The tiny Maltese is one of the earliest lapdogs, traceable to the island of Malta off the southern coast of Italy as far back as 3500 B.C., if not earlier. It is thought to be the most ancient of all European toy breeds. Publius, the Roman governor of Malta in the first century A.D., had a beloved Maltese named Issa, who was made famous by the poet Martial:
"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… Lest the last days that she sees light should snatch her from him forever, Publius has had her picture painted."
Many other celebrated authors have reflected on the intelligence and beauty of the Maltese. From at least the time of the ancient Greeks, aristocratic ladies favored tiny pet dogs, which they groomed, fed on delicacies and allowed to sleep on their beds and other furniture. So valuable were these dogs that international trade in them existed even before the time of Christ. The Greeks erected tombs for their Maltese and honored them in art from the 5th century on. Statues of Maltese were found in Egyptian ruins. A faithful friend of the wealthy during the Greek and Roman Empires, the Maltese also became a lapdog of the rich and famous during the British Empire. Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots both owned the diminutive breed, which in 1607 was described as being “not bigger than common ferrets.” In 1792, Maltese were referred to as “about the size of squirrels,” carried by ladies in their bosoms and sleeves. They have been described as “the jewels of women.”
By the middle of the 17th century, the island of Malta was populated primarily by poor shepherds, and the dainty dogs of its past became rare. In 1805, a Knight of Malta purportedly remarked: “There was formerly a breed of dogs in Malta with long silky hair, which were in great demand at the times of the Romans, but have for some years past greatly dwindled, and indeed are become almost extinct.” The breed did not die out entirely. An accurate portrait of a Maltese from 1833 appears in paintings housed in the Royal Library of Malta. While many artifacts and some old writings depict dogs resembling the modern Maltese, many also resemble the Pomeranian and other toy breeds. It seems that meticulous breeding and recordkeeping establishing a pure Maltese breed did not begin until the mid-1800s.
The Maltese steadily rose in popularity throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, gaining a wide following with commoners as companions and show contenders. By the middle of the 19th century, the Maltese was well-established as a popular pet in Britain, and it appeared in the English show ring in 1859. The first Maltese exhibited in America was a white “Maltese Lion Dog” entered at the original Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1877. At the 1879 Westminster show, a colored Maltese was exhibited as a “Maltese Skye Terrier.” The American Kennel Club accepted its first Maltese for registration in 1888. The Maltese Terrier Club of America was founded in 1906; it later changed its name to the National Maltese Club and held its first specialty in New York in 1917. By the 1950s, there were two American breed clubs: the Maltese Club of America (formerly the National Maltese Club) and a newer club, the Maltese Dog Fanciers of America. In 1961, representatives of both clubs met at the Henry Hudson Hotel in New York City to discuss the future of their beloved breed. The result was a single combined club, the American Maltese Association, which remains the breed parent club to this day. The first annual national meeting was held in conjunction with the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in 1963. The club drafted and adopted a revised Maltese breed standard in 1963, which was approved by the AKC that same year. The American Maltese Association officially became a member club of the AKC in 1969.
While beloved as a glamorous companion dog, the little Maltese is tough, feisty and intelligent enough to have earned its reputation as a renowned rat-catcher.
The Maltese dog breed is exceptionally long-lived, with an average life span of 15 years or more. This is higher compared to the median lifespan of most purebred dogs (10 to 13 years), and also higher than most breeds similar in size. Potential hereditary defects and disorders commonly found, but not necessarily found, in the Maltese are as follows:
- Entropion: The inversion, or the turning inward, of all or part of the edge of an eyelid
- Glaucoma: Serious disorder characterized by fluid build-up inside of the eye
- Retinal Detachment: Separation of the inner layers of the retina from its underlying pigmented layers.
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy: Group of degenerative eye disorders that eventually lead to permanent blindness in both eyes
- Open Fontenal
- Granulomatous Meningoencephalomyelitis
- Glycogen Storage Disease
- Cryptorchidism: Cryptorchidism is the physical absence of one or both testicles in the scrotum of a dog
- Cleft Palate: Birth defect caused by incomplete fusing of the two halves of the palate during neonatal development
- Patellar Luxation: Commonly known as a “slipped knee cap,” occurs when the patella is displaced from the joint
- Patent Ductus Arteriosus: Abnormal connections between different chambers of the heart, or between heart vessels
- Portosystemic Shunts
- Pyloric Stenosis
- Reverse Sneezing
- Deafness: Defined as the lack or loss, complete or partial, of the sense of hearing
- Collapsing Trachea
- White Shaker Dog Syndrome
- Dental Problems: Diseases and disorders affecting the dog's mouth