Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Maltese

Lively and affectionate, the Maltese is an ancient breed, recorded in written history by Aristotle and Pliny almost 2500 years ago. This is a small breed dog with a big personality who is playful and energetic. Maltese are quite comfortable living in small spaces and so are ideal indoor and apartment dogs. They thrive on human company, enjoy constant attention, and can suffer from separation anxiety and boredom if left alone for long periods. They are considered a Toy breed, although they are believed to share some common ancestry with the Spitz breeds. Although they enjoy physical contact and affection, Maltese can be inclined to bite if overwhelmed, and so are not considered ideal company for small children.

If left unclipped, the breed’s long, flowing coat is spectacular to behold, but requires constant maintenance to avoid knotting and staining. Although a hint of ivory is considered acceptable on the ears, Maltese should otherwise be completely white in colour. They shed very little, as they do not possess an undercoat, and so are often recommended as ideal pets for people with allergies. The breed is generally healthy, although there are certain problems, which are seen relatively commonly, and are discussed below. Life expectancy for most Maltese is around 12–15 years with proper care.

About & History

As with many of the ancient breeds, the precise origins of the Maltese are the subject of some controversy. Despite the name, many authorities believe that the breed was not established in Malta, but rather further east, on the island of Meleda – close to the Dalmation coast of modern-day Croatia. It is thought that Phoenician traders introduced the breed to the island of Malta in the early nineteenth century. The breed has been known by many different names over more than two millennia, including the Roman Ladies' Dog, the Maltese Lion Dog, and the ancient dog of Malta.

As testament to their prized status as loyal companion dogs form the outset, the ancient Greeks are known to have constructed tombs for their deceased Maltese. It is thought, based on Egyptian relics, that the breed was kept as a pet in the Nile Delta long ago, and that it was believed to possess medicinal powers. The Maltese was much celebrated by many famous ancient scholars. Aristotle was the first to describe the breed in writing in 370 BC, comparing these diminutive dogs to weasels or otters. Pliny was the first to suggest Meleda as the origin of the breed, while Issa, the muse of Roman poet Martial, was a small white dog, also believed to be a Maltese.

Having been already established for well over 2000 years, misguided efforts to make the breed even smaller in the 17th–18th centuries almost resulted in extinction. Subsequently, crossbreeding with other breeds, including Poodles and Spaniels was required to reestablish a healthy population. The UK Kennel Club has officially recognized Maltese as a breed since the 1870s, and by the American Kennel Club since 1888. Most of the Maltese found in the USA are believed to originate from British lines.


Maltese Large Photo

The Maltese has a long, flowing white coat. For showing, hair is allowed to grow almost to the ground, and should take on a flat and silky appearance. However, most pet owners choose to give their dog a ‘puppy clip’, whereby the hair is kept quite short, at around an inch long – this makes grooming and hygiene maintenance much easier. Lacking an undercoat, the breed has a beautiful, elegant appearance, but if left long, the coat is very prone to matting. Although faint apricot or ivory colouration of the hair on the ears is permissible, according to the breed standards, it is not desirable.

Maltese have an alert, gentle expression. Their eyes are round and dark, and convey a suggestion of mischievousness. The head is domed, although unlike many other small breeds, they should have a muzzle of a reasonable length, ending in a neat ‘bite’, without any suggestion of and under- or over-bite. Their ears are small and ‘dropped’, and the hair on the ears is sometimes slightly wavy (again, this is not encouraged by the breed standards). Although they have a black nose, it is seen to lighten in many Maltese during the winter months, darkening again with exposure to sunlight.

The breed is very fine-boned, with delicate limbs. Their feet are small and rounded, and often appear sensitive or ‘ticklish’. Pads on the paws should be black. The tail is Spitz-like, carried curled over the rump, and very expressive, almost always wagging at a furious pace.

Males and females alike usually weigh somewhere between 3–4.5 kg (6.5–10 lb), although the American Kennel Club has a distinct preference for smaller-sized individuals. Although light and nimble, the breed is tall for such a small dog, measuring 20–25 cm at the withers.

Character & Temperament

For many centuries, Maltese have been bred as companion dogs, and so are affectionate and full of character. They embody the concept of a ‘lap-dog’, and love to be stroked and cuddled. However, they know their own minds, and should physical contact be excessive or forceful, as is often the case with young children interacting with dogs – they can snap or bite to establish boundaries. For this reason, they are not generally recommended for young families.

This is a very playful breed, and although they do not require copious amounts of exercise, love to chase feet and toys around the house. Keeping a ball or other toy to hand is a great idea, as Maltese enjoy the interaction provided by simple games of fetch or tug-of-war.

Maltese can be very vigilant and noisy guard dogs, as they are constantly interested in what is going on in their environment, and are quick to communicate with their owners. They are often described as being ‘fearless’, and are certainly not aware of their small stature when attempting to deter intruders! This tendency to be vocal can also be a problem, particularly if the dog is ignored or left alone for long periods, for example in a garden. They have been identified as the most-abandoned breed in Australia in recent years, and is thought that persistent ‘nuisance barking’ is likely to be a major contributor to this.


Photo of Maltese puppy

Maltese are considered an intelligent breed by most who know them. Although they do not rank highly in some of the published studies on intelligence, such tests generally examine the utility of dogs, and so are heavily weighted in favour of working breeds, such as Border Collies and Golden Retrievers, for example.

However, there is more to intellect than simply the ability to obey commands, and as any Maltese owner will attest, their dog is very well-attuned to their owner’s wishes and emotions. In spite of this, the breed can be strong-willed, and not always as biddable as one would like. For this reason, simple obedience training from a young age is advisable.

Because of their nature as companion dogs, they do usually respond well to positive reinforcement, whether verbal or in the form of a treat. By breaking training into small, regular sessions, it is usually possible to get the best results from these playful individuals. They do not like to wander far from their owners, and lead training and off-the-lead recall are generally easy to master.


Although Maltese are somewhat susceptible to injury, due their fine-boned nature, most are quite healthy dogs. There are no genetic screening programmes being implemented by the Kennel Club for the breed; however, there are a number of conditions to which Maltese are known to be prone.

When buying a Maltese (or any other dog), it is always a good idea to research the breeder before researching his/her puppies, as buying from a reputable breeder is the best insurance against health problems.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus

Relatively common in Maltese (especially females) in comparison with other breeds, this is a connection between venous and arterial blood flow, which is normal in the foetus, but which should close soon after birth. This should be detectable by your vet as an audible murmur. Surgical repair is possible.


A degenerative condition affecting the valves of the heart. Most often seen in middle-aged and older dogs. If left untreated can progress to cause heart failure.

Malassezia Dermatitis

Overgrowth of yeast on the skin, particularly around skin folds and under the legs and tail. Results in itch, strong ‘doggy’ smell, and discolouration of hair. Generally treated with medicated wipes or washes.

Pyloric Stenosis

Also known as Antral Pyloric Hypertrophy Syndrome, this condition results in vomiting due to obstruction of the outflow from the stomach. Surgery is usually curative.

Portosystemic Shunts

The liver may be bypassed by abnormal blood vessels in some Maltese, resulting in signs of liver failure. These include low body weight, lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhoea. Signs are ususally seen in young dogs, less than one year of age.


Inguinal hernias are particularly common in female Maltese puppies, and are the result of a failure of the tendinous inguinal ring to adequately close during development. Protruding fat or intestines inside the hindlimb may be felt as soft swellings. These hernias require surgical repair in order to prevent problems with organ entrapment.


Accumulation of fluid in the brain can cause neurological signs, for example, seizures and mental dullness. Signs are usually apparent in the first few months of life, and affected pups often have a ‘high-domed’ appearance to the skull.


Male Maltese pups may have failure of one or both testicles to descend into the scrotal sac, a process which should be completed in the first three months of life. Affected dogs will need to be castrated to prevent problems later in life.

Patellar Luxation

Lack of bone or soft tissue support for the kneecap (patella) may result in it “slipping” to the inside of the knee joint while the Maltese is exercising. This may result in a 3-legged gait for several paces before the patella resumes its normal position and allows the leg to be used as normal.

Hip Dysplasia

Developmental disorders of the hip joint are common inmany breeds, including the Maltese. Signs of pain and lameness may be seen from 6 months of age. Weight control and good quality food may help limit the development and progression of the problem.


Most commonly seen in young pups that have recently left the breeder, sudden drops in blood glucose can cause dramatic signs such as seizuring, coma, or even death. Emergency treatment is necessary, and the condition can be prevented with very small, regular feeds. Puppies generally outgrow the condition as their body mass increases.

White Shaker Dog Syndrome

Seen in Maltese as well as other breeds such as West Highland White Terriers, this condition is a neurological storage disorder which manifests as severe generalised trembling, which is worsened by excitement and exercise.


An inward scrolling of the eyelids, resulting in irritation and ocular discharge. This is a common problem, and may be resolved by surgery, although definitive correction may have to be postponed in young affected individuals.


Failure of the normal drainage mechanisms within the eye, leading to increased pressure and hence pain. Also associated with loss of sight.

Multifocal Retinal Dysplasia

A genetic abnormality in which areas of the sensitive retinal tissues of the eye do not full develop. Can be detected in young pups by careful veterinary examination.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

A degenerative condition of the retina, resulting in loss of vision. This condition also has a genetic basis, being far more common in certain breeds, including the Maltese.

Sebaceous Adenitis

Causes hair loss, itch, and heavy dandruff due to autoimmune destruction of sebaceous glands in the skin. Treated with medicated washes, antibiotics, and corticosteroids, most cases respond well.


Weight gain, hair loss, exercise intolerance, and lack of energy are the classic signs of hypothyroidism. This condition is caused by destruction of thyroid tissue by the immune system, and is seen in middle-aged and older dogs. Treated by thyroid hormone supplementation.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Maltese do not require much vigorous exercise. Indoor play can constitute a large part of their total daily activity, and a small garden or yard is sufficient outdoor space. Although they may be very active around the house, lead walks totalling 30 minutes per day will suffice for most dogs. As well as being a useful form of exercise, these lead walks help cement the valuable bond between pet and owner.


If left unclipped, the Maltese’s coat can be difficult to manage, owing to its propensity to knotting. Most owners who do not clip the coat short will keep it in clips or ties to keep it manageable. On the other hand, a ‘puppy clip’ leaves a short coat, which is relatively easy to manage with brushing. As with most white dogs, there is a tendency for many owners to wash their pet too frequently. To do so risks stripping the coat and skin of valuable oils, predisposing to dermatitis. Bathing once a month is generally adequate, with daily brushing.

Unless you are a very experienced owner and are happy to clip your Maltese’s coat yourself, it is a good idea to find a professional dog groomer whom both yourself and your dog like, and to employ his/her services approximately every 6 weeks to keep the coat short, neat, and easily managed. In addition, your groomer can take responsibility for keeping the dog’s nails trimmed. Most Maltese really dislike having their nails clipped, and it can be a stressful job to try to accomplish at home!

Tear-staining of the face is a common complaint in the breed, and is due to tear overflow from the eyes, often because of under-developed tear ducts in the lower eyelids. Daily cleaning of the face with wet cotton pads usually helps prevent this from occurring, but if necessary, your vet or groomer can recommend medicated products to remove excessive staining. Note: this is almost always a purely aesthetic problem, and rarely causes the dog any discomfort.

Teeth-brushing is best introduced when your Maltese is a young pup. Brushing greatly reduces dental infections, pain, and tooth loss in older dogs. Daily brushing is an easy routine to introduce to a young puppy, but may be extremely difficult in dogs over 6 months of age. Use only products suitable for dogs, as human toothpaste is likely to be extremely unpalatable and may cause digestive upsets.

Famous Maltese

Considering this is not a shy and retiring breed, there are few Maltese that have become celebrities in their own right; however, they are very popular with the rich and famous. Leona Helmsley, for example, left $12 million to her Maltese, Trouble, upon her death. However, a judge later reduced this to $2 million. Trouble was reported to be devastated by this decision. Other celebrity owners include:

  • Heather Locklear
  • Eva Longoria
  • Halle Berry
  • Lindsay Lohan


Because of their striking looks, the breed is frequently crossed with other pedigrees to produce gorgeous mixes. Popular Maltese crossbreeds include:

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