With shoe-button eyes framed by a glistening coat of silky white, the Maltese has earned enduring popularity by combining cute with a lively, bright and bold personality. Weighing less than 10 pounds, these charmers are popular with the purse-dog set, and are known for retaining puppy-like attitudes throughout their lives. The Maltese is one of a handful of similar breeds whose job has always been that of "companion." They are specifically designed to love and be loved.

Traits, Personality and Behavior

If you want a smart little dog to run you and your home, then this is your breed. They pack a lot of love into their tiny bodies, and are never happier than when cuddling in their owners' laps. That doesn't mean these dogs don't need exercise and training. Resist the impulse to simply carry them everywhere and pluck them out of trouble, and let your dog be a dog. In particular, the Maltese excels at learning tricks and loves to show off.

While the Maltese's happy, courageous natures make him a wonderful pet for many, this may not be the right dog for families with young children. Maltese are tiny and can easily be injured if play is too rough, or they may snap at a child in self-defense if frightened or hurt.

This is also the wrong breed for someone who wants the look of a show dog with little effort. Those gorgeous creatures floating around the show ring with their gleaming white coats and perfect topknots are the product of endless hours of washing and combing, followed by keeping the coat in wraps for protection. Most pet Maltese are kept clipped short, which means frequent professional grooming. Neglected coats become tangled and matted, which is painful and can lead to serious skin infections.

Those shoe-button eyes may look adorable against the white coat, but that look requires a lot of time spent cleaning away tear stains, which cause a rust discoloration that most people find unsightly even though it's harmless.

Allergies aren't harmless, but those who sneeze and wheeze may find this breed more tolerable, although they are fully capable of causing an allergic reaction in the most sensitive of sufferers. The size of a Maltese helps limit the amount of dog -- and dander -- to trigger allergies, and a coat kept clean and clipped short will help further. But don't believe the hype: There's no such thing as a dog that doesn't cause allergies at all.

The Maltese was developed exclusively as a companion dog, so it needs to live in the house and never outdoors.

Health Issues Common to Maltese

Most small dogs have health problems related to their size. Tiny puppies are fragile, and have problems keeping their blood sugar levels up. As adults, the windpipes of tiny dogs can collapse, which causes difficulty breathing and makes it difficult for the dog to wear any kind of collar. Their small mouths can cause dental problems, and their kneecaps can easily get knocked out of place, a condition known as "luxating patellas." Maltese are 6.5 times more at risk to suffer from luxating patella than all other breeds according to a study published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association in 2002.

Maltese are also at 32 times more risk than all other breeds of a liver defect, present at birth, known as "portosystemic shunt," according to a 2003 report published in JAVMA. Dogs that have this defect require expensive surgery to survive. Like many small white dogs, Maltese can suffer from "white shaker dog syndrome" (idiopathic cerebellitis.) Somewhere between the age of 6 months and 3 years, Maltese with this condition will start trembling uncontrollably, especially when they try to move or get up. Some become unable to walk at all. Dogs with shaker dog syndrome will need to be on medication to control it for the rest of their lives. There's no screening test for the condition.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Maltese before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Patellar Luxation Medium $1,500-$3,000
Portosystemic Shunts Medium $2,000-$6,000
Patent Ductus Arteriosus High $2,500-$5,000
Cryptorchidism High $200-$500
Necrotizing Meningo-Encephalitis High $1,500-$4,000

5 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Maltese Puppy

Don't ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store. You're more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to housetrain puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills. Puppy mills also advertise through Internet sites, so never deal with a breeder who'll ship anywhere to anyone with a credit card.

Find a breeder who is a member in good standing of the American Maltese Association, and who has agreed to abide by the AMA's Code of Ethics, which specifically prohibits selling puppies through retail outlets such as pet stores.

Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in Maltese aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. In addition, Maltese can live 15 years or longer, so an adult dog will still be a part of your family for a long time to come.

Puppy or adult, take your Maltese to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues. Ask specifically about dental care, as most toy breeds suffer from dental problems, as well as tips on dealing with tear staining.

Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with "puppy lemon laws," be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Pet Insurance for Maltese

Pet insurance for Maltese costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Maltese are more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace dog insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Maltese are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Maltese is when he's a healthy puppy. You can't predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can't get when you need it the most.