Cairn Terrier

Bounding out of the highlands comes the Cairn Terrier, a descendent one of Scotland’s oldest known line of working terriers dating to the 1600s. He was originally bred to rid the land of vermin, mostly rodents but also larger prey such as otters and foxes.

Three present-day Scottish terriers — the Scottish, the West Highland White, and the Cairn — all were descended from an established breed called the Scotch Terrier, which in 1873 became two distinct terrier breeds, the Dandie Dinmont Terrier and the Skye Terriers. These terriers came from the same stock in the Scottish highlands but ultimately developed as two different breeds. Later, the Scottish, West Highland White, and Cairn terriers all descended from the same stock and originally were differentiated only by color.

Cairn Terrier image

Fun fact: Most Cairn terriers are left-pawed. Research has shown that this trait correlates to a strong sense of smell — a major advantage in locating prey.


The dog we now know as the Cairn Terrier was originally called a Short-haired Skye Terrier when entered into The Kennel Club competition in the U.K. in 1909. Breeders of standard Skye Terriers objected, and the name Cairn Terrier, alluding to the stone piles along the moors where the dog chases his prey, was accepted as a compromise.

The Cairn Terrier gained AKC recognition in 1913, although at this time many breeders in both the U.S. and U.K. were crossing Cairn Terriers with West Highland White Terriers. In 1917, the AKC barred any Cairn of mixed heritage as demonstrated by a white coat. The British standard followed in 1923, when it was rewritten to prohibit all-white dogs.

Fun fact: A Cairn Terrier portrayed Dorothy’s “little dog,” Toto, in the classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939).


Male Cairn Terriers should stand 10 inches and weigh about 14 pounds. Females are only slightly smaller, at 9 inches tall and 13 pounds.

The Cairn has a wiry topcoat that gives him a shaggy appearance. Coat colors can be red, brindle, black, tan and gray. He has a double coat that is rough on the surface and velvety soft underneath.

Cairns should have small, pointed ears that suggest alertness.  


Cairns are inquisitive, loyal and courageous. They are loyal family dogs, but should not be placed in homes with small children, as they lack the patience to be pulled at or grabbed, and may bite. If you fancy a Cairn, wait until your children are old enough to interpret dog body language and can understand what not to do to the dog.

Though he hails from the vastness of the Scottish highlands, the Cairn can be equally happy in an apartment, a farm or a single-family suburban home. He does not require an inordinate amount of exercise and will be content with just a single short daily walk and an occasional excursion to a dog park. A Cairn should always be on a leash when in an unsecured environment, as the sight of a small animal will set him off on a chase from which he may never return.

Terriers have a reputation for stubbornness, and the Cairn is no exception. He will need training before he comes to accept you as pack leader. Do not rely on strong discipline as a training method, as your Cairn will respond simply by ignoring you. As his handler, you must be consistent and patient, and you must bring treats, as Cairns respond best to positive reinforcement.

Cairns also bark, sometimes to excess. Their bark is usually provoked by a noise or the approach of another animal or a human being. If your Cairn is an apartment dog, stay on good terms with your neighbors and proactively ask if your dog’s barking is bothersome, then look for a training-based solution. If you are in the process of moving into an apartment with your Cairn, look for one with heavy firewalls and/or good soundproofing between units.

Finally, be aware that Cairns are very possessive about their food and toys, and they are not afraid to take on dogs four times their size over these issues. If you are thinking about introducing a Cairn into your family and you own one or more other dogs, it’s a good idea to have everyone meet in a neutral place to ensure that all can get along.  


Cairns are a mostly healthy breed, despite the list of observed health problems below, and they generally live 12 to 17 years. Some of the conditions they can be prone to are hereditary, and can include:

  • Atopy, or the tendency to develop allergies and allergic reactions;
  • Cataracts;
  • Corneal dystrophy, a disorder that can cause vision problems;
  • Craniomandibular osteopathy, which causes an enlarged or “lion’s” jaw;
  • Entropion, in which a portion of the eyelid turns inward, causing pain to the eye surface;
  • Hip dysplasia;
  • Hypothyroidism;
  • Krabbe disease, a degenerative disorder affecting the nervous system;
  • Legg-Calve Perthes disease, a hip disorder;
  • Luxating patella, in which the kneecap becomes dislocated;
  • Ocular melanosis, a congenital pigmentary lesion;
  • Portosystemic shunt, also known as a liver shunt because it causes the liver to bypass the body’s circulatory system;
  • Progressive retinal atrophy;
  • Soft-tissue sarcoma; and
  • Von Willebrand disease, a blood-clotting disorder.


For the show ring, the Cairn’s coat needs to be stripped.  The stripping procedure is somewhat uncomfortable for the dog, so if you don’t want to witness it or learn the technique, hire a professional groomer, who likely can strip your dog’s coat without causing excessive pain.

Cairns who are not shown need trimming from time to time as well as weekly brushing to present a neat appearance. The brushing removes loose and dead hair as well as some debris. They should be bathed only a few times a year or as needed, because overwashing has a detrimental effect on the texture of the dog’s coat.


Cairns are popular dogs, and rescue groups are available across the U.S. If you feel you need guidance, contact the Cairn Terrier Club of America (, whose website includes links to contact information for trusted rescue groups and breeders.


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