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What Were Maltese Bred For? Origins & History Explained

Nicole Cosgrove Profile Picture

By Nicole Cosgrove


The Maltese is one of the most easily recognized small breeds. Although the modern Maltese only dates back to the 19th century, the breed can be traced back to the ancient times of the Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans.

Even though the history of the Maltese is long and shrouded in myth and mystery, it seems that these small breeds have always been favored for their company and comforting personalities. Ladies, children, and seniors have especially loved the Maltese for its gentle behavior and companionship.

To this day, the Maltese is one of the most popular breeds around. It is a common show dog for its beautiful appearance, but it also makes a great pet due to its companionship and gentle behavior. Keep reading to learn more about the Maltese and their long history.

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What Were Maltese Bred For?

Because of the gaps in the history of the Maltese, especially in its early history, it’s impossible to say exactly what they were bred for. Assuming that the Melitaie really is a relative of the Maltese, perhaps this breed was bred for companionship purposes—the

modern Maltese certainly was. Because it was a lapdog for nobles, it was simply bred as a pet, not a working dog. Today, the Maltese breed is exclusively bred as a companion and show dog.

Image Credit: Pezibear, Pixabay

Maltese Timeline

To understand the Maltese breed, it’s best to go back in time to understand the history of this toy pup. Unfortunately, the history of the Maltese is mainly speculation. It wasn’t until around the 1800s that we started to have definitive facts about the breed. Regardless, there are beliefs that this dog was loved by the ancients.

Ancient Origins

The Greeks and Romans loved a specific lapdog called the Melitaie. Many ancient writers referenced this dog, including Aristotle. Writers who described the Melitaie dog explained that it originated from the island of Malta, located in the Mediterranean.

During ancient times, this dog was explicitly used as a lapdog by the rich. It seemed that children and ladies especially loved this breed, although men also owned the dog. There are also rumors of poets and governors owning this breed as a lapdog.

Based on these writings, there seems to be some kind of connection between the modern Maltese and the Melitaie. Both have a similar appearance and personality, as well as a supposed lineage in Malta.

Although there are a lot of similarities between these dogs, it’s important to note that the Melitaie is not a confirmed ancestor to the Maltese. All we can go off is historical writings and make assumptions from there.

In other words, the Melitaie may be an ancient ancestor to the Maltese, but we are not certain of this.

Papitese (Maltese & Papillon Mix) Info
Image Credit: Pezibear, Pixabay

Dark Ages

As if the ancient history of the Maltese weren’t mysterious enough, there is a considerable gap in the history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the 1800s. There is very little reported or known about the breed during this time.

One can assume that the Romans brought the Maltese over to England.

This assumption is supported by the fact that kings and queens of England, as we will learn shortly, owned what are considered some of the first Maltese dogs. Little is documented about the Maltese for a little over 1500 years, but we assume the Maltese breed was spreading throughout Europe during this time.


The history of the modern Maltese can definitively be linked to the 1800s. In 1837, there was an official painting commissioned by Queen Victoria. In this painting, the Duchess of Kent’s dog was painted. This dog is very clearly a Maltese.

Later, in 1877, a Maltese was shown at a dog show in New York City. Just 11 years later, the Maltese became a recognized breed by the American Kennel Club.

Image Credit: Standret, Shutterstock


During the 1900s, more registries began to accept the Maltese. By the 1950s, the dog was being shown and officially registered in registries all around the world, including those in Italy, Switzerland, England, and even Australia.

The Maltese became even more prevalent towards the end of the century. As you might know, the 1990s had a boom in toy breeds. The Maltese quickly became one of the first fad dogs during this period because of their beautiful appearance and small bodies.


Today, the Maltese is as popular as ever and is still shown at dog shows. In fact, the Maltese is one of the favorite dogs to compete. It is also a popular pet for its companionship. Elderly individuals especially love this dog breed because it does not require as much exercise as other dogs and loves to curl up in a lap.

person giving tick and flea medicine to a white maltese dog
Image Credit: Tanya Dol, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Even though the Maltese is one of the most beloved dogs today, its history is not very definitive. Perhaps, the Maltese is related to the ancient Melitaie. Regardless of whether or not it is, the first official references to the Maltese did not appear until the 1800s, which makes it difficult to understand why the Maltese was bred in the first place.

Despite this fact, most people believe that the Maltese were bred as companions and lapdogs. After all, the dog is small and has always been a favorite among women, children, and royalty for its companionship. One can hardly imagine this pampered pooch working!

Featured Image Credit: Pezibear, Pixabay

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Authored by

Nicole is a lover of animals of all sizes but is especially fascinated with the feline variety. She’s the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese, and works every day so he can relax in the sunshine or by the fire. She’s always had a cat in her home and has spent countless days with others, observing behaviors and softening up even the grouchiest of the lot. Nicole wants to share her kitty expertise with you so you and your cat ...Read more

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