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

This Continental toy spaniel has been a favourite of the upper classes of Europe for centuries, and it may be spotted in many well-known royal portraits. It is said that Marie Antoinette walked to the guillotine while holding her beloved Papillon. Although they are small, Papillons are vivacious and highly intelligent dogs. They thrive on human companionship, and do not tolerate separation from their owners for any great length of time.

Due to their fine, single-thickness coat, they are not suited to outdoor living. However, they are not lapdogs, and while they will insist on spending all day in their owners’ company, they are busy little housemates, preferring to spend their time investigating nooks and crannies and ensuring the home is free from insects, or anything else that should move and attract their attention. Papillons are very affectionate and devoted dogs, and can make good pets for older children. Due to their fine bone structure, accidents are common when they are being handled by younger children, especially in puppyhood.

The breed tends to be suspicious of strangers, rarely aggressive, but for this reason, they can make very effective and noisy guard dogs. The frilly coat is relatively easy to care for, requiring regular but basic attention, and Papillons do not require copious amounts of exercise, meaning they may be suited to apartment living, if required. They are known as one of the most intelligent small-breed dogs, and are generally very biddable, meaning they are easy to train. The breed is healthy and long-lived, with an average life expectancy of 14-15 years.

About & History

The Papillon, named for its resemblance to a butterfly in the shape of its ears and facial markings, is believed to have descended from an ancient hunting spaniel in Continental Europe. Dogs closely resembling the modern Papillon first appeared in fine-art portraits at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

While the French proudly claim ownership of this lively little dog, a controversial theory circulates in some English-speaking quarters that it was actually derived from an Italian line, given by Giovanni Filipponi of Bologna to Louis XIV as a gift. Whatever the case, the ascent of the breed to the heights of aristocratic society can be traced through works by Van Dyke, Rubens, Mignard and Rembrandt amongst others.

Clearly, given the fondness with which it was cradled in many of these art works, the breed was being selected, even at this point, as a companion dog rather than for utilitarian purposes. In fact, the dogs in these paintings were mostly of the drop-eared, or Phalene, type. While the word ‘Papillon’ is French for ‘butterfly’, ‘Phalene’ means ‘moth’, as the dropped ears invoke an image of folded, rather than extended, wings.

It has been speculated that the upright ears of the Papillon may be the result of crossing with Spitz type dogs during the breed’s development, but both Papillon and Phalene types can be born in the same litter, so the change in conformation may also simply have been the result of selecting for this characteristic.


Papillon Large Photo

The Papillon is a small, fine-boned dog with a fine hair coat, which is ruffed and feathered abundantly. The hair is wavy, of medium length, and lacks an undercoat, meaning that it is light and poorly weather-resistant. The butterfly-like appearance is the result of both the shape of the ears, which carry long fringes to augment the resemblance in outline to the upper set of butterfly wings, as well as a symmetrical facial mask of coloured hair, extending forward from the ears to encircle both eyes.

It is believed the early Papillons were a solid red colour, but the modern breed may exhibit many different colour patterns in combination with white. The breed standard specifies only that tan is not an accepted colour variation, and that the ears and facial mask must be of a colour other than white.

The skull is small and rounded, with a relatively short, narrow muzzle and a small bite. There is a tendency towards an overbite in some individuals. The eyes are large in proportion to the head, dark in colour, and not bulging. The neck and back are quite slender, and the body is reasonably long to give the impression of an agile build. The ribs are moderately well-sprung, and the abdomen should be noticeably tucked. For such a slender build, the Papillon carries good muscling in the upper fore and hindlimbs, and the plumed tail is carried over the back, though without a spitz-type curl.

Male and females are generally of fairly equal proportions, with both standing 20 to 28 cm (8-11 in) in height, weighing between 3.2 and 4.5 kg (7 to 10 lb).

Character & Temperament

Well-adjusted Papillons who have been adequately socialised are bright, confident dogs. They are acknowledged as a highly intelligent breed, and generally place very highly in the Toy categories of obedience and agility competitions. With constant companionship and the stimulation that it brings, a Papillon will become attuned to its owner’s emotions and intentions, and they can make excellent companions for an entire family.

However, this is not an ‘ornamental’ dog, and a Papillon will be quick to object and nip if handled roughly, and so may not be the best choice of breed for a family with very young children. In addition, due to their fine bone structure, they are prone to injury from falls, something which commonly occurs from the arms of a well-intended child.

The breed can be wary of strangers, and it is important to expose young Papillons to lots of positive socialisation experiences when young to avoid any tendency to aggression in later life. They are unusually energetic for a toy breed, and spend much of their leisure time patrolling and sniffing around the territory, large or small, for anything that might arouse their interest.


Photo of Papillon puppy

Papillons are highly intelligent, and are relatively easy to train. However, as for any dog, good behaviour must be learned, and attending obedience lessons with a puppy is always a good idea. Housetraining is usually quite easy for the breed, although their small size means it may be helpful to confine puppies to a certain area of the house, rather than allowing them to roam freely.

Being both smart and active, Papillons can benefit from participating in agility classes as adults, where the combination of exercise and mental stimulation provides the perfect outlet for their energy.


This is a remarkably healthy breed with few significant health complaints. The Kennel Club classifies the Papillon as a Category 1 breed, meaning there are no significant health problems subject to screening. However, some individuals may be unlucky and go on to develop one of the following conditions:

Addison’s Disease

This condition is caused by reduced function of the adrenal glands, and is properly known as hypoadrenocorticism. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing steroid and other hormones which maintain normal blood volume and pressure, as well as regulating blood electrolyte levels.

Autoimmune destruction of these glands results in signs of intermittent vomiting, diarrhoea, and weakness which may initially be mistaken for many other conditions. Once identified, this condition can be successfully managed with medication.


Both congenital and acquired cataracts may be seen in Papillons, with deposits of opaque materials in the lens giving the eye a milky or crystalline appearance. These can cause visual impairment which, if significant, may be amenable to surgical correction in some cases. Diabetes predisposes to cataract development in older dogs.

Corneal Dystrophy

Failure of the clear surface of the eye, the cornea, to develop normally, can result in visible craters and deficits in the normally smooth surface. This is often of no significance to affected dogs.


Congenital deafness may be seen in some Papillon puppies, and should be obvious from around six weeks of age to observant breeders. When choosing a puppy, pay careful attention to the pup’s responsiveness to sound.


The breed has quite ‘tight’ eyelids normally, and is prone to having these scroll in towards the surface of the eye. This is normally seen in young pups as watery or irritated eyes, and can be successfully treated with surgery.

Follicular Dysplasia

The growth of weak hairs due to degeneration of the follicular cells within the skin. Papillons are one of the breeds predisposed to this condition, which eventually results in hair loss. Areas of black hair growth are more commonly affected.


The most common hormonal disorder of dogs, with papillons being one of around 50 breeds predisposed to developing the condition. It is caused when the immune system inappropriately targets the hormone-secreting cells of the gland for destruction.

Lack of thyroid hormone subsequently results in a low metabolic rate, with weight gain and hair loss being common features. Replacement hormone therapy is cheap and very effective.

Patellar Luxation

Because of their light bone structure, the breed commonly suffers from this condition, commonly known as ‘slipping knee-caps’. As this term suggests, the knee-cap, or patella, of one or both legs does not sit in its normal position in a groove at the end of the thigh bone. This may cause pain and the development of osteoarthritis. Affected dogs have a characteristic ‘skipping’ gait when walking or running.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Another condition which often affects pedigree dogs, resulting in loss of vision because of degeneration of the neurons in the eye which are responsible for sight.

von Willebrand’s Disease

A genetic condition in which platelets, which are the white cells with responsible for initiating blood clot formation, do not function normally. This results in excess bleeding following minor cuts and injuries.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Most Papillons require around half an hour of structured exercise on a daily basis. The breed tends to be active, even restless, for much of the day at home, and so expends a lot of energy in the confines of the house or garden. Of course, healthy individuals will be happy to walk or play for longer periods, and will benefit from whatever additional amount of time the owner can afford to spend with them.


Largely because of the lack of an undercoat, the Papillon’s attractive coat is surprisingly easy to care for. While professional grooming will occasionally be required, the breed needs only weekly or twice-weekly brushing and combing to tease out any light tangles, remove dry material and to distribute oils from the skin to the hair.

Papillons need regular nail-trimming, as their light frames do not adequately wear them down. This should be done carefully from a young age to establish this as a part of the grooming routine. By observing and avoiding the pink ‘quick’ that runs down the centre of each nail, one can ensure this is a painless and low-stress task. Dogs’ teeth should also be brushed on a daily basis from puppyhood in order to prevent dental infection and tooth loss later in life. This is especially important in Papillons with overshot jaws.

Famous Papillons

As well as being the anonymous muses for many famous painters, some of the better-known Papillons in more recent times include:

  • Loteki Supernatural Being, also known as ‘Kirby’, was the first Papillon to win Best in Show at the Westminster KC Dog Show in 1999
  • Chewy and Stinky are a pair of Papillons owned by Christina Aguilera
  • Renne is owned by George Takei (Mr. Sulu of Star Trek fame)


Many ‘designer’ cross-breeds owe part of their heritage to the Papillon, with the following being the ones most commonly seen:

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