Cairn Terrier

Stuart Fitzgerald
Dr Stuart Fitzgerald (MVB MANZCVS, University College Dublin)
Photo of adult Cairn Terrier

The brave and fearless Cairn Terrier is the oldest of the working terriers originating from Scotland. Originally bred to hunt rabbits and vermin, Cairns have proven over many decades to make wonderful, vivacious companions that can adapt to a variety of living arrangements. Unlike some of the other terrier breeds, Cairns are excellent company for children, being generally very tolerant of fuss and rough-and-tumble play. They thrive in a family environment, but if left unobserved for long periods are known for destructive behaviours, such as digging and chewing.

The Cairn’s unique wiry coat is designed to withstand the harshest of weather in the Scottish Highlands, but can be ruined by a careless groomer, needing only occasional hand-stripping rather than clipping, which can permanently damage the hair. This charming and energetic breed is intelligent and highly trainable, and would be a welcome addition to almost any family. Be warned however — this little dog comes with a big attitude, and very few Cairns will back down from a fight with another dog, no matter the size of the opponent.

Although famously hardy, Cairn Terriers are prone to a number of genetic and congenital health problems, and puppies from reputable breeders will usually be screened for eye and liver disorders at a minimum. With good health care and a little luck, many Cairns will live to over 15 years of age.

About & History

The Cairn Terrier is first mentioned in written history when James I sent a delegation of ‘Earth dogges’ as a gift to the King of France in the sixteenth century. The breed was greatly refined on the Isle of Skye around two hundred years ago by Captain Martin MacLeod of Drynock. Their primary purpose was control of vermin – hunting rats, mice, rabbits and foxes. However, they were later used for ‘sporting’ pursuits, such as badger and otter hunting, as their innate toughness allowed them to pursue game in spite of any pain or injury they suffered.

The breed is the progenitor of several other Scottish terrier breeds with West Highland White Terriers and Scottish Terriers being derived from Cairns as recently as the early twentieth century. All terriers in Scotland were designated Scotch Terriers until 1873, when two distinct breeds, the Dandie Dinmont Terrier and Skye Terrier, were recognised. The Skye Terrier group included the modern-day Cairn, with ‘Westies’ and ‘Scotties’ merely representing colour variations of the parent breed, before further selective breeding accentuated differences in coat qualities and other features. Confusingly, the modern Skye Terrier is believed to have a separate ancestry to these other Scottish breeds.

The name ‘Cairn’ derives from the stone tombs of the dog’s homeland, which would have been a haven for the vermin the breed was responsible for controlling. They were first registered under this name by the Kennel Club in 1912, and by its American counterpart one year later, in 1913. Despite the many positive features of the breed, they are ranked as only the 72nd most popular pedigree dog by the American Kennel Club.


Cairn Terrier Large Photo

To the uninitiated, the Cairn may look ‘scruffy’ due to the nature of its wiry coat and its sometimes irregular colouration. The coarse outer coat of primary hair conceals a softer, shorter undercoat. The breed comes in a great variety of colours, with the Kennel Club accepting the following:

  • Cream
  • Wheaten
  • Red
  • Grey

‘Nearly black’ is also listed as an acceptable colour, but solid black/white, and black and tan colours are not permissible for showing. Brindling is a common feature in Cairns, giving a ‘salt-and-pepper’ impression. The American Kennel Club, on the other hand, will accept any colour except solid white.

The head is quite broad with a definite ‘stop’ and a strong, not overly long muzzle. Interestingly, one of the characteristics of the breed is its large teeth, which are not unduly noticeable until one lifts the lip to examine them. The ‘eyebrows’ are usually quite bushy and pronounced, and the eyes are hazel in colour, sitting a little back in the skull. Cairns have a distinctively inquisitive expression and always give the impression of waiting for the answer to some unasked question. Adding to this impression are the small, upright ears – always alert to the slightest noise.

The breed is well-muscled, without being heavy, and should have a strong, level back leading to a vigorously active tail, which should be carried horizontally. The breed is moderately strong-boned, and true to its heritage as a hunting dog, the forepaws are usually slightly larger than the hind paws to enable it to dig for prey.

This is a compact terrier, measuring in the range of 28–31 cms (11–12 ins) at the withers, and typically weighing 6–7.5 kgs (14–16 lbs). The American breed standard favours a shorter stature of up to 10 inches at the withers, but the weight range is similar.

Character & Temperament

Most Cairns approach life with unbridled enthusiasm; they are active and energetic dogs. They are true terriers, in that they are fearless, and will think nothing of standing up to larger dogs, or even humans, that threaten them. While they are strong-willed and assertive dogs, their nature is such that aggression to humans is rarely a problem. However, training and socialisation is very important for puppies to prevent any issues later in life. Given the chance, a Cairn will happily become ‘top dog’ within a family – a position that should be reserved for a human.

Cairns live for human companionship, and although they are incredibly resilient and can spend much of their lives outdoors, they really do best when in constant or near-constant contact with their owners. As they shed very little at most times of the year, they are ideally suited to a largely indoor lifestyle, where they can keep a close eye on all that happens within the household. Left unattended for long periods, their hunting instincts are likely to take over, and misdirected scratching, digging, and chewing can result in destruction of furniture or other property.

Being an intelligent breed, they are also known for being quite sensitive, and can get very upset after a scolding. Many will also ‘sulk’ for prolonged periods if denied a walk or treat, and will allow their owners only a view of their rear end until all is forgiven. They may be unreliable with cats or small pets, and should not be left unsupervised with these other animals unless they have become well-acquainted.


Photo of Cairn Terrier puppy

Despite their obvious intelligence, Cairn Terriers are not the easiest dogs to train. Their excitable and high-energy personalities mean that controlling a Cairn while out for a walk can often be a challenge, particularly in the presence of other dogs, which provide yet more excitement and distraction.

Early, basic training in recall and obedience are strongly advised. This is most easily practiced at meal-times, when ‘come’ and ‘sit’ are more likely to be obeyed in return for food, when there are fewer distractions around. Similarly, lead walking and socialisation should be initiated as soon as the puppy is fully vaccinated. Attending a ‘puppy class’ or group training course can be very helpful in overcoming any excess exuberance when socialising.

Learning tricks and games, however, is a different story. Cairns love the interaction and stimulation involved in these pursuits. Hiding toys around the house for them to find will occupy a Cairn for hours, and they will happily learn to dance, ‘speak’, or perform other tricks for an appropriate reward. These frivolous activities, apart from being fun, facilitate important bonding between dog and owner.


The 'average' Cairn Terrier is a robust, healthy dog. However, there are a considerable number of conditions, which although not common, are more prevalent in the Cairn than in most other breeds. These may be developmental or congenital.

Ectopic Cilia

The growth of abnormal eyelashes inside or on the margin of the eyelids. These can cause irritation and discharge in affected eyes, and can be surgically removed.

Atopic Dermatitis

Also known as allergic skin disease, this irritating skin disorder results from immunologic reactions to inhaled allergens such as house dust mite, pollens, or dander from other pets. While this may prove to be a lifelong problem, the condition can usually be very well managed with medications and through a variety of other measures.


Opacities in the lens of eye obstructing vision, cataracts can be congenital, present from birth, or can develop later in life. Depending on their severity, cataracts may require surgery to prevent loss of sight.


Abnormally small eyes may be noticed in puppies, possibly in combination with other eye abnormalities, including cataracts or eyelid deformities. Microphthalmic eyes are non-visual (blind).

Portosystemic Shunts

Liver insufficiency due to an abnormal blood vessel or vessels which bypass the normal circulation of blood from the gut. This is an uncommon congenital condition, with signs such as poor growth and seizures usually evident in puppies before one year of age.


An increase in pressure within one or both eyes, causing pain and loss of sight. Seen in middle-aged and older dogs.

Inguinal Hernias

Inguinal hernias are common in female Cairn puppies. They can usually be observed or felt in the groin as a soft, fatty lump, which can sometimes be ‘reduced’ into the abdomen with gentle pressure. Surgery is required for repair to prevent problems with entrapment of gut.


Autoimmune destruction of the thyroid glands can cause weight gain, lethargy, hair loss, and reproductive issues. Can be treated easily with hormone supplementation.

Generalised Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Progressive loss of vision due to degeneration of the sensory nerve tissues of the eye. This is a devastating condition, which can be seen in dogs as young as 4 years old, and for which there is no effective treatment.

Multifocal Retinal Dysplasia

Abnormal development of the sensory tissues at the back of the eye, causing visual impairment. Can be detected in young pups if examined by a skilled veterinary surgeon. Affected dogs should not be bred.

Lens Luxation

Weakened attachments of the lens of the eye can result in the lens becoming mobile, and moving into either chamber of the eye. This results in loss of visual acuity, and often glaucoma.

Cerebellar Hypoplasia

Underdevelopment of the cerebellum (part of the hindbrain) in some puppies results in incoordination and difficulties in walking. Depending on severity, affected puppies may live relatively normal lives.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy

Also seen in West Highland White Terriers, this condition results in pain and loss of mobility of the jaw, due to excess bone growth. It occurs in puppies between 3 and 8 months of age, and is self-limiting, although bony changes are usually permanent.


Many Cairns demonstrate abnormal protein metabolism, resulting in the excretion of high levels of cysteine (an amino acid) in urine. This may be asymptomatic, but can also cause the formation of cysteine stones, which may cause difficulties in passing urine.

Diabetes Mellitus

Generally caused by autoimmune destruction of insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, this results in a failiure to absorb glucose by the body’s cells. This manifests in middle-aged and older dogs as weight loss, excess thirst, and lethargy. Treatment is by injectable insulin supplementation, which works well in most dogs.


Cairns are prone to several types of Haemophilia, due to genetic deficiencies in the production of clotting factors. Haemophilia results in excess bleeding in response to minor trauma, and may be first noticed in puppies with heavy blood loss after shedding their 'milk teeth'.

von Willebrand’s Disease

Manifesting in much the same way as haemophilia, bleeding tendencies due to VWD are caused by subnormal function of platelets,, the white blood cells responsible for initiating clot formation.

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy

Abnormal development or function of the globoid cells in the white matter of the nervous system can result in loss of nerve function. Affected puppies struggle to feed and may have seizures. There is no treatment.

Lysosomal Storage Disorders

Accumulation of cellular waste in nerve cells, again resulting in abnormal neurologic function. This condition develops over time, and progressive signs of incoordination and tremors are noticed in adult dogs of any age.

Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency

Red blood cells in affected dogs are fragile, due to lack if this enzyme on the cell surface. This can result in haemolytic anaemia, with breakdown of these cells causing low red cell levels in blood. This may manifest as breathlessness and exercise intolerance.

Patellar Luxation

This is another congenital disorder, where the patella (knee cap) in one or both legs slips out of the normal position. This can result in lameness and discomfort, and in some cases may require surgical correction.

Exercise and Activity Levels

Cairns are quite high-energy little dogs, and will benefit from as much exercise as their human companions can handle. A minimum of 45-minutes of lead walking is recommended daily, which can be supplemented with shorter, more vigorous bursts of activity, for example, while playing in a garden. Most Cairn Terriers are impossible to tire out, and will happily continue these games for long periods.


Cairns do not require an enormous effort to groom. Machine clipping of the coat should never be performed, as it can result in permanent damage to the specialised primary hairs, causing a lack of weather-proofing and a ‘woolly’ appearance. Brushing once or twice weekly is sufficient for most dogs, while a professional groomer can ‘hand-strip’ the coat twice a year to remove dead hairs.

In addition, some shaping of the hair around the face and paws is sometimes required to prevent matting; this can be accomplished with scissors rather than clippers. Frequent bathing is not advisable, as it will impair the coat’s natural ability to repel water.

With a strong-willed breed like the Cairn Terrier, it is a very good idea to introduce regular nail-clipping and teeth brushing at a young age, even before the adult teeth have erupted. Puppies are much more amenable to these interventions than are adult dogs, and getting into these good habits at a young age will make basic care of the adult dog far less stressful.

Famous Cairn Terriers

Cairns have frequently appeared in the public eye, with some of the more famous examples listed below:

  • Toto who is the co-star to Dorothy in the 1936 version of The Wizard of Oz
  • Olga, the frequent on-screen companion of Paul O’Grady
  • Fred, belonging to Little Ricky in I Love Lucy
  • Slipper, AKA Mr. Loo, the difficult-to-housetrain Cairn owned by Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson


Cairns have been used to introduce bottle-brush characteristics to many other breeds. Some of the better-known crossbreeds include:

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