Common health problems with Malteses

20 May 2024 - 5 min read

Thanks to the breed's playful, affectionate nature and small size, Malteses are a popular choice with a variety of owners. The breed has a long history as a household pet, with the breed being the go-to aristocratic choice for centuries.

Thankfully, the breed doesn't display too much of its royal heritage. It's fiercely loyal to its owners, and while it needs a lot of attention and grooming, the breed's playful nature makes sure its owners will enjoy its company.

But like any pedigree, Maltese dogs are prone to certain health issues. Below, we discuss the most common health issues in Malteses, how to care for one and the things owners should know.

The most common Maltese health issues

Patellar luxation 


Some Malteses are born with a patella (kneecap) that doesn't sit properly in its groove on the thigh bone. This causes the patella to slide in and out of place during movement.

Common symptoms include a hopping or ‘skipping’ motion during exercise and an increased stiffness in the back legs. After being diagnosed by a vet, dogs with milder symptoms may improve with:

More severe cases need surgery, which involves repairing the tissues around the knee joint to prevent the patella from sliding out of place.

Patent Ductus Arteriosus (PDA)

PDA occurs when a small blood vessel, linking two major arteries as they exit the heart, fails to close before birth. This causes some of the blood leaving the heart to flow in the wrong direction, leading to a build-up of pressure in the left-side of the heart.

The heart’s ability to cope with this extra pressure can be quickly overwhelmed, leading to heart failure at a young age. This is a serious condition that causes lethargy, exercise intolerance and breathing difficulties.

Surgery is the only way to treat it. Unfortunately, there's no effective way to manage PDA medically, and therefore cases in which surgery is not an option will likely result in euthanasia. 

Liver shunts 

Maltese with a pink circle drawn over its body

A genetic issue causes dogs to be born with abnormal blood vessel(s) called shunts. They allow blood to bypass the liver. The issue is that these stop the liver from detoxifying the blood.

Most dogs become symptomatic before a year of age, with owners noticing signs such as a poor body condition and various neurological signs like circling, disorientation and lethargy. Vets can use blood tests, ultrasound scans and portovenography (a scan using X-rays and intravenous dye) to diagnose this condition.

The shunts can only be corrected through surgery, although you can manage symptoms through diet and medication.

Collapsing trachea

This occurs when the trachea (windpipe) folds in on itself during breathing, which triggers a dry ‘honking’ cough. Experts think that affected dogs are born with weaker cartilage around the windpipe, which leads to it collapsing.

Several factors can worsen symptoms, which include excitement, obesity and exposure to airborne irritants. Some dogs will develop severe respiratory symptoms (like wheezing, shortness of breath and blue gums) that require immediate veterinary care.

Your vet may also prescribe certain medications for your dog, which help to prevent coughing or reduce airway inflammation. 

Most dogs will cope well with medical treatment and lifestyle changes, although Malteses with severe disease may require surgery to keep the windpipe open.

Dental disease


Similarly to humans, plaque accumulates on the surface of a dog’s teeth every day. It's why you need to care for your dogs teeth regularly.

Unless it is removed, this plaque will harden to form tartar, allowing bacteria to stick to the tooth and cause gum inflammation. 

This causes pain and often leads to gum recession and tooth loss. Dogs may develop difficulty chewing or have a reduced appetite.

You might also notice your dog has smelly breath or has blood in their saliva. By this stage, tooth brushing alone is ineffective; your vet will need to clean away the tartar and remove any diseased teeth under general anaesthetic.

How to care for a Maltese

A small Maltese puppy with fluffy white fur, standing against a light beige background and looking directly at the camera.

Genetic testing and breeding 

Certain conditions, like liver shunts and PDA, cannot be prevented, but vigilant breeding practices can reduce the chance of passing the disease on. 

Two conditions also believed to have a strong genetic link are collapsing trachea and luxating patella. Whilst surgery is commonly performed for both, especially where symptoms are severe, many dogs can lead happy and healthy lives without it.

But the main way to maintain the health of the breed is through genetic testing and picking a responsible breeder.

Have a good relationship with your vet

Conditions like liver shunts and PDA can be very serious and commonly affect puppies during early development. As such, it's important to be aware of the possible symptoms and seek veterinary advice promptly if your dog develops them.

It's where having a good relationship with a vet and trusting them is essential.

Using a harness 

Dogs with collapsing trachea may benefit from wearing a harness. For example, it can help reduce the pressure on the neck.

It's also helpful to remove certain irritants from your home, like cigarette smoke.

Weight management 

All overweight dogs will benefit from weight loss. With Malteses, it can help reduce the severity of certain conditions. For example, as additional fat is commonly stored around the airways, it puts more strain on the windpipe, making conditions like collapsing trachea worse.

Luxating patella is another condition that weight loss can help manage. Maintaining a healthy weight, engaging in regular exercise, which may include physiotherapy or hydrotherapy, and receiving dietary joint supplements are all steps in protecting your dog’s knee joints and reducing the risk of arthritis in later life. 

Grooming and dental hygiene 

Dental disease is the one condition in this list that is preventable. Tooth brushing is the best preventative strategy, but things can help, like dry food, chewing bones and supplements.

Brushing involves using a soft-bristled toothbrush to gently clean the outer surfaces of the teeth and gum line; you don’t need to worry about getting to the inside tooth edges.

Incorporating just one minute of brushing into your dog’s daily routine could reduce the risk that your dog will suffer dental issues later in life.

Similarly, making grooming a regular habit can help reduce the chances of skin and fur-related illness, plus your Maltese will appreciate it.

How dog insurance can help your Maltese

Maltese insurance can help you prepare for unforeseen health issues.

Dog insurance helps with up to £15,000 vet fee cover, unlimited 24/7 vet calls with FirstVet and a host of other perks