The Maltese is a small breed of dog in the toy group. It descends from dogs originating in the Central Mediterranean Area. The breed name and origins are generally understood to derive from the Mediterranean island of Malta; however, the name is sometimes described with reference to the Adriatic island of Mljet, or a defunct Sicilian town called Melita.
This ancient breed has been known by a variety of names throughout the centuries. Originally called the "Canis Melitaeus" in Latin, it has also been known in English as the "ancient dog of Malta," the "Roman Ladies' Dog," the "Maltese Lion Dog." The origin of the common name "Cokie" is unknown, but is believed to originate in the mid 1960's on the East Coast and spread in popular use. This breed has been referred falsely as the "Bichon", as that name refers to the family and not the breed of the dog. The Kennel Club settled on the name "Maltese" for the breed in the 19th century.
The Maltese is thought to have been descended from a Spitz type dog found among the Swiss Lake dwellers and was selectively bred to obtain its small size. There is also some evidence that the breed originated in Asia and is related to the Tibetan Terrier; however, the exact origin is unknown. The dogs probably made their way to Europe through the Middle East with the migration of nomadic tribes. Some writers believe these proto-Maltese were used for rodent control before the appearance of the breed gained paramount importance.
The oldest record of this breed was found on a Greek amphora found in the Etruscan town of Vulci, in which a Maltese-like dog is portrayed along with the word Μελιταιε (Melitaie). Archaeologists date this ancient Athenian product to the decades around 500 BC. References to the dog can also be found in Ancient Greek and Roman literature.
Aristotle was the first to mention its name Melitaei Catelli, when he compares the dog to a Mustelidae, around 370 BC. The first written document (supported by Stephanus of Byzantium) describing the small Canis Melitaeus was given by the Greek writer Callimachus, around 350 BC. Pliny suggests the dog as having taken its name from the island of Adriatic island Méléda; however, Strabo, in the early first century AD, identifies the breed as originating from the Mediterranean island of Malta, and writes that they were favored by noble women.
During the first century, the Roman poet Martial wrote descriptive verses to a small white dog named Issa owned by his friend Publius. It is commonly thought that Issa was a Maltese dog, and various sources link Martial's Publius with the Roman Governor Publius of Malta, though others do not identify him.
John Caius, physician to Queen Elizabeth I, also claimed that Callimachus was referring to the island of Melita "in the Sicilian strait" (Malta). This claim is often repeated, especially by English writers. The dog's links to Malta are mentioned in the writings of Abbé Jean Quintin d'Autun, Secretary to the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, in his work of 1536, Insulae Melitae Descriptio.
Around the 17th and 18th centuries, some breeders decided to "improve" the breed, by making it smaller still. Linnaeus wrote in 1792 that these dogs were about the size of a squirrel. The breed nearly disappeared and was crossbred with other small dogs such as Poodles and miniature Spaniels. In the early 19th century there were as many as nine different breeds of Maltese dog.
Parti-colour and solid colour dogs were accepted in the show ring from 1902 until 1913 in England, and as late as 1950 in Victoria, Australia. However, white Maltese were required to be pure white. Coloured Maltese could be obtained from the south of France.
Adult Maltese range from roughly 5 to 12 lb (2.3 to 5.4 kg), though breed standards, as a whole, call for weights between 4-7 lbs. There are variations depending on which standard is being used. Many, like the American Kennel Club, call for a weight that is ideally less than 7 lbs. They stand normally 7-12 inches.
Maltese are bred to be cuddly companion dogs, and thrive on love and attention. They are extremely lively and playful, and even as a Maltese ages, his or her energy level and playful demeanor remain fairly constant. Some Maltese may occasionally be snappish with smaller children and should be supervised when playing, although socializing them at a young age will reduce this habit. They also adore humans, and prefer to stay near them. Basically, Maltese is a breed that is cuddly, playful, and very kind and loving. The Maltese is very active within a house, and, preferring enclosed spaces, does very well with small yards. For this reason, the breed also fares well in apartments and townhouses, and is a prized pet of urban dwellers. Maltese also suffer from separation anxiety, so potential owners should be cognizant of this behavior.
An Australia-wide (not including Tasmania) research project carried out in conjunction with RSPCA found owners likely to dump their Maltese terriers, citing the tendency of Maltese to bark constantly. This breed is Australia's most dumped dog. In addition, figures released in 2010 by the Korean National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service show that some 1,208 Maltese were abandoned between January and August 2010, making it the most abandoned breed in Seoul, Korea. Though, many people mistreat them and abandoned Maltese in Australia and Seoul.
Maltese have no undercoat, and have little to no shedding if cared for properly. Like their relatives Poodles and Bichon Frisé, they are considered to be largely hypoallergenic and many people who are allergic to dogs may not be allergic to the Maltese (See list of Hypoallergenic dog breeds). Daily cleaning is required to prevent the risk of tear-staining.
Regular grooming is also required to prevent the coats of non-shedding dogs from matting. Many owners will keep their Maltese clipped in a "puppy cut," a 1 - 2" all over trim that makes the dog resemble a puppy. Some owners, especially those who show Maltese in the sport of conformation, prefer to wrap the long fur to keep it from matting and breaking off, and then to show the dog with the hair unwrapped combed out to its full length.
Dark staining in the hair around the eyes, "tear staining," can be a problem in this breed, and is mostly a function of how much the individual dog's eyes water and the size of the tear ducts. Tear stain can be readily removed if a fine-toothed metal comb, moistened with lukewarm water, is carefully drawn through the snout hair just below the eyes. This maintenance activity must be performed every two or three days, as a layer of sticky film is quick to redevelop. If the face is kept dry and cleaned daily, the staining can be minimized. Many veterinarians recommend avoiding foods treated with food coloring, and serving distilled water to reduce tear staining. There are also a few products on the market, for preventing tear stains. Also, with the Maltese, you need to watch out for hypoglycemia and dental problems.
Maltese are susceptible to "reverse sneezing," which sounds like a honking, snorting, or gagging sound and results often from overexcitement, play, allergies, or upon waking up. It is not life threatening.
It is ranked 59th in Stanley Coren's The Intelligence of Dogs.
Maltese are really cute dogs. For more cute animals, click here.