Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terrier
John Walton
Written by John Walton

The Cairn Terrier is one of the smallest working Terrier breeds. This dog was used in Scotland to get rid of the vermin roaming around ranches (mainly foxes and badgers), where small, intelligent dogs were needed to chase and signal those animals’ hideouts for the farmer. Nowadays, the Cairn is mainly a companion dog, but these traits are still found in the breed, as they are the basics of his temperament. He is a very loving and sensible family dog, though still bold and independent.

Breed Characteristics

Health and GroomingAbove Average
All Around FriendlinessHighest
Exercise NeedsHighest

Dog Breed Group:Terrier Dogs
Height:9 inches to 10 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight:13 to 14 pounds
Life Span:12 to 15 years

The Cairns’ intelligence and funny appearance made them suitable for many activities, even acting. Those who had seen «The Wizard of Oz» will certainly remember Toto, played by a female Cairn named Terry. She appeared in several movies prior to acting in this one, and lived to the age of 11.

This independent and intelligent dog will take charge of everything he notices when nobody is in charge, so you must always let him know you are the pack leader and he has to obey you. This is why early obedience training is a must with this stubborn dog. The good news is that he is a quick learner and willing to please if he is sure the human is the leader.

The only thing he won’t ever learn is not to chase smaller pets, as well as Terrier-specific activities, like barking and digging. Try to find him something else to do, as he’ll become sad if you scold him. The best training for this breed is enforcing of good behavior and distracting him from unwanted activities.

The Cairn is a loving family dog and should stay indoors with his humans. Left alone for too long, he may develop separation anxiety and become a house breaker. He loves to play with children, who usually are as energetic as he is, so they will get along very well.

Main Highlights
  • The Cairn Terrier behaves like a true terrier: he digs, barks and chase a lot. You may curb these behaviors with proper and intense training, but you’ll never get completely rid of them;
  • He has an alpha personality, meaning that he will constantly try to challenge your authority in many ways, thanks to his intelligence and curiosity. Always maintain your position as pack leader in front of a Cairn Terrier if you want to control him;
  • Cairn Terriers are very affectionate and active dogs, which would quickly suffer from separation anxiety and become destructive if left alone for too long with nothing to do;
Breed History

The Cairn Terrier began to be bred about 200 years ago, in the Scottish island of Skye, together with the West Highland White Terrier and the Scottish Terrier. The oldest strains of this breed were developed by Captain Martin MacLeod.

Initially, all Terriers bred in this area were classified as Scotch Terriers, but after 1873, the newly implemented system divided them into two categories: Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers.

Cairns were included in the Skye Terriers class, as well as the West Highland White Terrier and the Scottish Terrier, as they are known today. Back in those times, these breeds could only be told apart by their color, so puppies from the same litter could be classified separately. Eventually, a separate club for these Hard-Haired Scotch breeds was formed in 1881, and finally, in 1882, a standard was approved.

Near the turn of the century, breeders began selecting breeding dogs according to color, so different specific breeds developed, like the West Highland White terrier, in 1902. Finally, the Cairn Terrier was designated as a breed in 1912. They got their name from the arranged piles of stones («cairns») marking Scottish memorial sites or burial grounds, where they would squeeze to bark at badgers and foxes until the hunters would come to kill them.

In the United States, the first Cairn Terriers were imported in 1913 by Mrs. Byron Rogers and Mrs. Henry F. Prince, but they kept being interbred with Westland White Terriers in both the U.K. and U.S. until 1917. This is when the American Kennel Club banned the registration of  any such interbred dog, and it was also the year when the Cairn Terrie Club of America was finally registered with the AKC.


The Cairn Terrier is a small breed dog, with males reaching up to 10 inches high at the shoulder and about 14 pounds. Females are slightly smaller, reaching only 9.5 inches high and 13 pounds.

Personality and Character

This little hardy dog is very energetic and intelligent as well. He is a real bundle of joy, and loves to play with children that will keep up with him. He may try to take you over with his strong mind, so you have to display firm leadership to teach him you are the pack leader. The Cairn Terrier is not a suitable breed for meek owners because of this.

Being such an active dog, the Cairn Terrier needs a lot of physical and mental exercise to release all the energy, otherwise he may find something to do that you may not approve of. This includes chewing, digging or dragging things around the house.

Digging is a specific Terrier trait, as well as chasing and barking, but with proper and consistent training, you may curb this behavior. Keep in mind that it would never disappear completely, but it’s still good if it doesn’t happen all the time, especially if you live in a quiet area, where barking can be a problem. Still, he will be a good watch dog and will announce any arriving visitor.

Despite of being an independent dog, he is very attached to his family and loves it when you make him part of your every activity. The Cairn Terrier will join you around the house, or at the front door while greeting a visitor, and will become very sad if you don’t give him some time or, even worse, when you scold him. His great desire to please will make him upset if you are not happy with him.

As any dog, the Cairn Terrier needs early socialization to be able to grow into a nice and calm adult. Introduce him to as many people, pets, places, smells and sounds he may encounter throughout his life, as young puppies are more adaptable than adults and will learn to recognize them faster.

Health and Potential Problems

The Cairn Terrier is usually a healthy breed, living up to 12-17 years of age, though there may be some hereditary health issues affecting some of the individuals. Responsible breeders will submit their dogs to genetic tests in order to track down any of the inherited diseases, and will not breed any ill or vulnerable dogs.

The most common health problems you may encounter in Cairn Terriers are:

  • Ocular Melanosis (also formerly known as pigmentary glaucoma): usually affects Cairns between 7 and 12 years old, and manifests itself by small patches of dark pigmentations developing on the sclera (white area of the eye). These deposits don’t allow fluid to drain out of the anterior chamber, thus leading to increased pressure and pain inside the eye. This condition usually affects both eyes, but can be controlled with medication if diagnosed early enough;
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy: this term is used for a range of eye diseases triggering the gradual decaying of the retina. This will make the dog become night-blind at first, followed by gradual loss of eyesight during the day. Dogs may adapt very well to living with this condition, but it is very important to have them genetically screened for it, to avoid the perpetuation of the gene;
  • Craniomandibular Osteopathy: this disease causes irregular growth of the skull and/or jaw bones in growing puppies. This is usually notable between four and eight months of age, when you may see the puppy’s glands and jaw become swollen and he will have difficulties in opening his mouth. Other symptoms are drooling, occasional atrophy of the chewing muscles, and recurring fever every couple of weeks. This growth usually stops by the time the puppy reaches one year of age, and some lesions may even regress. Though, some dogs keep having permanent jaw deformations and may have difficulty eating throughout their entire lives. Pain can be relieved with anti-inflammatories and pain killers, but some severe cases may require surgical intervention. Its causes are unknown, but it is believed that this condition is inherited;
  • Patellar Luxation (slipped stifles): this is a common problem affecting small breed dogs. This is usually a congenital disorder meaning that the femur, knee cap and tibia are not properly lined up. This may also occur later in life. You may notice that your dog is lame, or skipping and hopping his leg while walking. Mild cases may be aligned manually, but more severe ones may require surgical intervention;
  • Hip Dysplasia: usually affecting larger breeds, hip dysplasia may also appear in smaller ones, deepening with jumping or falling (and we already know the Cairn Terriers are very active dogs). This condition may not be very obvious, so X-ray screening may be necessary to track it. Arthritis may develop as a dog with this condition ages, so keep a close eye on his joints, especially if you know his parents were also affected;
  • Leg-Calve-Perthee Disease: this condition is usually seen in young puppies of about six months of age, and affects the hip joint. The blood supply to the head of the femur is shortened, leading to the disintegration of the bone. It is a painful condition, which in time leads to limping and atrophy of the leg muscle, but usually it can be corrected though surgery;
  • Cryptorchidism: one or both testicles fail to descend into the dog’s scrotum, which should normally happen by the time the puppy reaches two months old. Retained testicles are usually nonfunctional and should be surgically removed, otherwise they may become cancerous;
  • Hypothyroidism: this is a hormonal disorder, caused by the lack of thyroid hormone. Symptoms include obesity, infertility, low energy, mental dullness, coarse fur, or the skin becoming tough and dark. This problem may be kept under control with daily medication, which has to go on throughout the dog’s life;
  • Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (Krabbe’s disease): a degenerative disease of the white matter in the spinal cord and brain. Ill puppies usually don’t live long; they either die early or are euthanized. Nowadays there are screening tests available for this disease;

Older dogs may also suffer from other eye disorders, like cataracts or corneal dystrophy, for which there are currently no screening tests available.

Remember that, although there are many conditions that may affect a Cairn Terrier, this doesn’t mean yours had to have at least one of them. Most Cairns are very healthy towards their entire life, but you must make sure your puppy’s parents and better yet, grandparents had already been tested for any genetic disease they may have. A responsible breeder should always have screening test results available for you to check out.

Care Features

This hardy little fellow is not hard to look after, and will even live happily in an apartment, given his small size. He still needs a lot of exercise, so take him out for about 20-30 minutes of intense play to keep him healthy and happy. Of course, he will enjoy a longer play session, but this is the minimum required.

He will also enjoy ranch life, with so many things to do and places to explore, but be careful not to leave him out in the yard unsupervised. Terriers love to dig, and your Cairn Terrier won’t make the difference between a plain patch of grass and your beautiful flower garden. If you still want to leave him out in the yard (provided that the flower garden is well secured), make sure the yard is well enclosed with a sturdy fence, to avoid the dog chase out any small animals and reach dangerous places where he may get hurt.

Also, don’t let him off leash in unsecured areas for the same reason. If you want him to run and play safely, take him to a secure dog park and allow him to enjoy his off-leash time.

Feeding Schedule

A puppy will have to be fed about three times a day, as he is more energetic and has only a little stomach. A healthy, average adult, will be more than happy with two meals per day. Free feeding is not recommended, as uncontrolled eating may lead to weight increase and even obesity if it is not controlled over time.

An adult Cairn Terrier will usually eat about 1/2 to 1 cup of high quality dog kibble a day, but you may need to adjust this amount according to his age, metabolism and physical activity. If he still leaves some kibble in the bowl after 10 minutes, this means he’s had enough for the moment, so that is the suitable amount for a single serving.

Different dog foods may have different concentrations, so always read the feeding instructions on the package before deciding how much to feed your dog.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The Cairn Terrier has a double coat that comes in many colors: black, grey, red, brindle or sand. Initially, there were also white Cairn Terriers, until they were designated as a separate breed and called West Highland White Terriers. This breed may change coat color radically throughout his life, so it’s very hard to predict the final color of an adult or senior dog in his early life.

The outer coat is wiry, while the shorter, undercoat is really soft.

Coat Grooming is not very difficult, as he only needs one thorough brushing per week and periodic bathing (no more than one in three months, unless really needed). More frequent bathing may result in softening of the outer coat, which may affect a Carin Terrier’s appearance.

Hair needs to be trimmed about two or three times a year mostly to tidy your dog’s look rather than style it. Show dogs’ coat has to be trimmed with a stripping knife, while family dogs’ coats may be trimmed with professional clippers. This may also soften the Cairn’s coarse coat, though.

Teeth should be brushed at least two or three times a week to prevent bacteria ant tartar from accumulating and to avoid gum disease. Trim his nails as needed, usually once or twice per month if your dog doesn’t wear them down naturally. Usually, you can guess the time to trim them when you hear them clicking on the floor as your dog walks by the house.

Children And Other Pets Compatibility

A Cairn Terrier will love playing with children, as he loves to run around with them and also all the nose and excitement that comes along. He will learn to get along with other family pets if properly socialized when young, though he will still chase out any intruding animals on his territory.

Always teach young children how to interact with a dog and don’t leave them play together unattended, to prevent accidental biting or tail and ear pulling, which may irritate the dog. Also, teach them never to touch a dog while he is sleeping or eating, and not to take away his food, no matter how loving he usually is towards the children.

Always take your available time into account when considering bringing home a Cairn Terrier puppy, as he needs to stay with his human, and training will also take a lot of time. Taking him out for a walk will also take a while, so this is no dog for busy people. Otherwise, you will really enjoy this little friend, but certainly not as much as your kids will.

Being such a small dog, there are two great advantages: you can also keep him in a condo or a small apartment, and he won’t eat very much, so looking after him won’t be very expensive. Also, being such a hardy pet, vet bills will most likely be pretty affordable.

About the author
John Walton
John Walton

John Walton lives in Somerville, MA, with his two dogs, two sons, and very understanding mate. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer, a member of the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants, a mentor trainer for the Animal Behavior College, an AKC Certified CGC Evaluator, and the Training Director for the New England Dog Training Club.