What Health Problems Are Common in Maltese Dogs?

That tiny little dog isn't a stuffed animal to prop on your bed; he's a real, live Maltese. Known for the long, flowing white coat that makes him look like he's walking on air, the Maltese tends to be a fairly healthy dog. He does have a few inherited health conditions to look for, but you're likely going to spend more effort keeping his coat looking sharp.

maltese dog running
Maltese dog running on a grass field.
credit: Aly Tyler/iStock/Getty Images

Meet the Maltese

The Maltese was bred purely for companionship, so it's no surprise this tiny pup is always eager to be on your lap. His bright, round black eyes and long, silky, white coat are part of his trademark good looks. However, sometimes there's a trade-off when it comes to genetics, including a few potential health concerns. The Maltese is prone to portosystemic shunt, "small dog shaker syndrome" and patellar luxation.

Portosystemic or Liver Shunt

The liver removes toxins from the bloodstream with the help of the portal vein, a large vein that carries blood into the liver for filtering. When an abnormal connection occurs between the portal vein and another vein, the blood bypasses the liver -- or shunts. A liver shunt is usually a birth defect, officially referred to as congenital portosystemic shunt. A Maltese with a liver shunt will have stunted growth and poor muscle development, and may experience seizures and disorientation. Other symptoms are diarrhea, vomiting, and excessive thirst and urination. A complete physical exam, including lab work and imaging, will help the vet confirm diagnosis. Treatment usually focuses on a reduced-protein diet and medication including lactulose and, potentially, antibiotics. Sometimes surgery is preferable, depending on the shunt's location. Long-term prognoses vary; older dogs tend to fare better than younger dogs, and surgery is generally the best chance for longevity.

Shaker Syndrome

Shake, quake, shiver and quiver -- if your Maltese is shivering, it isn't necessarily because he's cold or anxious. He could be suffering from idiopathic cerebellitis, commonly known as shaker syndrome. PetMD notes that dogs with white coats are over-represented with this condition, though a dog with any coat color can develop it. Though the cause of shaker syndrome isn't known, the vet will run tests to ensure nothing else is at the root of your dog's quivering, including lab work and perhaps analysis of spinal fluid. Corticosteroids are the treatment of choice for idiopathic cerebellitis; they reduce inflammation. As shaking subsides, dosage gradually decreases over a few months until they're not necessary. If the symptoms reappear, steroids are reintroduced.

Patellar Luxation

Commonly known as a dislocated kneecap, patellar luxation occurs when the kneecap moves from the groove of the thigh bone. Toy breeds are particularly vulnerable to this common joint abnormality. Happily, it's not a particularly painful condition. When the kneecap slides out of position, the muscles in the hind leg need to relax in order for the kneecap to return to its rightful place. You might notice your Maltese holding up his hind leg for a few minutes when it dislocates, or he may pop it back into place with just a hitch. Look for abnormal hind leg movement or lameness. Trauma or genetics is behind patellar luxation, which is usually confirmed with X-rays, a fluid sample from the joint and a physical exam by the vet. In severe cases, surgery is necessary for treatment.

Fit and Healthy

Other potential health problems with the Maltese include hypothyroidism, glaucoma, dental problems and deafness. If you are going through a breeder to find your perfect little pup, take time to seek out a reputable breeder who will provide verification that your pup's parents have been tested for health defects and are healthy for breeding. As well, your little dog will require plenty of exercise, consistent training and a healthy, balanced diet. Routine veterinary care will keep him in fine form. And don't forget the brush: Your pup will require daily brushing to keep that snowy-white coat properly groomed.