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10 Fancy Facts About the Papillon

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Often depicted as companions of the very rich, these tiny dogs have outsized ears that help them stand out in a crowd. Learn more about this energetic breed and their mysterious beginnings. 


Small spaniels resembling the papillon could be found in Europe starting in the 1200s, but it's unclear where the dog originally hailed from or what its ancestry is. Some believe that the breed originated in China, where a similar-looking dog eventually became the modern day Pekingnese. Others look to the Japanese chin as an influencer of the breed. Some doubt that there's any Asian influence at all, as Europeans managed to shrink down other breeds without the help of these smaller Eastern dogs. Regardless of where it came from, the dog has strong roots in Europe. The French and Belgians refined the breed, giving it a high-domed head and feathered ear fur. 


Papillons were bred as ratters in order to rid homes of pests. The adorable dogs were too small to directly kill a rat like other breeds, so they had to use special methods. Their main strategy was to bait the rat and tease it until it became too exhausted to fight back. Once the rat was too run down to put up a fight, the dog could make its final move. 


Papillon is French for "butterfly." The canines earned their bug-inspired name thanks to their ears, which fan out like butterfly wings. The dogs previously went by other monikers, including the dwarf spaniel and the squirrel spaniel.


The ill-fated Queen of France had many dogs during her short reign, but her favorite was a papillon named Coco. There are rumors that Marie Antoinette actually walked to the guillotine at Place de la Concorde desperately clutching her beloved pet. Other accounts maintain that she gave the dog to the governess of her children, Madame de Tourzel. Regardless, Coco survived the French Revolution and even lived through the Napoleonic era. At the ripe age of 22, the old dog died and was buried in the gardens of the Hôtel de Seignelay—just a short walk from where Coco’s owner was beheaded. A small square headstone still marks where the dog was laid to rest. 


While most papillons sport the signature butterfly ears, others have floppier, dropped ears known as "moth" ears. Originally all dwarf spaniels had these lilted ears, but slowly the fad turned to more erect ears, and the dogs started to be bred for that trait. These droopier-eared dogs are known as phalenes. Despite the different name, they are still papillons and can even make an appearance in the same litter. The American Kennel Club registers both types as the same breed while other clubs (following Fédération Cynologique Internationale standards) rule them as separate breeds entirely. 


Papillons are registered as a toy breed, but don’t expect them to lounge on your lap. These high-energy dogs need a lot of activity to keep them stimulated. Papillons are highly intelligent and get bored if you don’t play with them regularly. To keep them from ruining your house or barking up a storm, try introducing interactive games or agility training. That way they can release pent up energy and won’t make you crazy. 

If you keep them engaged and let them get plenty of exercise, papillons are otherwise low-maintenance dogs. They do fine in both hot and cold weather, and thrive in both homes and apartments. Even during puppy-birth, the dogs generally having no problem whelping healthy litters.


It was France that developed and bred the little dogs, but you can thank Spain and Italy for making them popular. The Bologna region of Italy was especially helpful in the rise of the papillon. Italian breeders would transport the dogs to the court of Louis XIV on the backs of mules. Because they became so popular with French royalty, the dogs could be sold for substantial amounts of money.


Thanks to their natural good looks, papillons were featured in a large number of paintings. Masters like Titian, Goya, Rubens, and Rembrandt have all included the attractive pups in their paintings. The Papillon Club of America diligently collects paintings that feature their favorite dog and catalogs them here


When the actress Lauren Bacall passed away in 2014, she left behind $26.6 million, which was split among her three children—as well as her beloved papillon. The dog, named Sophie, was given a whopping $10,000 in order to maintain the lavish lifestyle she had grown accustomed to. The money is being looked after by Bacall's youngest son, Sam Robards, who is in charge of pampering the dog in Bacall’s absence.


Like most other little dogs, the papillon's size doesn’t hold it back. Often tiny dogs will overcompensate for their small stature and seek attention using other means. Unfortunately, this leads to bad behavior like biting, barking, and bullying dogs twice their size. To combat this aggressive behavior, socialization and early training is key. Just remember that you’re in charge.

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25 Benefits of Adopting a Rescue Dog
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According to the ASPCA, 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year in the United States. Although that number has gone down since 2011 (from 3.9 million) there are still millions of dogs waiting in shelters for a forever home. October is Adopt a Shelter Dog Month; here are 25 benefits of adopting a shelter dog.

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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E
New Smithsonian Exhibit Explains Why Felines Were the Cat's Meow in Ancient Egypt
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Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.406E

From bi-coastal cat cafes to celebrity pets like Lil Bub, felines are currently enjoying a peak moment in popular culture. That’s part of the reason why curators at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery—which will re-open to visitors on Saturday, October 14, following a 3-month closure—decided to dedicate a new exhibition to ancient Egypt’s relationship with the animals.

Divine Felines: Cats of Ancient Egypt” looks at the cultural and religious importance of cats, which the Egyptians appreciated long before YouTube was a thing and #caturday was a hashtag. It's based on a traveling exhibition that began at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City. On view until January 15, 2018, it's one of several exhibits that will kick off the grand reopening of the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler galleries, the conjoined national museums of Asian and Middle Eastern Art.

The Freer has been closed since January 2016 for major renovations, and the Sackler since July 2016 for minor ones. The upgraded institutions will make their public debut on October 14, and be feted by a free two-day festival on the National Mall.

Featuring 80 artworks and relics, ranging from figurines of leonine deities to the tiny coffins of beloved pets, "Divine Felines" even has a cat mummy on loan from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. These objects span from the Middle Kingdom (2008 to 1630 BCE) to the Byzantine period (395 to 642 CE).

An ancient Egyptian metal weight shaped like a cat, dating back to 305 to 30 BCE, on view at the Smithsonian’s Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
Weight in Form of a Cat, 305 to 30 BCE, Bronze, silver, lead
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

The term “cat” is used loosely, as the Egyptians celebrated domestic mousers and fearsome predators alike.

“The Egyptians were close observers of nature, so they were observing cat behaviors,” Antonietta Catanzariti, the exhibition's in-house curator, tells Mental Floss. “They noticed that cats and lions— in general, felines—have aggressive and protective aspects, so they associated those attributes to deities.”

The ancient Egyptians viewed their gods as humans, animals, or mixed forms. Several of these pantheon members were both associated with and depicted as cats, including Bastet, the goddess of motherhood, fertility, and protection; and Sakhmet, the goddess of war and—when appeased—healing. She typically has a lion head, but in some myths she appears as a pacified cat.

A limestone sculptor's model of a walking lion, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Sculptor's Model of a Walking Lion, ca. 664 to 630 BCE, limestone
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 33.190

While Bastet was a nurturer, Sakhmet—whose name means “The Powerful One”—could use her mighty force to either slay or safeguard humanity. These characterizations are typical of the ancient Egyptian worldview, which perceived the universe in dualistic terms. “There’s always a positive and a negative,” Catanzariti explains.

Contrary to popular belief, however, ancient Egyptians did not view cats themselves as gods. “The goddess Sakhmet does have the features as a lion, or in some cases as a cat, but that doesn’t mean that the Egyptians were worshipping cats or lions,” Catanzariti says. Instead, they were simply noting and admiring her feline traits. This practice, to an extent, also extended to royalty. Kings were associated with lions and other large cats, as they were the powerful protectors of ancient Egypt’s borders.

These myriad associations prompted Egyptians to adorn palaces, temples, protective amulets, ceremonial vessels, and accessories with cat images. Depending on their context, these renderings symbolized everything from protection and power to beauty and sexuality. A king’s throne might have a lion-shaped support, for example, whereas a woman’s cosmetics case might be emblazoned with a cat-headed female goddess of motherhood and fertility.

An ancient Egyptian figurine of a standing lion-headed goddess, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Figurine of a Standing Lion-Headed Goddess, 664 to 630 BCE, Faience
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.943E

While cats were linked with heavenly figures and kings, they were also popular domestic pets. Their ability to catch vermin made them an important addition to households, and owners loved and anthropomorphized their pets just like we do today.

Egyptians often named, or nicknamed, their children after animals; Miit (cat) was a popular moniker for girls. It's said that entire households shaved their eyebrows in mourning if a house cat died a natural death. Some also believe that cats received special legal protection. (Not all cats were this lucky, however, as some temples bred kittens specifically to offer their mummified forms to the gods.) If a favorite cat died, the Egyptians would bury them in special decorated coffins, containers, and boxes. King Tutankhamen, for example, had a stone sarcophagus constructed just for his pet feline.

An ancient Egyptian bronze cat head adorned with gold jewelry, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Cat's Head, 30 BCE. to third century CE, bronze, gold
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 36.114

“Divine Felines” breaks down these facts, and more, into five thematic sections, including “Cats and Kings"; “Cats and Gods”; “Cats and Death”; “Cats and Protection”; and “Dogs as Guardians and Hunters.” Yes, there’s also an exhibition section for dog lovers—“a small one,” Catanzariti laughs, that explains why canines were associated with figures like Anubis, the jackal-headed god of mummification and the afterlife.

Did the ancient Egyptians prefer cats to dogs? “I would say that both of them had different roles,” Catanzariti says, as dogs were valued as hunters, scavengers, and guards. “They were appreciated in different ways for their ability to protect or be useful for the Egyptian culture.” In this way, "Divine Felines" is targeted to ailurophiles and canophiliacs alike, even if it's packaged with pointed ears and whiskers.

An ancient Egyptian cat coffin, on display at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery.
Coffin for a Cat, 664 to 332 BCE, or later, Wood, gesso, paint, animal remains
Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.1944Ea-b


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