The Breed History
Records of this breed in art can be found on the Isle of Malta dated thousands of years ago. Roman, Greek and Egyptian records trace the breed back to very early times. The AKC registered this Bichon-type breed in 1888. They are somewhat spaniel in type though they were sometimes called Maltese Terriers historically.
Breeding for Function
In early history, the Maltese dogs may have served for vermin control. A companion dog exclusively for a very long time, Maltese dogs were particularly sought after by women of high social standing in the past.
Height at Withers: 10" (25 cm).
Weight: 4-6 lb (2-3 kg).
Coat: The single haircoat hangs flat, is white, and the hairs are long, straight and silky. The coat often reaches the floor or longer at maturity and the topknot is usually tied up. The thick, luxurious coat needs regular grooming. Due to the long white coat, this is essentially an indoor dog and is suitable for apartment life.
Longevity: 14-15 years
Points of Conformation: This is a toy dog with naturally high head carriage, moderate stop, the skull slightly rounded, and the muzzle is tapered and of medium length; the nose is black. Eyes are moderately set apart, dark, large, and palpebral margins are black. Ears are well feathered and hanging from a low set position. Neck is moderately short, body is square in conformation, the topline level, thorax moderate in depth, and ribs are well sprung. The abdomen is only slightly tucked up. Limbs are fine and straight boned, feet are small and round in shape, pads thick and black. The tail is high set and sits over the back; is well plumed with hair. The gait is straight, energetic, quick and smoothly flowing.
Recognized Behavior Issues and Traits
The reported breed characteristics include: Gentle nature, playful, intelligent, affectionate, and loves children. Exercise needs are low. Activity levels are moderate. The Maltese is noted to be a vigorous alarm barker. Needs to have quiet, gentle children in the family or can be snappy. Some can be difficult to house train. The Maltese is considered a low shedding, low allergy dog.
Normal Physiologic Variations
Regular hygiene around the eyes is needed due to chronic epiphora.
Some are picky eaters.
Patella Luxation: Polygenically inherited laxity of patellar ligaments, causing luxation, lameness, and later degenerative joint disease. Treat surgically if causing clinical signs. Dorn reports a 1.92x odds ratio in Maltese versus other breeds. Another study reports a 6.5x odds ratio versus other breeds. OFA reports 5.0% affected.
Hip Dysplasia and Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease: Polygenically inherited traits causing degenerative hip joint disease and arthritis. Reported at a high frequency, but too few Maltese have been screened by OFA to determine an accurate frequency.
Elbow Dysplasia: Polygenically inherited trait causing elbow arthritis. Too few Maltese have been evaluated by the OFA to determine an accurate frequency in the breed.
Hypothyroidism: Inherited autoimmune thyroiditis. 16.5% positive for thyroid auto-antibodies based on testing at Michigan State University. (Ave. for all breeds is 7.5%).
Cataracts: Anterior and posterior cortex intermediate cataracts predominate in the breed. Identified in 7.23% of Maltese CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005. CERF does not recommend breeding any Maltese with a cataract.
Persistent Pupillary Membranes: Strands of fetal remnant connecting; iris to iris, cornea, lens, or involving sheets of tissue. The later three forms can impair vision, and dogs affected with these forms should not be bred. Identified in 7.23% of Maltese CERF examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Retinal Dysplasia: Retinal folds and geographic dysplasia are recognized in the breed. Can lead to blindness. Reported in 2.41% of Maltese CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Hydrocephalus: The breed is one with an increased frequency of hydrocephalus. Diagnosis by radiography, MRI, or ultrasound (through an open fontanel). Dorn reports an 11.61x odds ratio in Maltese versus other breeds.
Distichiasis: Abnormally placed eyelashes that irritate the cornea and conjunctiva. Can cause secondary corneal ulceration. Identified in 1.20% of Maltese CERF-examined by veterinary ophthalmologists between 2000-2005.
Portosystemic Shunt (PSS, Liver Shunt): Abnormal blood vessels connecting the systemic and portal blood flow. Vessels can be intrahepatic or extrahepatic. Hepatic microvascular dysplasia is genetically related to PSS. Causes stunting, abnormal behavior and possible seizures. Diagnose with paired fasted and feeding serum bile acid and/or ammonium levels, and abdominal ultrasound. Treatment of PSS includes partial ligation and/or medical and dietary control of symptoms. 1.6% of Maltese presented to veterinary teaching hospitals had PSS, with an odds ratio of 32x versus other breeds. Undetermined mode of inheritance.
Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA): Polygenically inherited congenital heart disorder, where a fetal vessel remains open after birth, causing a mixing of oxygenated and unoxygenated blood. Affected dogs are usually stunted, and have a loud heart murmur. Diagnosis with Doppler ultrasound. Treat with surgery. Dorn reports a 30.09x odds ratio in Maltese versus other breeds.
Deafness: Congenital deafness can be unilateral of bilateral. Diagnosed by BAER testing.
Autoimmune Hemolytic Anemia (AIHA): Autoimmune destruction of red blood cells. Clinical features include pale mucous membranes, weakness, lethargy and collapse. Treat with immunosuppressive drugs. Reported 2.8x odds ratio versus other breeds in an Australian Study.
Protein Losing Enteropathy (PLE, Lymphangiectasia): Presents with diarrhea, weight loss, and/or abdominal effusion due to dilation of lymph vessels in the intestine. Inflammatory cell buildup blocks normal absorption of nutrients. Can occur at any age, but primarily affects middle-aged dogs. Maltese are a breed with a predilection for the condition. Treatment consists of chronic anti-inflammatory medication and dietary restriction. Some dogs with severe cases have a poor prognosis.
Necrotizing Meningoencephalitis: An inherited disorder in Maltese dogs of progressive seizures with or without other neurologic signs, resulting in death. CSF reveals pleocytosis and elevated levels of protein. Pathology shows mild to moderate asymmetrical dilation of the lateral ventricles, and focal areas of necrosis and generalized non-suppurative inflammation. Homozygosity of DLA class II genes is associated with the disease in the breed. Unknown mode of inheritance.
White Shaker Dog Syndrome: Affected dogs present between 6 months to 5 years of age, with diffuse, fine, whole body tremor, and can also show nystagmus, menace response abnormalities, proprioceptive deficits, and seizures. CSF usually is abnormal containing a mild lymphocytic pleocytosis. Protein concentration may be normal or mildly increased. Treat with tapering doses of corticosteroid. Unknown mode of inheritance.
Gastrointestinal Mast Cell Tumor: The Maltese breed was overrepresented in a study of mast cell tumors of the gastrointestinal tract.
Testicular Tumors: A study in Taiwan suggests an increased frequency of testicular tumors in intact males in the breed. This occurred with and without concurrent cryptorchidism.
Splenic Masses: In an Australian study, Maltese were overrepresented versus other breeds for masses in the spleen. Histopathological diagnoses included benign and malignant masses.
Atresia Ani (Imperforate Anus): An increased incidence of this congenital condition is reported in the breed, with a frequency of 0.069%, and an odds ratio of 13.39x. Treatment is surgery.
Brachygnathism, Cleft Lip/Plate, Mitral Valve Disease, Oligodontia, Prognathism, Retained Primary Teeth, Sebaceous Adentitis, Tracheal Collapse, and Wry Mouth are reported.
Isolated Case Studies
Exocrine Pancreatic Insufficiency: A 1.8-year-old female Maltese dog was presented because of a history of chronic diarrhea, polyphagia, weight loss, and coprophagia. A definite diagnosis of exocrine pancreatic insufficiency was made based on low serum trypsin-like immunoreactivity activity. The clinical signs disappeared after porcine pancreatic powder supplementation.
Malonic Aciduria: A family of Maltese dogs with malonic aciduria is reported. Affected dogs presented with episodes of seizures and stupor with hypoglycemia, acidosis, and ketonuria. Urinary organic acid assays showed elevated malonic acid without elevation of methylmalonic acid. Treatment with frequent feedings of a low-fat diet high in medium-chain triglycerides resulted in normalization of clinical signs and a resolution of the malonic aciduria.
Gallbladder Aplasia: Two cases of gallbladder aplasia are found in the literature. Affected dogs present with persistent mild hepatopathy and intermittent vomiting of bile. Absence of the gallbladder with malformation of the quadrate lobe of the liver, with histological evidence of bile duct proliferation and portal fibrosis are found.
Urinary Bladder Rhabdomyosarcoma: A two-year-old female Maltese presented with hematuria and pollakiuria. A urinary bladder tumor was diagnosed. Histopathology identified a rhabdomyosarcoma. The dog died of metastatic liver disease 2 months later.
Glycogen Storage Disease Type Ia (GSD Ia): An autosomal recessive storage disease, GSD 1a causes affected puppies to exhibit tremors, weakness, and neurologic signs when hypoglycemic. They have postnatal growth retardation and progressive hepatomegaly. Present in research colonies from a natural mutation.
Oculocutaneous Albinism: A 4-month-old female Maltese dog was evaluated for photophobia and complete absence of pigment resulting in white hair, pink muzzle, eyelids and foot-pads. Ophthalmoscopic examination revealed a yellow tapetal fundus but no pigment in the nontapetal fundus.
Tests of Genotype: none
Tests of Phenotype: Recommend patella evaluation, hip and elbow radiographs, CERF eye examination, thyroid profile including autoantibodies, and cardiac examination.
- Breed name synonyms: Bichon Maltaise, Maltese Terrier (historical).
- Registries: AKC, UKC, CKC, KCGB (Kennel Club of Great Britain), ANKC (Australian National Kennel Club), NKC (National Kennel Club).
- AKC rank (year 2008): 20 (10,056 dogs registered)
- Internet resources: American Maltese Association: americanmaltese.org
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