West Highland White Terrier

Christine Bernsdorf
Dr Christine Bernsdorf (DVM, University of Queensland)
Photo of adult West Highland White Terrier

The West Highland White Terrier, or Westie, is a medium-sized terrier with a distinctive white coat, offset by dark-coloured eyes and a black nose. The Westie originates from Scotland where it was used by landowners to hunt rats, foxes and other vermin.

The Westie is a cheerful, tenacious, and somewhat independent terrier that can be a fun and adorable companion animal and family pet, but potential owners should keep in mind that normal terrier behaviours include digging, chasing cats, and barking. The Westie is one of the most popular of the terrier breeds.

About & History

Scotland is the source of many of the modern terrier breeds, including the West Highland White, Cairn, Skye, Dandie Dinmont, and Scottish (Aberdeen) Terriers. The ancestors of these terrier breeds reportedly inhabited Scotland for many centuries. The terriers were used by Scottish landowners to hunt foxes, badgers, martens, weasels and rodents, because of their small size they could fit into burrows and other small spaces in their pursuit. Some of these land owners refined their terriers by breeding for traits that matched their requirements.

The West Highland White Terrier is attributed to the Clan MacCallum (known more recently as Malcolm), who were located on the west coast of Scotland. One particular man, Edward Donald Malcolm, the 16th Laird of Poltalloch, is said to be the original breeder of the West Highland White. In the 1800s, this gentleman developed his own style of terrier, the Poltalloch Terrier, which is said to be the precursor of the West Highland White. Legend has it that the 16th Laird accidently shot one of his darker coloured terriers when he mistook it for his prey (a fox or a hare). So, the 16th Laird of Poltalloch subsequently bred for a terrier with a lighter coloured coat, so as not to repeat this mistake.

Other white-coated terriers were also bred in this area, including the Roseneath Terrier by the Dukes of Argyll, the Pittenweem Terrier by Dr. Americ Edwin Flaxman, and the white-coloured Aberdeen (Scottish) Terrier from the east coast. It is not known exactly, whether, or how much of a contribution these breeds also made to the ultimate West Highland White breed.

The West Highland White Terrier became established as a breed between 1904-1909, during which time it was re-named from the Poltalloch Terrier to the West Highland White. The Kennel Club of the United Kingdom officially recognised the Westie as a breed in 1907, and by the American Kennel Club in 1908.


West Highland White Terrier Large Photo

The West Highland White is described in the breed standard from The Kennel Club (UK) as a strongly built dog, that is deep in the chest and back ribs, with a level back, and muscular legs. The height at the withers (highest point above the shoulders) is 25-28 cm. The skull is slightly domed, and the head is held at a right angle to the neck.

The dog should have heavy bony ridges above the eyes, with a slight indentation between wide-set eyes. The eye colour should be dark and the nose should be black. The ears are small and erect and terminate in a sharp point. The Westie should have quite large teeth. The tail is 13-15 cm long, strong and preferably straight. The front feet are slightly larger than the back feet. The average weight is between 7-9 kg.

The Westie should have a double coat that is white in colour. The outer coat should be harsh in texture, straight, and approximately 5 cm long. This outer coat is relatively resistant to dirt and water. The undercoat should be soft and dense, offering thermal protection. By the breed standard, the coat should not be soft and fluffy. Puppies may have some pink on the nose and footpads, which turns black as the dogs become older.

Character & Temperament

Westies have been described as cheerful, fun, happy, entertaining, outgoing, tireless, game, courageous, bold, tenacious, self-reliant, smart, loyal, and my favourite – "little Napoleons". This is a feisty dog, which was bred for its hunting instincts, and they will find great delight in chasing the pet cat, or any other small animals in the neighbourhood.

The Westie is adorable, but it is no ‘decoration’ dog. This is a dog that enjoys the outdoors, wants to explore, dig holes, chase things and play. The Westie can be an excellent companion animal and playmate for children, however, there are variations in the personalities of Westies, and some are less tolerant of children than others. The Westie is normally sociable and friendly, but the occasional individual may be aggressive. Westies may be possessive of toys and food. The upbringing and training of a Westie may determine its overall friendliness and tolerance, but there may be an innate level of aggression in some Westies that may not be easy to train out.

The Westie will enjoy a bark, and can make a good guard dog, alerting the owner to any passerby, or person at the door. If you desire a quiet dog, this may not the right breed for you. Westies are social dogs and will not cope well with being left home alone for long periods, and they may develop undesirable traits in their boredom and loneliness, such as digging, barking, chewing and attempts at escape. They may also become withdrawn, or be more prone to health problems.


Photo of West Highland White Terrier puppy

The West Highland White is a smart dog, and it can be trained, however, it is also an independent dog that has its own idea on how things should be, and so it may ignore some of the lessons that are being taught. Owners should accept this as part of the Westie personality, and should always treat the Westie with kindness, and continue to train them with plenty of patience and positive encouragement, such as praise, pats, and treats. Westies may bark, dig holes, and chew, and this may or may not be able to be trained out, so before you consider buying a Westie, consider whether you could tolerate these traits.

Westies enjoy and perform well in a variety of canine sports, including agility, Earthdog trials, fly ball, barn hunt, and others. These sports are great mental and physical stimulation for Westies and provide an opportunity for socialisation. Westies also enjoy chasing after toys, and playing with toys. They have large teeth and a relatively strong jaw, so the toys need to be tough and safe.


The average lifespan of the Westie is between 11-15 years. The Westie is, in general, a hardy and tough dog, but, unfortunately, like many pure breed dogs, can be susceptible to some health problems. One of the reasons for this is that the Westie breed has low genetic diversity (Mellanby et al, 2009), which makes it more prone to genetic diseases. The West Highland White Kennel Clubs are currently working with breeders to improve this situation. Health insurance is strongly recommended for the West Highland White Terrier. Some of the diseases that affect Westies are listed below.

  • Atopic Dermatitis – Skin allergies

  • Hyperplastic Dermatosis (Epidermal Dysplasia) & Malassezia infections – Some Westies that suffer from skin allergies also develop Malassezia (yeast) infections in the skin, and then develop an abnormal skin response called epidermal dysplasia; If left untreated, this combination of problems can result in thickened, hyperpigmented hairless skin
  • Luxating Patella (kneecap)
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Legg-Calvé-Perthes – A degenerative disease of the hip
  • Pulmonary Fibrosis – Causes breathing problems
  • Addison’s Disease – Adrenal gland insufficiency
  • Lymphoma
  • White Shaker Disease – Usually seen in dogs less than 2 years of age; Causes generalised muscle tremors
  • Copper Storage Disease of the Liver
  • Heart Disease – Not common; Congenital (birth) defects are a little more common that acquired disease (i.e. Degenerative Mitral Valve Disease)
  • Sick Sinus Syndrome – Also a heart disease, causing an abnormally slow and irregular heart rhythm
  • Brain Tumour
  • Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (Krabbe Disease) – Incoordination in the hind legs, muscle wasting, head and body tremors, sometimes become blind
  • Craniomandibular Osteopathy – Also known as "Westie Jaw"; Occurs at about 1 year old; Difficulty chewing and swallowing
  • Juvenile Cataract
  • Erythrocyte Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency – May cause anemia, weakness and muscle wasting; A genetic test is available
  • Dry Eye (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca) – The eye does not produce enough tears and the cornea becomes prone to damage, ulceration and infection
  • Abdominal Hernias
  • Pancreatic Enzyme Deficiency – Causes malabsorption of food and weight loss

Exercise and Activity Levels

The West Highland White is an energetic breed of dog that requires a minimum of 30-minutes of exercise per day. The Westie is best suited to having ready access to a garden (or a farm!) but it can adapt to apartment living as long as it gets plenty of opportunity to be outdoors.

The Westie enjoys running, swimming, chasing balls, socialisation, and canine sports. The Westie is very inquisitive and enjoys the opportunity to explore in an off-leash environment, however, because it is an innate hunter, care must be taken to protect any small animals (cats, guinea pigs, squirrels etc.) from the Westie, and to protect the Westie from running out in front of traffic.


The traditional West Highland White has a double coat with a harsh outer coat and a soft dense undercoat. The outer coat will shed fairly regularly, however, much of the dead hair will remain intertwined amongst the remaining coat and requires hand-stripping every 4-6 weeks. This process should not be uncomfortable to the Westie. Hand stripping the dead hair will encourage the new coat to grow. Daily brushing can help minimise the amount of coat that is shed around the house.

The outer coat is relatively dirt resistant, and contains very few oils. Therefore the Westie need not, and should not, require frequent bathing. If the Westie is bathed too often, this will decrease the effectiveness of the outer coat at being dirt and water resistant. The Westie can be professionally groomed 2-3 times per year. The West Highland White Club of England offers excellent grooming advice and options for Westies.

Some Westies have been bred to have a softer coat. This is not the preferred breed standard. These Westies cannot be hand stripped as they do not have the rough outer coat, and any attempt to hand strip will be painful. Clipping is the grooming method of choice for these Westies. The author recommends avoiding purchase of this type of Westie, as they may be more prone to the health issues as discussed above.

If you want a soft and cuddly white dog, consider another breed, like a Bichon Frise, or a Westie cross breed, as listed below. Westies have nails that are strong and fast growing, and if they are not wearing naturally, they will need regular trims. Start training the Westie for this unpleasant task early, and give plenty of rewards.

Famous West Highland White Terriers

Some famous examples of the West Highland White Terrier in popular culture are:

  • Scotch Whiskey brands that have used Westies on their bottle labels: The Arran Malt (1998), Buchanan’s Black & White
  • The movie director, Alfred Hitchcock, owned a Westie, named Sarah
  • Wee Jock was the Westie that accompanied Hamish, in the television series, Hamish Macbeth
  • A Westie was the star character in the movie, The Adventures of Greyfriars Bobby


West Highland Whites have been crossed with different breeds to create some of the following 'designer dogs':

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