What to Know About Papillons

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on May 09, 2022
7 min read

The Papillon is quite simply a beautiful dog. Light, dainty, and graceful-looking, the Papillon dog breed is a crowd favorite among toy breed enthusiasts. They’re a special favorite at dog shows for their long silky coat, elegantly plumed tail, and ability to enthrall audiences with their graceful movements. But this breed has a lot more to offer than just plain good looks. Here’s what you need to know about Papillons if you’re thinking about becoming a parent to one. 

The word "papillon" means "butterfly" in French. The breed is so called because its ears resemble outstretched butterfly wings. While some Papillons have erect ears, others have dropped-down ears, in which case they’re called "Phalene," which is the French word for a moth. Papillons are also called Continental Toy Spaniels.

Acute intelligence and high energy are well-known Papillon traits. This breed also doesn’t do well being left alone. They need to be around their people or other pets. So, adopt a Papillon only if you’re able to give it consistent care and attention.

Papillons have small round heads with nicely defined stops — those are the spaces between the dog’s muzzle and forehead. They have dark, soulful round eyes with black rims. Their tails stand high above the body and are covered by long, straight, fine hair, with extra frill on the chest and ears, behind the legs, and on the tail. Their coats are usually white in color, but patches can appear in many colors, including black, red, fawn, sable, silver, liver, and lemon.

Papillons are small dogs, but they are stronger than they look. They perform well in both sporting activities and show events. They can also make an excellent addition to a family, as they easily adapt to different climates and regional terrains besides being affectionate companion animals.

Papillon sizes vary in terms of height, ranging anywhere from 8 to 11 inches. The breed usually weighs between 5 and 10 pounds, and the average Papillon lifespan is 14 to 16 years.

Papillons don't have an undercoat, so they don't need as much grooming as other breeds with long coats. Brush the coat down with a good dog brush frequently to keep it healthy and great-looking. Remember to brush inside of the hind legs, on the thighs, and behind the ears to prevent fur from getting tangled and knotted or forming clumps.

Bathe your Papillon once every few months or more often if they get dirty and need a helping hand. Papillon nails, including the ones on the dewclaws, can grow very quickly, so you want to trim them regularly. The nail on the dewclaw, which is an inner toe, can curl backward and cut into the skin if not trimmed.

In terms of food, always use high-quality and nutritious meals. If you're not using quality commercial dog food, you can prepare meals at home following your vet's guidelines. This can help ensure your pet is getting nutritionally balanced meals.  

Also, make sure dog food is age-appropriate. Dog food usually comes in three variants — puppy, adult, or senior — depending on the dog's age and stage of life. There is also dog food for all life stages. Make sure your dog always has plenty of fresh and clean water available to drink. 

Like all dogs, Papillons need exercise to stay healthy and keep their minds engaged. Even if your Papillon stays indoors most of the time, keep them engaged with training and exercise. They can get bored easily otherwise. Daily walks and runs are recommended. Also recommended are socialization and obedience training from a young age to keep both their minds and their bodies engaged and prevent destructive behaviors. Papillons love to please their owners, which can make them easier to train.

Papillons don't realize how they stack up against bigger animals — so it's a good idea to keep watch on them to keep them from injuring themselves. 

Dental diseases can be very common in dogs, so brush your dog's teeth daily. Always use dog toothpaste and not a human one. You can also use dental chews and toys that help reduce plaque and tartar formation on your dog's teeth, which can eventually cause gum disease.

Your vet can recommend the best flea and tick prevention products for your Papillon. It’s recommended to administer medication all year long for a type of deadly parasite called heartworm. 

Your doctor can advise you on the vaccination schedule you need to follow for your dog. It's also recommended to take your dog for a general examination every year to prevent health problems and manage any complications.

Papillons usually don’t have major medical concerns when taken care of, but specific Papillon health issues can develop that can be linked to their specific breed.

  • Patellar luxation. Patellar luxation can be partly genetic. It's often seen in small dogs, but the condition is being seen in more large dogs as well. In patellar luxation, the patella, a small bone in the knee, doesn’t line up correctly. Your vet may be able to detect this early on if you go for regular checkups. The symptoms can vary depending on how severe the condition is. In the early stages, you may find your dog limping a few steps. More severe cases may need surgery.
  • Dental problems. Dental problems are common in dogs. Papillons are prone to a specific condition called retained puppy teeth. Their primary teeth don’t fall out when the adult teeth come in. This causes food, hair, and other particles to get trapped between the teeth, leading to dental problems later on. Your vet may ask you to have the puppy teeth removed if they don’t naturally fall out when they’re supposed to.
  • Eye problems. Papillons can be at risk for progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). This is a condition that develops in adults around 3 to 9 years of age. In PRA, the photoreceptor cells that help with vision grow weak over time, eventually causing blindness. In the initial stages, your dog may show signs of night blindness. They may keep bumping into things in dim light conditions or be afraid to go into rooms in the dark. Their eyes can look like they’re reflecting more light, and the pupils can look more enlarged than normal. Your vet will recommend the right treatment after examining your dog and checking its medical history.
  • Allergies. Papillons can have a type of allergy called atopy, which makes their skin itch when they come in contact with pollen, mold, or dust. The itchiness is more prevalent on the feet, the stomach, the folds of the skin, and the ears. The condition usually develops between the ages of 1 and 3 and can continue to worsen after that. You may see your Papillon licking their paws and rubbing their face a lot. They may also get a lot of ear infections. Your vet will be able to suggest effective treatments to help you manage this condition.
  • Portosystemic shunt (PSS). Proteins, nutrients, and toxins taken in by the intestines are drained into the liver through a vein called the portal vein. In PSS, these don’t get to the liver and go back into what’s called systemic circulation. Usually, the condition is congenital, which means it’s present at birth. Sometimes, a dog can develop it because of a liver disease called cirrhosis.

Your vet will usually do a physical exam, review your dog’s medical history, and run tests before diagnosing PSS. Treatment options include special diets and medication. In some cases, your vet may recommend surgery.

  • Collapsing trachea. Collapsing trachea can affect any breed, but it’s more common in small dogs. It’s also more common in older dogs between the ages of 4 and 14. The trachea, also known as the windpipe, is a tube that connects the throat and the lungs. Small circular rings of connective tissue called cartilage help hold the tubular structure in place. Collapsing trachea happens when these rings weaken and start to flatten out, eventually causing the windpipe to collapse.

Collapsing trachea can have a variety of symptoms, but the most common one is a dry, persistent cough that sounds similar to the honk of a goose. The treatment is usually medication, surgery, or both, as advised by your vet. Dogs who are overweight or live in a household of smokers have a higher risk of developing this condition. It can be lifelong and worsen over time, but your vet can recommend interventions to make your dog feel comfortable. 

The Papillon temperament is known for sociability. These dogs need to be around their people or other pets in the house. They can engage in destructive behaviors if left alone or develop separation anxiety. Because of their small size, they can be prone to injury. So, close off sections of the house and remove objects at dog level that could cause injury.

Papillons were originally bred as companion dogs for European nobility. They had devoted admirers among many of the French aristocracies, including the likes of Marie Antoinette and Louis XIV. Many European queens and princesses of the time have been featured in portraits with their beloved Papillons by their side. Such was the dogs' popularity in the royal courts as early as the 1500s.

The breed was the result of crossing other toy breeds with spaniels. This explains why they’re so athletic compared to other pure toy dog breeds. 

Papillons would go through further development in Italy and Spain. The American Kennel Club formally registered the breed in 1915.