5 Things to Know About Papillons

Papillons are small dogs with ears shaped like the wings of a butterfly.

1. Key Characteristics

  • AKC Group: Toy
  • Height: 8–11 inches
  • Weight: 7–10 pounds
  • Life Expectancy: 15–20 years

The papillon is a small dog with an elegant gait. Although papillons look light and dainty, they are active, spunky and amusing dogs. The word “papillon” means “butterfly” in French.

The once-droopy ears of the breed changed have over time into the erect, wing-shaped ears that are familiar today. The breed has also been called the continental toy spaniel, and they were referred to as dwarf spaniels in the 16th and 17th centuries.

The long tail is covered with long hair. The single, straight coat is white with patches of color and a facial mask or markings.

2. Where They Came From

This is one of the oldest dog breeds, with records of existence going back at least 700 years. The dogs were depicted in paintings dating to the 1200s.

Once the ears changed to the fringed butterfly style seen today, the dogs were called papillons. Those with dropped ears are referred to as phalène papillons or are given a separate phalène classification, but both are allowed to compete at dog shows under the papillon breed name.

Mating between papillons and their phalène counterparts is discouraged. That’s because it’s possible for one ear to be erect and the other to be dropped, or for the ears to be distorted with spacing or gaps.

The largest development of the breed occurred in Bologna, Italy. Dogs traveled from there through Spain to reach their new family — usually noblemen — in France. Papillons were brought to the United States in 1907 from Paris. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed in 1915, and the English Kennel Club added it in 1923.

Papillons are companion pets who may also participate in conformation, agility, obedience or as watchdogs.

Papillons are small, active dogs.
Papillons are small, active dogs. By: Sergey Lavrentev (Top: Anna Yakimova)

3. How Friendly Are They?

Papillons are friendly, affectionate, gentle and patient. They are intelligent, are easy to train and can be taught tricks, but they might be difficult to house-train. They have been known to be amusing and animated because they are active indoors.

Although papillons aren’t prone to excessive barking, this may increase in apartment buildings because of the increased noise of multiple neighbors. Papillons are good with cats and children when the dogs are properly socialized, trained and provided regular exercise. A frustrated dog with built-up energy can become aggressive, suffer from separation anxiety or exhibit other negative behaviors.

4. Is This the Right Dog for You?

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[efsiconheading type=”h4″ style=”fi-guide-dog”]Exercise Needs[/efsiconheading]

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LOW: Papillons love the outdoors and are active inside, although they can become protective and noisy in apartments. The dogs are calm with sufficient exercise, but without it they can be aggressive, destructive or unsafe around children. Provide yours with a long daily walk and indoor play every day.

[efsiconheading type=”h4″ style=”fi-paw”]Grooming Needs[/efsiconheading]

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MEDIUM: Shedding is average for this breed. Because they don’t have undercoats, papillons are easy to groom with a daily brushing, and you can bathe your papillon only when necessary. The coat typically doesn’t mat or tangle, but regular brushing is the best way to prevent this.

Keep the nails at a comfortable length, and clean the ears weekly or as often as needed. You’ll need to brush your papillon’s teeth regularly because this breed is prone to tartar buildup.

[efsiconheading type=”h4″ style=”fi-heart”]Health Problems[/efsiconheading]

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MEDIUM: The papillon is a generally healthy breed, but there are a few health concerns to consider:

  • Luxated patella (kneecap problems, generally on the hind legs)
  • Anesthesia sensitivity
  • Fontanel (soft spot or opening on the top of the skull)
  • Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA)

Testing for PRA is available for papillons. The gene mutation for the condition was discovered by researchers at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (PDF). If you plan to obtain a papillon from a breeder, ask if this test has been performed on your potential pet or the parents.


This video shows Habbi the papillon repeatedly outsmarting the blockades to his barrier gate:

5. Where to Adopt One?

Papillons end up in rescues and shelters every day. Check those resources first, and you can start searching for your dog using our adoptable dog search. If you contact breeders, get to know them, inspect their premises for warning signs of a puppy mill and ask about genetic testing for PRA.

Additional Resources

Kristine Lacoste

View posts by Kristine Lacoste
Kristine Lacoste, editor in chief of Petful, is an author, poet and pet lover from Louisiana. She is the author of an award-nominated book, One Unforgettable Journey, and was host of a weekly pet news segment on the National K-9 Academy Radio Show. She was the New Orleans coordinator for Dogs on Deployment, a nonprofit that helps military members and their pets, for 3 years. She is also employed as chief operating officer for a large mental health practice in Louisiana. Kristine has a bachelor’s degree in psychology, a bachelor’s degree in English and a Master of Business Administration degree.

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