The Coton de Tulear – Ultimate Breed Information Guide

This little white dog may look like your average lap pup, but their unique personalities and even more unique history make them anything but.

Keep reading to see what sets this pint-sized companion dog apart and to find out if the Coton de Tulear would be a good fit for your family.

Peanutche” by Andy Chow / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

General Characteristics of the Coton de Tulear

  • Other names: Royal Dog of Madagascar
  • Height: 9 to 11 inches
  • Weight: 8 to 15 pounds
  • Lifespan: 15 to 19 years
  • Origin: Madagascar
  • Colors: White, white and black, black tricolor, and brown tricolor
  • Activity level: Low to moderate
  • Grooming needs: High
  • Best suited for: Families and attentive owners


This cottony dog is one of the happiest around and their unique ability to adapt to many different lifestyles makes them a great choice for all types of owners. 

The History of the Coton de Tulear

The backstory on this little ball of fluff may as well have been taken straight from a fairy tale. It involves pirates, royalty, shipwrecks, and just a bit of mystery.

The Coton de Tulear hails from the exotic island of Madagascar just off the coast of Africa. This rather large island is home to strange and unique creatures like lemurs and fossa, so it seems fitting that their only national dog should also be a bit unique.

The exact origins of the Coton de Tulear are unclear, but it is thought that Tenerife bichons and terriers common in the Canary Islands were brought to Madagascar by pirates who frequented the port of Tulear and held a base on St. Mary’s Island just off the coast. The first records of these dogs living on the island date as far back as the 16th century.

Why the pirates had these small dogs is up for debate. They may have been used as ratters on the ships or simply kept as companions. Or, most likely, they were stolen along with gold and treasure during attacks on other ships.

During the 1800s, lap dogs were a highly sought after commodity by colonizers in Africa. Maltese and other small canines from Europe were common sights on ships coming to the continent. As the story goes, one boat carrying a number of these dogs wrecked off the coast of Madagascar. The dogs were able to swim ashore and were rumored to have lived feral on the island for sometime before interbreeding with the native dogs.


Whether they arrived on the island after a shipwreck or were brought in by pirates, one thing is for sure, the Cottie has been traveling by boat for ages. 

While this piece of the tale may be more fiction than fact, we do know that the Cottie descends from a mix of Tenerife bichon-type dogs that had been living on the island for some time and other small white dogs originating in Europe.

This mix of genes gave rise to the wavy-coated, intelligent, and affectionate Cottie. The dogs were held in such esteem by the Malagasy locals that they actually passed a law that forbade anyone but royalty from owning one.

In fact, the Malagasy’s possessiveness over the royal dog of Madagascar meant that few outside the island nation ever caught a glimpse of one. That is, until 1973 when a biologist visiting the island brought the first Coton back to the States.

Since their first introduction to the outside world, the Cottie has gained a lot of notoriety and the breed has become more popular. So popular, in fact, that many Cotties sold in Europe and even some in the US have been cross-bred with Bichons, Havanese, and other small breeds to increase their numbers.

While all these dogs are considered Coton de Tulears by breed clubs like the AKC and UKC, breed clubs dedicated to preserving the true Madagascar Cottie have strict rules about outcrossing and detailed genealogy books for all their breeding lines.

Whatever their exact genealogy, today’s cotties all share a few traits in common; they are highly intelligent, incredibly affectionate and patient, and they possess a unique, single-layered coat of cottony hair, unlike any other dog breed’s.

Learn more about the Coton de Tulear by watching this episode of Dogs 101.

The Temperament of the Coton de Tulear

While the Coton de Tulear shares a lot of temperament traits with other small companion breeds, the geographic isolation they experienced makes them unique in many ways.

The Cottie is known for being exceptionally tolerant and sweet even in the face of rough play by well-meaning children. They are uncommonly gentle with a laidback disposition unique among toy breeds.

They tend to be quiet and aren’t frequent barkers. Though, they are famous for the odd sounds they make during play. Some Cotties tend to be more vocal than others with some showing a tendency toward alarm barking while others could care less who approaches the house.

While they prefer hanging out with their family and tend to be calm and loving in the house, they aren’t afraid to get out and explore either. They make good hiking companions and love to clown around in the yard. They are also very fond of water and are oddly good swimmers for their size.


This adorable Cottie will maintain his playful nature and clowny personality well into adulthood. While he might cost more than your average breed, the Cottie is well worth the investment for the owner looking for an all-around gentle and happy companion. 

Cotties are also known for being intelligent and easy to housetrain. Their unique coat does not shed the way most dogs’ do and they produce very little dander, making them a great choice for dog lovers with allergies.

Overall, the Cottie is an easy to please breed that enjoys lounging around the house almost as much as they like exploring the outside world. They are gentle and docile with family and outgoing with strangers.

Health Issues Common to the Coton de Tulear Breed

Years of isolation means the Coton de Tulear is a relatively healthy breed but with a limited gene pool prone to certain diseases if care isn’t taken in selecting breeding pairs.

Here are some of the more common conditions that can affect this generally long-lived and healthy breed.

  • Eye issues
  • Heart issues
  • Spinal disc diseases
  • Liver shunts
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Luxating patellas

The Cottie is one of the longest-lived dog breeds with many individuals living for 19 or more years. This is pretty impressive considering the average lifespan for dogs under 20 pounds is only about 11 years.

As long as you choose your breeder carefully, you are likely to get a very healthy Cottie puppy, since the above issues tend to only affect Cotties at the rate of about 1 in 20 dogs.


While pure white is the most common color for Coton de Tulears, they can also come with black spots or in variations of tricolor, but always with white being the most dominant color.

If you do choose to purchase a purebred Coton de Tulear, you will need to research your breeder carefully. Many Cottie breeders follow the breeding guidelines and standards set down by national dog clubs and these don’t always align with the true historical standard of the breed.

For instance, the AKC only recognizes white Cotties as being correct to breed standard. But Cotons found in Madagascar have long come in a range of colors including white, white with black or lemon markings, tricolor, and honey bear, or brown tricolor. In order to achieve genes for a predominantly white coat, many breeders have utilized crossbreeding with Maltese, Bichons, and other white dogs.

Cotties sold in pet stores are most likely to be the product of these types of crossbreeding and may have very little actual Coton blood in them at all.

Before you choose your breeder, make sure to talk to them about how they screen their breeding dogs, what standard they breed for, and which breed clubs they are associated with. But most importantly, do not choose any breeders who are unwilling to show you where the dogs are whelped or introduce you to the parent dogs.

While this breed is rare enough that finding adult Cotties in need of homes is a tough task, it is not impossible to find Cottie mixes available through local small dog rescues. If you are interested in adopting, check with your local chapter today.

Do Coton de Tulears Do Well With Children and Other Pets?

Most small breed dogs do not make great choices for families with young children since they tend to be more snappy and protective over themselves than larger breeds. But this is one area where the Cottie truly differs from other lapdogs.


While the Cottie is naturally friendly, early socialization with other dogs, pets, and people never hurts and can help build an all-around perfect dog. “Saturday Puppy Photos” by Rex Hammock / CC BY-SA 2.0

These dogs tend to be exceedingly gentle and extremely tolerant of babies and children. They enjoy clowning around and are happy to play a little rough without losing control. They also tend to be very loyal and are said to be incredibly empathetic and aware of their owner’s mood.

Of course, all dogs have individual personalities and how well your Cottie tolerates having their hair pulled or being wrestled will depend on their experiences, how well they were socialized when young, and their individual nature. For this reason, it is imperative that dog-child interactions always be supervised.

While the same can be said about how well Cotties do with other dogs and pets, the vast majority of these dogs do get along well with other furry family members.

A well-socialized Cottie will enjoy playing with other dogs of a similar or slightly larger size. They typically do well in multidog households assuming they can still get all the affection they require. If you do work longer hours or are away more frequently, a second dog can help distract your Cottie in your absence.

As for other pets in the home, the Cottie typically has no prey drive to speak of and will usually get along well with cats and other small animals.

What to Consider Before Bringing Home a Coton de Tulear

Think you have the right home to fit these needs of this unique little cotton ball? Here are a few more things to consider before you bring a Cottie home.


While this little cotton ball is adaptable to many situations, they do have a high requirement for attention and their fluffy coat requires plenty of grooming.

Activity Level

These dogs tend to be good at adjusting their activity level to fit yours. They enjoy snuggling and are happy to entertain themselves by clowning around on the floor while you watch TV. But they can just as easily join you for a long walk or even a hike. But don’t think that you can get a Cottie and leave it to its own devices. These dogs need a lot of attention and do not do well when left alone for long periods.

They can quickly become destructive if their need for activity or attention is not being met and are not a great choice for single owners who work long hours or for busy families who can’t take their pup with them during the day.

Trainability

These little dogs tend to be very intelligent but are also sensitive, so positive training methods work the best. Their empathetic nature means that any frustration you feel during training is likely to inhibit their learning ability. Make sure to keep things fun and light and utilize a lot of pets, praise, and treats.

Because of their intelligence and more active nature, Cotties make great candidates for dog sports like agility and flyball.

Grooming

The unique coat of the Cottie will require more maintenance than the typical long-haired dog. While Cotties are considered hypoallergenic, they do actually shed, it is just that the texture of the hair is just so that any dropped hair gets caught up in the coat rather than falling to the ground. For this reason, these dogs do need to be brushed daily to avoid matting. You should also expect to have to bathe your Cottie frequently to keep that soft, cotton-like coat looking its best.


While the Coton de Tulear’s hair does not need to be cut, it can be trimmed into a puppy cut if matting is too difficult to control. Otherwise, using a hairband to move the dog’s bangs out of their eyes is about as technical as you need to get with their groom. “Coton de Tulear” by Ccho / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Nutrition

The Coton will do well on just about any high-quality commercial diet or complete and balanced home-prepared meal. As with all dogs, it is important to watch their weight and assure they are getting the right portions and enough exercise to maintain a trim physique. This will help avoid additional strain on their joints and help protect against hip and knee problems.

Cost

Because these dogs are rare, you can expect to pay a premium for a purebred puppy. “Companion” Cotties are generally sold for around $2,000 while breeding-quality dogs go for over $3,000.

Overall, this is a healthy breed that does not eat a lot or require much outside of your frequent attention and time for grooming. But they are long-lived so expect to budget for their care well into the future.

10 Fun Facts About the Coton de Tulear

Now that you know what it takes to own a Cottie, here are some fun facts about this breed.

  1. The unique coat of this breed is thought to be the product of a single gene mutation.
  2. While most Cotties are fairly short, there is a tall variant in the breed that typically reaches about 17 inches when fully grown.


The myth that the Coton de Tulear’s ancestors lived feral on the island of Madagascar is likely false given that these dogs have no natural prey drive and the island is filled with capable predators.

  1. French colonists brought these small dogs back to France with them, but they weren’t well known across Europe until well into the 70s.
  2. The breed is still not officially recognized by the Australian or New Zealand Kennel Clubs.
  3. Despite being a very rare breed, they rank 81st out of 195 on the AKC’s popularity list.
  4. The Coton de Tulear appears on the Madagascar postage stamp.
  5. The official languages of Madagascar are Malagasy and French. The name of the breed is French for “Cotton of Tulear,” with Tulear being a large port town on the island.
  6. Cotties are well known for their ability to balance on their hind legs for minutes at a time.
  7. These dogs are a distant relative of the Portuguese Water Dog and likely owe their love of swimming to that breed.
  8. The breed standard dictates that these dogs always have a black nose.

Before You Go

Not sure the unique cotton dog is right for you? Here are some other breeds to consider.