Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Traits & Facts

Last Updated on January 18, 2023 by Becky Roberts

Quick Summary: It’s believed that the Cairn Terrier breed dates back to the 1600s, although the name “Cairn Terrier” was never mentioned until 1887. This dog is a rare American breed, which many people instantly fall in love with. They’re small, adorable, and full of doggy personality – highly intelligent and capable of obedience. The Cairn Terrier is a relatively healthy dog breed with an expected lifespan of 13 to 15 years. However, like many other dog breeds, they can suffer from health issues such as various eye conditions.

The Cairn Terrier has won the hearts of many dog lovers around the globe. Although you might not have heard the name, most people have seen a Cairn Terrier.

Do you remember Toto from Wizard of Oz? That’s right, it’s that little puppy. These pups are adorable, playful, affectionate, and very easy to train (most of them). However, he is not the right companion for everyone. To accommodate their high energy needs, it takes a special type of household.

This breed guide will walk you through the characteristics of this dog to help you determine if he is right for you. Are you ready? Let’s learn all about the Cairn Terrier.

Cairn Terrier Dog

Breed History

The Cairn Terrier is one of many terriers that were born in Scotland’s Highlands. Until the 20th century, Scottish terriers were all lumped together in one group. It is believed that the breed dates back to the 1600s, although the name Cairn Terrier was not mentioned until 1887. Breed fanciers developed strict breeding programs to ensure that all terrier breeds could be kept apart.

The Cairn Terrier, like most Scottish terriers, patrolled game reserves and farms. The word “cairn” is used in his native homelands to describe a pile of stones that marked a border or grave. These were common places for terriers to nest, and the terriers’ smallest terriers would often dig into them and chase the animals away. When working together, they also faced foxes and other large predators.

They were mostly found in the western Highlands. His cousin, the Skye Terrier, was born and raised in particular on the Isle of Skye. You might also hear him called the Shorthaired Skye Terrier. It is unknown when the first Cairns arrived in America. However, the American Kennel Club (AKC) recognized them in 1913.

This breed is still pretty rare in the USA and is currently ranked as the 69th most popular dog breed. The most famous Cairn to date is Toto in MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (although many mistake Toto for a Yorkshire Terrier). Toto was originally named Terry and he was actually a she. Terry starred in 12 other films, and her success was due to her trainability and likeability on set.

Appearance and Size

Cairn Terriers are small-sized dogs that are compact enough to be carried in any purse. Females weigh approximately 13 pounds and measure 9.5 inches from paw to shoulder. And males weigh approximately 14 pounds and measure 10 inches tall. His appearance is typical of a small, but hardy dog. His head is the most elongated and broadest of all terrier breeds.

His eyes stand out, with shaggy eyebrows framing them. His ears, which are small and pointed, are also wide apart. His front feet are larger than his rear feet, which he uses to dig. You must conform to the Cairn Terrier Breed Standard if you wish to have your Cairn show in the confirmation rings. It is quite strict compared to other breed standards, and it hasn’t changed since 1938.

Colors and Coat

Cairn Terriers are covered in weak and wiry double-coated fur which gives them a scruffy appearance. The outer coat is thick and stiff, while the undercoat is shorter and more slender, and close to his body. His head looks wider because the hairs around his face and head are thicker than the rest of his body.

Many sources say that this breed is a hypoallergenic dog. However, he does not appear on AKC’s list for hypoallergenic dogs. He isn’t as allergic to skin irritations as other breeds, such as the Poodle. Allergy sufferers beware! If this is a part of your canine checklist, don’t count on him being able to live in your home.

This puppy enjoys nearly all the colors you can find for a dog. He cannot be white in the show rings. The most requested coat colour is brindle. Then comes black, black brindle and cream, cream brindle. Gray, gray brindle is next. Red, red brindle. Silver, and wheaten are also popular. Cairns are also known for having darker muzzles, ears tips, and tail tips.

Temperament and Mood

The breed is a ratter. This exterminator will be able to catch vermin on the ground as he is highly motivated to catch vermin. He also loves to hunt and dig. He will dig up your precious flowerbeds if he has no outlet. He is a wire and needs stimulation. We’ll discuss this in the exercise section.

This leads us to the next point: he’s not the lapdog that most people think he is. He is a terrier at heart and fun. This Cairn dog is a great choice for those looking for a smaller terrier. He is small but strong, even for his size. In fact, he can play with large dogs and children. This is a big advantage over other small dogs.

He’s a curious, alert, and intelligent canine. This makes him a fantastic watchdog. He will announce your delivery person or upcoming visitors and leave no need to ring the doorbell. Once he’s gotten to know the newbies, however, he’s quite friendly. He will never forget his family and the love they have for him. He is loyal and eager for them to be happy.

Although they might seem tough, Cairn Terriers are sensitive souls that long for the company of their family members. He will cling to you and hates being left alone. He needs someone to keep him company during the day and cuddle him on the couch. He is described by a British breed club as “the best little friend in the world.”

Homing and Socialization

This breed is smaller in stature and can live anywhere. It might sound silly, but he doesn’t care what size home you have. He is a countryman and would be happy to have a yard, but he doesn’t require one. If he does have one, you must make sure it is secured so he cannot escape. We are confident that he will fit through even the smallest of gaps.

He is friendly and willing to live with other dogs as long as they are socialized as puppies. If he is socialized well as a puppy with the cat, he might be able live with them. However, this is not always possible due to his prey drive. He will chase anything and everything. Multi-pet households may not be suitable for Cairn. Multi-canine households will likely be.

His family must be active in order to accommodate his curious and energetic nature. They should also be available for him most of the day. He is happy to live with singletons, married individuals, retired persons, or families with young or old children. He is small but strong enough to handle overexcited children. Responsible adults will supervise all children and dogs, regardless of their breed or experience.

Exercise Requirements and Living Conditions

Cairn Terriers can be much more energetic than people realize. It can be quite shocking not to be prepared for his energy. He needs at least 30 minutes of intense exercise every day. He could still go for up to an hour without blinking an eye. He will become a problem if he doesn’t get enough exercise. He’ll likely start digging in your yard or on your couch.

He is curious and alert and will chase down anything and everything. You must be just as alert as he. If you don’t, he will likely grab your arm at the sight of a daring squirrel. We wouldn’t recommend letting the pup out-leash without a designated area because he is a rattling joy seeker and will run up and down rabbit holes.

His exercise should be varied so he doesn’t go the same route each day. The dog loves to explore new places and smell new scents. He should also be mentally stimulated at home between exercise sessions. If you want your dog to be happy, buy plenty of toys for him.

Training Techniques

The Cairn Terrier, like most terriers, is intelligent and capable of obedience. He can be stubborn and it is impossible to train his high prey drive.

He is an averagely trained dog, with some limitations. first-time dog owners should be ready to take on a little challenge, but not too much. If you want to get the most out of your Cairn, training must be started from day one or he will try to be the boss.

Establish a routine that the entire family can follow. It is important to make training fun. If he doesn’t find something to entertain him, he will look for something else. Positive reinforcement training is the best way to train sensitive Cairns. He’ll run away from you if you make him feel too bad.

Cairn Terrier will likely be motivated by toys or fun objects to chase. Make sure you use these to your advantage. It will be a pleasure to give praise and tasty nibbles. Remember that all dogs are different, so it is important to find out what works for your dog.

Socialization is essential for all dogs, even the Cairn. The optimum window for socialization is 3 to 12 weeks. It is important to find a trusted breeder who will help you start the socialization process. Bring him home and mix him with as many human dogs as possible. You should also expose him to new experiences such as walking on noisy sidewalks, including grooming in his schedule, and welcoming visitors into your home.

Crate training and the “quiet” command are two final training elements for the Cairn. Crate training can help lower your anxiety when you are away from home and to keep him from getting into trouble when you’re not there. This super barky puppy will also benefit from learning the ‘quiet’ command. Otherwise, he’ll bark until the cows return!

Grooming and Maintenance

The Cairn Terrier’s grooming routine is quite simple. To keep his hair from getting tangled, you only need to brush it once a week. You don’t have to brush his coat every day, as it’s not too long and he doesn’t shed as much. You may need to brush him twice a week during shedding season to remove most of his hair, though.

He only requires bathing every three months. Overwashing your Cairn can cause his natural wiry hair to become softer. This isn’t an issue for show dogs but it can affect their natural beauty, which many people love. You can use a gentle shampoo for dogs made with natural ingredients like oatmeal.

Smaller dogs need their teeth cleaned more frequently than larger dogs. Because of the increased risk of developing periodontal disease, this is really important. Doggy-specific toothpaste should be used at least three times a week to clean your dog’s teeth. The rest of grooming is the same for all dogs.

Nutrition and Food

A Cairn Terrier is a smaller dog and will consume between half and one cup of food every day. It’s different for every dog. If your Cairn Terrier is working on farms eradicating vermin for hours, he likely needs a bit more.

Always follow the instructions on the packaging to avoid feeding your dog too much. The breed doesn’t tend to gain weight, however. Still, be sure that he does not exceed his weight expectations. It’s essential to feed your tiny dog small breed kibble. It is also important to feed your dog the appropriate food for his age to ensure that he has all of his nutritional needs met. Dogs with kidney problems often have to be fed a special diet. If you have concerns about your dog’s kidneys or the diet he should be on, speak to your veterinarian immediately.

Health Issues and Lifespan

The Cairn Terrier is a relatively healthy dog breed with an expected lifespan of 13 to 15 years. He is more susceptible to certain health issues than other pedigree dogs.

However, there are some things you can do to keep your son as healthy as possible. Regular health check-ups, adequate exercise, and good nutrition are key to his well-being.

Below, we have listed the most probable health concerns that could affect the Cairn Terrier. Prospective Cairn owners should research all of them. Although it’s not a comprehensive list, it is a good place to start. Healthy litter is possible when responsible breeders screen for health issues.

Eye Problems

The Cairn Terrier, like many other dog breeds, can suffer from a variety of eye conditions. The most common conditions are progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), glaucoma, and cataracts. You should ensure that your puppy has good eyesight and eye health. Responsible breeders must obtain a health clearance from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals.

Heart Disease

The Cairn Terrier is susceptible to several heart conditions, including mitral valve disease. This condition affects small breed dogs, with some exceptions. It involves a defective heart valve. Regular health checks are a good way to check for heart murmurs or other problems.

Patella Luxation

This is a common joint condition that affects smaller breeds. This is a condition that affects the kneecap. It occurs when the kneecap moves around and doesn’t sit properly. This can cause your dog to lose mobility and may be very painful. It’s important to have your dog checked by a veterinarian if he is unable to walk or kicks a lot.

Kidney Aplasia/Dysplasia

This is another condition that affects your kidneys. Aplasia means that the kidneys don’t form properly and cannot function. Dysplasia is a condition where the kidneys develop abnormally, resulting in some but not effective function. These symptoms are similar to portosystemic-shunt.

Portosystemic Shunt

This is a condition that affects the kidneys. This allows blood to bypass the kidneys and essentially causes a buildup of toxic substances. It can lead to death if it is not treated. Surgery is often required. This can lead to excessive thirst and urination, vomiting, head pressing and circling, as well as stumbling.

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy

This is also known as Krabbe’s disease, and it is more prevalent in Cairns and West Highland Terriers than all other breeds. It’s a degenerative condition of white matter in the brain and spinal cord. This is a fatal condition and affected dogs are more likely to die young. It is important to have a DNA test done to determine if the affected dog is a carrier. Trembling and general weakness are the first signs.

The Cairn Terrier as a Family Pet

  • The Cairn Terrier is a smaller pup who fits into most homes.
  • They can adapt to apartment living with adequate exercise.
  • They are terriers by name and nature, meaning he is spunky, curious, and lively.
  • He is a high-energy dog breed, considering how small he is.
  • This breed has tons of physical and mental energy that needs an outlet.
  • Without a proper outlet, he’ll become destructive and naughty.
  • The Cairn Terrier makes a brilliant watchdog.
  • Cairns are always alert and very barky.
  • The ‘quiet’ command will be your go-to instruction!
  • He is sensitive and doesn’t like to be left alone for too long.
  • This means you’ll need to be around for most of the day.
  • He is friendly with strangers once he gets to know them.
  • He is lots of fun and always up for a game of fetch.
  • The Cairn Terrier can live with other dogs and sometimes cats.
  • He is small enough for kids to play with without risking injury but sturdy enough to hold his own.

Breeders and Puppy Costs

The Cairn Terrier is a relatively uncommon dog in the USA. You may need to travel depending on where your home is to find responsible breeders (it’s worth going the extra mile or a few!). If you want a healthy and happy pup, it will pay off in the end. A great place to start your search for a purebred puppy is with the AKC’s Cairn Terrier breeder page.

A good breeder will screen their dogs for any of the health problems mentioned above. These certificates should be requested in writing. They will be able to tell you about the life of a Cairn and will want to learn why you are interested. You can meet the puppies in their natural environment.

The average starting price of a Cairn puppy from a reputable breeder is around $1,000 and up. If you find a Cairn puppy that is less than the listed price, don’t be surprised if it’s too good to be true. Irresponsible breeders charge lower prices for their puppies to attract customers. In return, you will often find a sickly puppy and one that hasn’t been socialized and cared for. These cruel breeders should be avoided at all costs.

You should also consider the extraordinary costs associated with owning a puppy, and not just the initial puppy cost. Many dog owners who are soon-to-be dog owners don’t consider this and end up realizing that they don’t have the money for their pup. Cairns may not be the most expensive dog because they are small, but they still need insurance, medical attention, and food.

Rescues and Shelters

Some families might consider rescuing an adult, puppy, or senior dog. No matter what your reason, it is likely that rescue costs are much less than buying a puppy from a breeder. It’s also a wonderful thing to do.

The Cairn is a very rare breed. Therefore, he is equally rare in rescue shelters. You have two options. First, go to your local shelter to speak with the staff. They will be able to guide you through the adoption process, and may even point you in the right direction for a Cairn that you haven’t met yet.

Alternatively, breed-specific rescues exist, and the Cairn Terrier Club of America lists contact details for Cairn-only rescues state by state.


The Cairn Terrier, a rare American breed, is one that people instantly fall in love with. He is small and adorable but he is full of doggy personality. There is never a dull moment when this dog is around. He is loved by children, dogs, cats, and everyone else. What’s not to like?

Although he is easy to care for, some requirements make him not suitable for all families. His family must spend the majority of their time with him because he is sensitive and needy. He needs a lot of mental stimulation because his brain is filled with crazy ideas and needs an outlet. As a loving family pet, it’s not hard to see why this dog is considered the best friend in the world.

Becky Roberts

Becky Roberts

One of Becky's favourite things to do every morning is to browse the top pet-related forums, looking for issues and questions that people have. She then shortlists the most common ones, and turns them into blog posts for Fuzzy Rescue. She's had over 4 cats and 2 dogs over the past decade, so she does know a thing or 2 about raising/training, and more importantly, loving them. She's the only one on our team that doesn't like coffee, but it seems to us she really doesn't need more energy :). We're very fortunate to have her on board as she does most of the heavy listing for the site, outputting an insane amount of content each month. Read More

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