Cairn Terrier

Breed At A Glance


Friendly, alert and spirited

Life Expectancy
12-15 years

Average Height
10-13 inches

Average Weight
14-18 lbs

Coat Color
Red, brindle, blackish, sand and various shades of gray

Coat Length/Texture
Medium length shaggy outer coat with a soft downy undercoat

Shedding Propensity
Little or not at all

General Temperament

Like many terriers, the Cairn is a hardy and spirited little dog. They can maintain a high level of energy for extended periods, and love to have plenty of playtime with family members. Friendly and loyal, the Cairn Terrier revels in attention from their owners. They are affectionate, but don’t necessarily make good lap dogs. This breed is curious and loves mental stimulation, and excels at hunting, tracking, agility, obedience, and terrier trials, and even love performing tricks.

The Cairn Terrier is a great family pet, and is especially fond of children past the toddler stage. They are surprisingly patient and forgiving of mishaps, although children should be taught to not take advantage of this fact. Cairns can get along with other dogs they are raised with, but may have a tendency to chase smaller household pets such as cats or rabbits. They love to bark and make great watchdogs, always announcing the arrival of visitors. They can do well living in an apartment if they are sufficiently exercised, but this breed’s love of vocalization can be disruptive to neighbors.

Cairn Terriers are intelligent and eager to please, so they are easy to train, but can be independent and willful, as well as sensitive to vocal tones. Training should be firm, but never harsh. Including variety and positive reinforcement will help to develop a well-balanced and happy individual. Without proper training and human attention, the Cairn Terrier can become destructive or mischievous, or bark excessively to alleviate the boredom.

They still retain their hunting instincts and should not be allowed off-leash in an unsecured area. They are prone to digging, so always be sure to deeply bury any fenced enclosures the dog will spend any significant time in. The Cairn has a fearless nature and is often described as “a big dog in a little dog’s body.” This bold nature tends to invite aggression from larger dogs. No matter how much of a problem digging might be, never be tempted to tie up a Cairn in the yard, as this will make them significant underdogs in fights with larger dogs that they might unwittingly instigate.

Breed History

The Cairn Terrier found it’s origins in the islands and highlands of Western Scotland around the end of the 16th century. Like most terriers, they were bred to help control rodents and other small pest animals on farms and ranches. Early Cairns could be white, red or other colors. The long-nosed breeds became known as Scottish Terriers and the whites became West Highland White Terriers. Ultimately, the three versions were bred separately, each eventually achieving a breed standard and acceptance into various kennel clubs. The Cairn Terrier was granted official breed recognition by the American Kennel Club in 1913.

Body Structure and Composition

The smallest of the terriers, the Cairn is a strongly-built and active dog. The skull is broad and the muzzle is of medium-length. The small ears are carried erect, and the sunken eyes are set wide apart. The body is well-muscled with a level topline, ending in a tail that is proportionate to the head. The tail is often carried erect but never curled over the back. The feet are well-padded and sometimes turned outwards. The hard and weather-resistent coat is seemingly natural looking, but actually takes quite a bit of grooming (see below).

Medical Information

The most common problem experienced by Cairn Terriers is skin allergies, and can be particularly sensitive to flea or mosquito bites. They are generally considered to be a healthy breed, although they are not completely immune to inheritable diseases. Patellar Luxation (also known as “slipped stifle”) occurs when the kneecap slips out of place and requires surgery.

Some Cairn lines can be prone to eye problems, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and Progressive Retinal Atrophy (also known as “PRA,” a degenerative disease of the retinal that leads to blindness). Thyroid, kidney and bleeding disorders can also affect this breed, although with lower incidence than in many other breeds. Selective breeding practices serve to minimize or eliminate these issues, so be sure to obtain your Cairn from a responsible breeder.

A Cairn’s coat takes a surprising amount of grooming. They must be brushed several times per week to prevent matting, as well as professionally hand-striped twice per year to remove dead hairs by the root (this does not cause the dog any pain, and allows for new hairs to grow). Hair around the eyes and inside the ears should be trimmed regularly. The upside of the Cairn Terrier’s coat is that they shed little to no hair, and are great for allergy sufferers and general household cleanliness.

Anecdotal Information

“Toto” in the original Wizard of Oz film was played by a Cairn Terrier named Terry. The breed has since either been featured or had cameos in many other popular films.

The name “Cairn” comes from the stone piles used to mark Scottish farm borders and graves. These terriers were often given the responsibility of flushing out vermin from these piles.

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