Maltese

While their flowing white locks draw attention, Maltese are especially beloved for their smart, gentle nature. Learn more about living with the Maltese.
By Kate Silver
Maltese
Breed Group
Dog Size
Other Traits
Temperament

Maltese

height
  • 7 to 9 inches
weight
  • 4 to 6 pounds
life span
  • 12 to 15 years
breed size
  • small (0-25 lbs.)
good with
  • children
  • seniors
  • dogs
  • cats
  • families
temperament
  • gentle
  • friendly
  • outgoing
  • playful
shedding amount
  • infrequent
exercise needs
  • low
energy level
  • active
barking level
  • frequent
drool amount
  • low
breed group
  • toy
coat length/texture
  • long
colors
  • white
other traits
  • hypoallergenic
  • easy to train
  • requires lots of grooming
  • apartment-friendly
  • good for first-time pet owners
  • strong loyalty tendencies

With its teeny-tiny stature, flowing white coat, and high trainability, this toy breed has beauty and brains. For that, it’s been cherished since its earliest days in ancient Italy and has long been seen as a portable and charming companion. They were bred to be gentle mannered, affectionate, and faithful to their owners—and that’s just what they are,” says Jami-Lyn Derse, DVM, founder of Veterinary Housecall Care in the Chicago area. But don’t be fooled: Though diminutive in size, the energetic Maltese dog doesn’t back down when she or her people are threatened. Her good looks and pleasing temperament have made her a favorite of crossbreeders, which has resulted in much-love hybrid dogs such as the Maltipoo (Maltese and poodle mix), the Morkie (Maltese and Yorkshire terrier mix), the Malshi (Maltese and shih tzu mix), and the Mauxie (Maltese and Dachshund mix).

Appearance

The Maltese puppy truly is the quintessential lap dog, with its fluffy white fur, adorable black-button nose, dark eyes, and sprightly demeanor. “They’re like a little stuffed animal,” Derse says. The Maltese has a compact, athletic body, small floppy ears, and a tufted tail that curves over her back. By the time a Maltese reaches her full 7–9 inch height and 4–6 pound weight, those white tresses become silky smooth, requiring daily brushing along with regular baths to maintain their regal appearance. While Maltese owners planning to show their dogs will allow them to keep their long, flowing locks, most people keeping a Maltese as a companion opt for frequent trims to make maintenance easier.

Temperament

Gentle, playful, smart, affectionate, trainable—Maltese lovers swear that these charming pups are among the best out there. “They’re a small dog breed that has a good temperament,” Derse says. “They’re just playful, they’re vigorous, they’re cute, and they’re affectionate.”

Derse says Maltese are generally agreeable and can get along well with children and adults of all ages, and with other pets, especially when socialized early. “For a small dog breed, I think these guys are a good option for people and families,” she says. However, as with any dog, parents need to teach their children how to handle an animal and always monitor interactions, especially when both puppy and child are young.

Just remember that the Maltese doesn’t seem to realize how tiny they are, and they won’t hesitate to protect its owner from people—or other dogs—who are perceived to be a threat. 

Living Needs

A small apartment is just fine for this compact canine. While the bouncy Maltese is happy to go on walks and sprint around a yard, he doesn’t require much exercise. Rather, his most pressing need is to be near his beloved owner. And that owner, Derse says, has a tendency to spoil the dog rotten. So much so, she says, that the Maltese’s feet almost never touch the ground. 

“A Maltese owner often has them in a purse or has them in their lap. They never have them touch the floor,” Derse says. “So when they come into the hospital, we’ll put them on the floor and put a leash on them and they just have no idea what to do. That’s what they’re bred for—they were bred to be lap dogs.”

But that doesn’t mean they’re lazy. In fact, Maltese excel in obedience and agility training, when coupled with lots of positive reinforcement. While they can tolerate some time spent alone, they prefer to be with their family. If left alone for too long or not given enough exercise, barking can become an issue for the Maltese. Regular positive reinforcement training and plenty of attention can curb their barking tendencies.

Care

That flowing white coat requires quite a bit of grooming, Derse says. Their gorgeous white fur can get matted and dirty, so daily brushing is key, and regular trims will help keep the hair from getting in their eyes. But even with regular grooming, Derse warns, owners shouldn’t expect their Maltese to look like a show dog. “If you’ve ever seen the [American Kennel Club] ones in the show ring, their hair is draping and flowing on the ground. It’s really regal-looking,” she says. But without a team of groomers on a daily retainer, the average owner will probably never get their pup to look like that.

Maltese shedding is minimal—but that doesn’t necessarily mean this dog is hypoallergenic. In fact, no dog is 100 percent hypoallergenic, though some, like the low-shedding Maltese, may have a lower impact on allergy sufferers than other breeds.

Maltese do require regular bathing and coat conditioning to keep their silky locks looking their best. And, like other breeds, you will need to maintain their fast-growing nails with regular trimming sessions, paying particular attention to not nicking the quick as many Maltese have black toenails that make seeing that bundle of nerves more challenging. Other routine grooming—like ear cleanings and teeth cleanings, which are particularly important as your dog gets older—will help with keeping your Maltese healthy between vet visits.

Tear staining is also a common—but not usually serious—problem in Maltese, resulting in a rusty tint to the hair around the dog’s eyes. Talk to your vet about it should you see an issue with staining to make sure they’re no underlying cause. Once you’re sure there’s no medical reason for the staining, reduce the appearance of stains by regularly cleaning the area and keeping the hair as dry as possible.

Health

One of the many perks of the Maltese is their long lifespan, which averages 12–15 years. As a tiny toy breed, this dog is fragile, so owners must take care to not let her fall or jump from heights, or she could be injured. Both Maltese puppies and adult dogs are generally quite healthy, although like many small breeds, they can be prone to dental problems. It’s important to talk to your vet about how to care for your Maltese’s pearly whites via regular teeth cleanings. 

In addition, knee issues like luxated patellas can affect your Maltese, meaning the kneecap becomes weakened over time, and slips out of place. Legge-Calve-Perthes Disease (LCPD) is another orthopedic concern to be aware of, affecting the hips of Maltese puppies, though it is rarely seen in pups older than 1. Maltese owners should speak with their veterinarian about health concerns and to find out if there are preventive steps they can take to keep their pup happy and healthy for years to come.

History

As its name states, the Maltese hails from Malta, an archipelago located below Sicily. While it’s not entirely clear how the dog got there, it’s known that the Greeks and Romans who occupied the area in ancient times revered the small, white pooch, elevating it to status-symbol levels. The American Kennel Club notes that Ye Ancient Dogge of Malta, as it’s known in breeder circles, has been “sitting in the lap of luxury since the Bible was a work in progress,” where Melitaie Dog has been etched into ceramics from the Golden Age. Even Aristotle had an opinion of the Maltese, referring  to it as “perfectly proportioned.” During the Dark Ages in Europe, the Maltese faced extinction, when breeders cross-bred the Maltese with toy Chinese dog breeds like the shih tzu and the Pekingese.

The American Kennel Club officially recognized the breed in 1888 and it’s risen in popularity amongst American families and dog show aficionados alike. When first shown at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1877, the breed was billed as the Maltese lion dog. Though a Maltese has never taken the top show prize of Best in Show, Maltese have won the Toy Group five times.

Fun Facts

  • The Greeks loved this dog so much they built tombs for it, and Greek pottery that dates back to 5 A.D. is decorated with canine images that resemble the Maltese.
  • Over time, the Maltese has had a number of names and nicknames, including Maltese terrier, Roman ladies dog, and—perhaps the best name ever—the Maltese lion dog. 
  • Celebrities are also fans of the Maltese. Famous owners have included Tony Bennett, Halle Berry, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and James Brolin, and Elizabeth Taylor. 
  • Publius, the governor of Malta in the 1st century A.D., owned a Maltese named Issa that was so popular it inspired a poem of the same name, written by Marcus Valerius Martialis, which goes like this: "Issa is more frolicsome than Catulla's sparrow. Issa is purer than a dove's kiss. Issa is gentler than a maiden. Issa is more precious than Indian gems."