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What Were Maltese Bred For? History & Breed Info

Written by: Lindsey Lawson

Last Updated on June 3, 2024 by Dogster Team


What Were Maltese Bred For? History & Breed Info

The Maltese is a very popular toy breed that has won the affection of many. These small, silky, white companions have wonderful personalities and make a great choice for allergy sufferers, being one of the few dog breeds considered to be low-shedding and easy on allergy sufferers.

Dogs have a long history with humans and each breed has its own story. The Maltese were bred for exactly what they are used for today: companionship. So, it is no wonder they are so good at their job! Here we will take a close look at this loving little breed and how they got their start.

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Earliest History of the Maltese

One thing is for certain: The Maltese is an ancient breed that has been around the Mediterranean for thousands of years. Their origin is somewhat of a mystery based on the educated assumption of historians.

The breed most likely originated somewhere in Asia, but some even theorize it may have been somewhere in the Swiss Alps. The breed was eventually transported to Malta, hence the name. They are believed to have been brought to the island, which sits off the coast of Italy by the Phoenicians that came and colonized the area.

Before the rise of Greece, the Phoenicians ruled over the Mediterranean and sailed far and wide for trade purposes. Some say they may have traveled with the breed for rodent control on the ships, but on the Isle of Malta, these dogs were bred specifically as companions. They came in a variety of colors before eventually being an all-white breed.

maltese dog in meadow
Image Credit: TaniaVdB, Pixabay

Ancient Greece

The Maltese has been recorded in Ancient Greece upon the rise of the Greek Empire. The breed was revered for beauty and companionship. Famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle documented praise of a small lap dog around 370 B.C. It is theorized that he was referencing the Maltese dog. The breed was mentioned by many ancient poets and historians and even pictured on Greek vases dated back to 500 B.C. and many other works of art.

Ancient Egypt

Representations of the Maltese breed were uncovered in Fayum, Egypt in the form of hieroglyphics dated between 600-300 B.C. The Maltese were worshiped by ancient Egyptians that believed them to be healers that brought good health by their presence alone.

Ancient Rome

In ancient Rome, the Maltese was a fashion statement and status symbol among Roman aristocrats. The breed was referred to as the” Roman Ladies Dog” and is considered by some to be the first “fad” dog in history. One of the most famous Roman legends involving the Maltese was the story of Saint Paul, the apostle from early Christianity. It is said that Paul was shipwrecked in Malta, where he ended up healing the governor, Pulibus, who then gifted Paul with a Maltese.

Young maltese dog in a meadow
Image Credit: Dora Zett, Shutterstock

Maltese in the 1500s

It is speculated that the Maltese made their way around the world by trade. The breed made its way into Europe in the 1500s where its popularity continued to soar.

Maltese were labeled as royalty in England and were treated as such. They arrived in England during the reign of King Henry VIII. Only the wealthiest people could afford to own a Maltese and they maintained their reputation as a status symbol far beyond ancient Rome.

In the following centuries, it was believed the Maltese were selectively bred and slightly changed in size. They went from having a variety of colors to ending up as solid white dogs.

Maltese in the 19th and 20th Century

19th Century

Maltese managed to keep their reign as status symbols for centuries. The beloved breed was still considered a symbol of wealth and success in the 1800s. Named Maltese Terriers at the time, they became one of the first breeds to be presented in dog shows.

The breed made its way to America during the late 1800s as the Maltese Lion Dog. The Maltese Lion Dog was even featured at the first Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in New York City in the year 1877. The breed received recognition as the Maltese from the American Kennel Club in 1888.

20th Century

Though an officially recognized breed by the American Kennel Club and having its place in competitive dog shows, the Maltese was still a rare breed that did not grow in popularity as a pet in America until its numbers began to rise around the 1950s.

By the 1990s, the Maltese popularity in the United States began to take hold. Over the decades leading up to the 90s, breeders began focusing on the breed and more and more Maltese came to be. With their beautiful, silky white coats, loving nature, and ability to entertain with their lively antics, the Maltese became one of the top 15 dog breeds in the United States during the 1990s.

maltese dog walking with owner at the park
Image Credit: artellliii72, Pixabay

Present Day Maltese

The sweet-tempered but feisty little Maltese has held onto their popularity all the way to the present day. The breed sheds little and generally does not aggravate allergies, making it an ideal choice of dog breed for those that suffer from dog allergies.

The breed does exhibit small-dog syndrome and has a flair for not only being the center of attention but the boss of everyone around. They don’t take too well to strangers and will require some early training so they can understand the pecking order of the household so that undesirable behaviors are prevented.

Maltese do have some higher maintenance grooming requirements, which is common with long coats. As with any breed, it is highly recommended to purchase from a reputable breeder that does the proper health testing, as the breed is predisposed to some genetic health conditions.

This loving and playful little breed has made its stamp in history and is showing no signs of slowing down. To top it off, they still look and act like the little status symbols they were once known as.

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Final Thoughts

The Maltese is a beloved lapdog in households all over the world. They were bred for companionship and they certainly excel at it. Their history may be up for debate among historians, but they are an ancient breed with an extensive history, nonetheless. From hundreds of years B.C. to modern-day, these lovely little dogs have certainly been able to capture the hearts of human companions from the very beginning.

Why Is My Maltese Licking So Much? 14 Likely Reasons

Featured Image Credit: monster_code, Shutterstock

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