West Highland White Terrier

West Highland White Terrier
John Walton
Written by John Walton

The West Highland White Terrier, commonly called Westie, is a very lively and fun-loving dog, which would make a great family companion. Initially bred in Scotland to hunt vermin, he has a very strong prey drive and would chase small animals, even after generations of being bred as a home dog. He is very attached to his family and loves to spend time with humans, so he quickly became very popular in both the U.S. and U.K.

Breed Characteristics

Health and GroomingAbove Average
All Around FriendlinessHigh
Exercise NeedsHigh

Dog Breed GroupTerrier Dogs
Height:10 inches to 11 inches tall at the shoulder
Weight:13 to 22 pounds
Life Span:12 to 16 years

Due to their active and fun-loving nature, together with their pretty look, Westies gained high popularity ever since the 1960s, and were used in film and publicity. Producers of the Cesar dog food brand use Westies as their image on the food packaging and commercials, as well as the Australian food manufacturer Mars, for the «My Dog» food brand.

These are very intelligent dogs, but very stubborn and independent as well, and full of self-esteem.  Because of this, they would only respond well to positive training, and you will have to remind him of his training from time to time.

The Westie’s intelligence also recommends him as a good therapy dog or obedience, earthdog, tracking or flyball competitions. Some of them were even successful in search-and-rescue teams. The West Highland White Terrier is quite a versatile dog, so you can channel his energy on some of these activities to keep him busy.

This dog can adapt to a wide range of situations or living conditions, from a small condo to a huge manor, and he will gladly stay at home while you are away, if he has enough toys to spend time with. You can also turn on the TV or radio during this time to give him the feeling he’s not alone. He’s not the kind of dog who would develop separation anxiety, but he should stay inside with the family, as the Westie is not an outdoor dog.

Main Highlights
  • The Westie is a very friendly dog towards strangers and most dogs, and responds well to training. At least compared to most Terrier breeds;
  • This dog behaves like a true terrier: he is stubborn and would dig, bark and chase mostly anything. You may curb these behaviors with proper and intense training, but you’ll never get completely rid of them;
  • He will do fine in multi-dog homes, but only if all males are neutered. He may get used to cats, especially if raised next to them, but because of his strong prey drive, a Westie won’t adapt to smaller pets, like rodents or birds;
  • The West Highland White Terrier is a low shedder and he only needs regular brushing to remove dead hair and dirt. Coat stripping will be needed about twice a year unless it’s constantly clipped;
  • Due to his small size and medium exercise requirements, the Westie will do well even in a small house without a yard, or an apartment, but he would still need regular walks or play sessions to keep fit and healthy;
Breed History

Scottish White Terriers seem to have appeared in Scotland by the end of the 16th century, together with brindle and sandy colored siblings, which at the time were considered tougher. Generally speaking, white was considered a color of the weak in those times. Throughout the centuries, white terriers were only considered as a variation of either the Cairn or the Scottish Terrier breeds, as puppies of a single litter could have different colorations.

Another supposed origin of this breed is considered to be in Spain, reaching in the Scottish island of Skye by 1588, when a ship of the Spanish Armada wrecked there, and locals found some white Spanish dogs on board. They were then kept apart from other breeds and preserved as a separate line. At the time, the Scots kept both white and sandy variations of this breed.

Regardless of their true story, the fact is that, as all Terrier breeds, the West Highland White Terrier was also bred for hunting and killing vermin like rats, foxes, badgers and otters destroying the crops around ranches.

By the turn of the 19th century, Colonel Malcolm of Poltalloch decided to only breed white Cairns, after accidentally shooting one of his wheaten-colored ones, mistaken by a fox. He was devastated at the moment and decided he would only breed white specimens to avoid these accidents.

By the time the West Highland White Terrier was officially recognized as a breed by the Kennel Club of England in 1906, he was already called alternative names such as Roseneath Terrier or Poltalloch Terrier.


The West Highland White Terrier is a small breed dog, with males reaching up to 11 inches tall at the shoulder and usually weighing between 15 to 22 pounds. Females are smaller, at only 10 inches at the shoulder, and weigh between 13 to 16 pounds.

Personality and Character

The Westie would surely behave like a Terrier in all aspects: he is very likely to bark at any suspicious sounds, chase small animals or dig in the back yard, regardless if he does it on a barren patch of ground or your beautiful flower garden.

Some of these behaviors may be curbed with intense training, but he will never completely forget them. West  Highland White Terriers are strong minded and may become stubborn if the owner won’t display proper leadership and won’t set himself as the pack leader. They respond well to positive training, with praise and rewards for good behavior, but they will feel sad or angry when getting punished. Being so stubborn, you may have to refresh his training occasionally throughout his life.

Otherwise, this is a very friendly breed, without being a dedicated lapdog. A Westie would bond with his owner and enjoy spending time with his family, as well as with other Scottish Terrier breeds, but some of the would prefer solitude, as this is quite an independent dog.

Health and Potential Problems

The West Highland White Terrier is quite a hardy breed with few serious health issues. However, genetics had left a mark on this breed. You may expect your dog to develop pulmonary fibrosis, as this is the no.1 Westie-specific illness, or mainly a few leg or joint problems as well. Of course, not all dogs would develop any of these illnesses, but you should check your new puppy’s parents for any of the inherited ones.

A serious breeder will always have screening tests available and will be able to tell you the whole medical history of his breeding stock. Ideally, he should also know the origin of the dogs he is breeding, and only breed healthy animals.

  • 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;
  • Cataracts: are usually noticed as the eyes get a cloudy appearance. This is an opacity on the lens of the eye, which makes it difficult for the dog to see. This condition usually appears in old dogs, but sometimes it can be removed surgically to improve his vision;
  • 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;
  • 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;
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis (Westie lung disease): this disease scars the connective tissue of the lungs and the supportive tissue in the air sacks, making the lungs stiff and preventing the oxygen to pass normally into the blood. Many affected dogs won’t show any signs of illness, while others would show rapid breathing, fatigue, “crackling” in the lungs, shortness of breath, dry cough or difficult breathing. Because of poor oxygen supply, this disease may lead to heart failure and other related diseases. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this illness, so it’s critical to prevent it, as screening tests aren’t quite relevant. By prevention we mean limiting exercise, keeping a healthy weight (and losing weight for overweight and obese dogs) or preventing any pulmonary infections. Some cases may be treated by keeping the house cool and using bronchial dilators, but treatment is only effective if the disease is discovered in time. Have your Westie checked up at your vet constantly to identify any early signs of illness.
Care Features

Some Westies like to swim, but they should be closely supervised while doing this, as they may not feel so much at ease in a pool or lake as many other dog breeds.

Being such a small breed, they would do fine in a small home without a yard or an apartment, provided that they are taken out for daily exercise.

As with all breeds, a West Highland White Terrier needs daily exercise to stay healthy and happy, as the breed was developed as a working one. A brisk walk or play session of about 30 minutes should be enough for him, but all Westies would appreciate more play or running.

Feeding Schedule

You can save a lot of money by feeding your dog high-quality food that suits his particular needs. Energetic dogs, need a high-calorie diet, to help them keep up with their activities, but it may not be the case of most Westies. Feeding an adequate diet will prevent them from developing food-related health issues like obesity (which may help develop many health issues in this breed), allergies, hot spots, etc.

The right dry food amount for a West Highland White Terrier is about 1/2 to 1.5 cups of kibble per day, split into two or three smaller portions. Of course, the proper amount for each dog must be determined according to the dog’s age, metabolism and physical activity, as well as the feeding instructions on the food package.

Females that are pregnant in late stages or breastfeeding should be given as much food as they want, to allow for proper development of the puppies and to make sure they have enough milk. Puppy kibble is best for them during this time, as it holds more nutrients than regular adult food.

Coat, Color and Grooming

The modern standard states that only white colored Westies are allowed, any other color being considered a fault. But it was not always like this. Throughout history, white or sandy colored Westies were only considered a variation of the Cairn Terrier, which could also be grey, red, brindle or black.

The West Highland White Terrier has a double coat, protecting him from harsh weather conditions and from the claws or teeth of his opponents while fighting. The Westie’s undercoat is short and dense, while the outer coat is about two inches long.

Coat grooming is quite easy, as this dog is a very low shedder. A regular weekly brush should be enough to remove dirt and dead hair and to make it look tidy. Stripping should be done twice a year for show dogs, but many owners prefer only to trim the coat on the feet and around the eyes and ears. Only bathe this dog when necessary, but the coat would still need a bit of refreshing from time to time, with a damp cloth or a wet wipe.

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 Westie won’t tolerate young children’s behavior like pulling his ears or tail, so he is likely to react. Still, older children who understand how to handle a dog will be accepted as playmates, as they have the same energy as this little dog. Teach kids never to touch a dog while sleeping or eating, and especially to not try to take away his food, no matter how good friends they usually are. Food is food and dogs never bargain about it!

Dogs in this breed will certainly accept other Scottish terrier breed dogs and they are very likely to accept other breeds as well, if properly socialized from a young age. They can even do well in multi-dog homes, as long as all males are neutered. Westie dogs may adjust to living with cats as well, but mostly if they have been raised with them, otherwise cats may be thought of as prey.

Due to the West Highland White Terrier’s strong prey drive, other small pets will always be considered a prey, so it’s not safe keeping them together with rabbits, birds, Guinea pigs or other such pets.

The West Highland White Terrier is an adorable companion, ready to take on any challenge, as hiking with you all day long or just amuse you in the attempt to entertain himself. If you are an independent kind of person, who doesn’t have enough time to cuddle all day, the Westie won’t ask for this, so you may get along pretty well. If, however, you have small children under the age of seven, avoid bringing a Westie home, for safety reasons. Very young children won’t be able to handle him gently enough, so they may get bitten in the end.

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.