disease – Inherited disorder in which platelets, tiny cells responsible for initiating blood clot formation, do not function as normal, result in heavy bleeding from minor injuries.
  • White Shaker Syndrome – An unusual neurological condition of uncertain cause that results in signs of whole-body or regional tremor. Signs usually manifest before two years of age, and may worsen with stress or excitement.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Although the Mal-Shi is always on its toes and ready to leap into action, either to answer the door or to fetch a ball, its small size means it does not need long walks. Around thirty-minutes per day is sufficient for most individuals, but they do also enjoy snuffling around a yard or garden when one is available. For those unfortunate enough to inherit the Shih Tzu’s narrow airway, owners must take care that they are not exercised during very warm weather, when they are prone to overheating.

Grooming

The fine, silky coat is prone to tangling, and needs daily care to prevent matting. Ten-minutes of brushing is usually all that is required, and as well as freeing the coat from knots, this spreads oils from the skin throughout the hair, promoting healthy growth. As the coat is quite long, clipping every six to eight weeks is very helpful in its management. For those Mal-Shis with facial tear-staining, the use of tear stain remover or wipes can help prevent or reverse hair discolouration.

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