The Papillon is a very old breed, with its forerunner dating back to the 16th century when ladies of the royal courts of France, Spain and Italy often purchased the small dogs from traders who carried them around in baskets on their pack mules. We know that the immediate ancestor of the Papillon goes back at least this far because they’re often represented in the paintings of the time.
The original spaniels that were the forerunner of the Papillon actually had drop ears, but then in the 17th century, King Louis XIV’s court developed the breed further, and the large upright ears that give the dog its resemblance to a butterfly (or in French, “papillon”) became this breed’s distinguishing feature and led to the name by which it became best known. Other names, though, were used over the centuries, including Little Squirrel Dog (because of the plumed tail that looks something like that of a squirrel), Dwarf Continental Spaniel, Belgian Toy Spaniel and Epagneul Nain (meaning “dwarf spaniel”).
Since the 17th century, there really hasn’t been much change in the appearance of the Papillon. Mainly the difference is in the color options. Originally, the dogs were solid-colored, but, today, they’re generally white with other colors. There is still a drop-eared variety (the Phalene), but it’s not all that common.
Now, let’s take a look at the Papillon as we know it today.
Papillons are small dogs, usually weighing between 4 and 9 pounds, and standing between 8 and 11 inches at the shoulder.
The Papillon is typically an alert, friendly dog. Of course, temperament depends on various factors, only one of which is heredity. Socialization and training are also very important in forming the personality of the Papillon, as they do tend to be very active and enjoy being in charge.
When choosing a Papillon puppy, you should avoid those that seem to be aggressive or shy. Look for a puppy that is playful and curious, approachable, and easy to handle. You don’t want one that’s huddling off in a corner, or picking fights with his littermates. As is the case with any breed, of course, you should always be able to see the litter and the mother. If you can see the father, that would be even better, but realistically, it’s not always possible since the breeder might not actually own both parents.
Also (and again, this is the case with any breed), you should make it a point to expose your Papillon to all manner of different sights, sounds, people and experiences early on in order to ensure that he grows up to be a well-adjusted dog.
Generally speaking, Papillons are healthy dogs, but you’re never going to find a breed that doesn’t have a propensity for health issues of one type or another. This doesn’t mean that your dog is inevitably going to develop health problems; it just means that it’s something to watch out for. The following are problems that could affect your Papillon.
Hypoglycemia can be a problem with any toy breed, not just the Papillon. It simply means that the dog can be prone to low blood sugar. It’s more prevalent in toy dogs because they lack the fat reserves that work to deliver glucose when they fail to eat regularly, or become stressed. It’s important that you know how to recognize the symptoms, because in its early stages, hypoglycemia is easy to treat. However, if it is not treated, it can be fatal.
Puppies with hypoglycemia will become listless and begin to shiver or tremble. If this happens, place some honey under your dog’s tongue and see your veterinarian right away. If you don’t get immediate treatment, your dog will ultimately collapse, convulse, become comatose and die. Grayish blue gums and tongue can also be a sign of hypoglycemia as well as other health issues, and should always be considered an emergency.
2. Patellar Luxation
This issue, also called “slipped stifles” is another issue that is common to small dogs. It is a problem with the dog’s leg which occurs when the tibia (calf), patella (kneecap) and femur (thigh bone) are not properly aligned. If your dog appears to be hopping or skipping, he could have patellar luxation. The condition is present from birth, but may not show up right away. It causes the bones to rub together, and can cause arthritis. Patellar luxation can be relatively harmless, simply causing periodic lameness, or serious enough to require surgery to allow the dog to walk normally and be free of pain.
3. Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
This is an eye disorder that causes the dog to lose photo receptors in the eye, and can eventually result in blindness. If your vet suspects that your dog has PRA, there are tests that can be done to identify the problem years before it actually becomes an issue.
You should ask your breeder if your puppy’s parents have been certified by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Reputable breeders will have their animals certified annually, and will not breed dogs that test positive for PRA. However, if you already have a Papillon that is showing symptoms of PRA, there’s no real need to panic. Dogs are a lot like people in that their other senses can develop in such a way as to compensate for blindness, so just treat your dog the same way you would a human who is visually impaired. In other words, don’t move the furniture around, and keep an eye out for any hazards that your dog may not see.
4. Collapsed Trachea
It’s not really known what causes the condition, but the effect is that when air is inhaled rapidly, the trachea flattens out and it is difficult for the dog to get air into his lungs. The condition occurs in certain breeds, and can be inherited. If your dog has difficulty breathing, a visit to the vet is in order.
5. Open Fontanel
Papillons are like human babies in that they are born with a soft area on the top of the head. Usually, this soft area will close up, but, sometimes, it won’t close completely. If your Papillon has an open fontanel, you should consider him to be a “special needs” dog and be very careful with him, because even a slight accidental blow to the head could kill him.
With some dog breeds, the list of potential health issues can be much more extensive. The fact that there are so few with the Papillon, and the fact that they can usually be managed, is further proof that the Papillon is a very healthy breed.
As I pointed out in Can Dogs Live Outdoors Full Time?, dogs are pack animals that need companionship, and they’re also vulnerable to the elements. With Papillons, this is especially true. They are, quite simply, house dogs and should never be left outside for long periods of time. They do, however, enjoy vigorous exercise, so, ideally, you should provide them with a fenced-in yard where they can enjoy 20-30 minutes of vigorous exercise 2 or 3 times a day.
Papillons also enjoy walks. For puppies, start out with a 10 or 15 minute walk 2 or 3 times daily, and increase the time gradually. As I’ve already stated, these dogs like to be in charge, so if your Papillon is getting tired, he’ll probably let you know by stopping or sitting.
Papillons are typically easy to house train, but as is the case with most dogs, they require consistency. So take your puppy outdoors when he first wakes up, after grooming or feeding, and before bedtime. When it’s not possible to supervise, the use of a crate is advisable. This is true not just for house training, but also so that your Papillon won’t get into things that could hurt him if you’re not around. It’s also useful in case your dog ever needs to be hospitalized or boarded. Don’t treat the crate like a jail, though. No dog should ever be crated all day long. Papillons are very much “people dogs,” and will become very unhappy, and possibly destructive, if deprived of human companionship.
I always free feed my dogs. I know that this flies in the face of many arguments to the effect that feeding on a schedule is best, and, in fact, it’s one matter on which my vet, Dr. Stephen, and I have agreed to disagree. I do it because I have seen, over and over, that free feeding prevents weight problems. However, if you do choose to feed your Papillon on a schedule, the recommended amount of food for a Papillon puppy is ¼-½ cup of high quality dry food, spread over two meals.
When your Papillon reaches adulthood, the amount of food he’ll need will depend on his size, build, age, activity level and metabolism. Obviously, the more active your dog is, the more food he will need. Be careful not to overfeed, though, because Papillons do have delicate knees and should not be allowed to become overweight.
If you place your hands on your dog’s back, fingers down and thumbs along his spine, you should be able to feel his ribs but not see them. If you have to press down hard to feel his ribs, cut back on the food and make sure he gets more exercise. Of course, if you can see his ribs, he needs more food. If he eats and eats and you can still see his ribs, take him to the vet. It might just be that your dog needs to be wormed, but it’s also possible that his being underweight could be a sign of something more serious.
The Coat and Grooming
The Papillon has a long, flowing coat with no undercoat, and a frill of hair on his chest. His ears have silky, medium-length hair on the inside and a fringe on the outside. His hind legs have long hair on the thighs, sometimes referred to a culottes or breeches. He also carries a plumed, flowing tail arched up over his body.
Although the Papillon was originally solid-colored, today, he is white with patches of any other color. The color is present on the front and back of the ears and continues over the eyes. If your Papillon has a white blaze on his face and nose, then he has what are considered perfect markings for the breed. If his head is a solid color, he won’t be show material, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t still be a fine companion.
Usually, a Papillon’s coat won’t mat up, but you should still comb and brush him a couple of times a week, just to distribute his skin’s natural oils. You’ll also find that Papillons are essentially odor-free, so bathing is at your discretion. Some Papillons actually go through life never needing a bath.
As to other grooming protocols, with the nails, it’s pretty much the same as for any other breed. If you hear your Papillon’s nails clicking when he walks, they need to be trimmed. Where oral care is concerned, we now know much more than our parents or grandparents did, and understand that dogs really should have their teeth brushed in order to prevent dental issues. This is especially true of small breeds, as they can be very prone to gum disease, so brush your Papillon’s teeth at least twice a week – every day is actually better – to keep them clean and free of tartar buildup.
Kids and Other Pets
Papillons are typically very good with children, but anytime you have small kids and small dogs, problems can occur. Many of the things you’ll need to do if you have children would be the same as you would with any other breed: make sure your kids know that they shouldn’t approach the dog when he’s eating, should leave him alone when he’s sleeping, and should never pull on the dog’s tail or ears.
With Papillons, though, there are a few other things to consider. Papillons can be fragile, and if your child is not holding the dog properly, the dog could be injured trying to jump out of the child’s hands. Papillons are also assertive dogs, and if they feel they are being mishandled, they could become snappish. In fact, some breeders will not sell Papillons to families with small children for fear of harm to the dog or to the child if the dog is not handled properly.
Of course, it should go without saying that you should never leave a young child and a dog together unattended.
As to other pets, Papillons generally integrate well into multi-pet households. They get along well with cats (although it’s always better to introduce them at an early age) and will frequently try to dominate larger dogs. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a problem; it’s not all that unusual for small dogs to end up being the “boss.”
The Final Word
Papillons can make great family dogs. They’re also good with the elderly, and adapt well to apartment living. The breed is generally trouble-free, but no matter what kind of dog you’re considering, you’ll have a better experience if you know what you’re getting into.
This has just been an introduction to the Papillon, but I believe it should be sufficient to give you an idea of whether the breed is right for you.