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Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Information: Facts, Traits, Pictures & More

Thinking of adopting a Cairn Terrier but aren't sure if it's the right dog breed for you? In this dog breed information guide, you'll learn everything you need to know about this curious canine. You'll learn about their temperament, exercise needs, food needs, puppy costs, and more!

Emma Braby Picture

Last Updated: July 19, 2021 | 15 min read

Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is a spunky little pup who has won the heart of many dog lovers over the world. You might not have heard of the name, but most of us have seen a Cairn Terrier, even if you didn’t realize! Remember Toto in Wizard of Oz? Yep, that’s this little pup.

These pups are totally adorable, fun, affectionate, and trainable (most of the time!) But, he is not the perfect sidekick for everyone! It takes a special kind of household to accommodate their high energy requirements.

Here in this breed guide, we will take you through all of this breed’s characteristics to help you discover whether he is the right pup for you and your lifestyle. Let’s start learning about all things Cairn Terrier.

Breed Overview
    • weight iconWeight13-14 Pounds
    • height iconHeight9.5-10 Inches
    • lifespan iconLifespan13-15 Years
    • color iconColorsBlack, Brindle, Cream, Gray, Red, Silver, Wheaten
  • Child Friendliness
  • Canine Friendliness
  • Training Difficulty
  • Grooming Upkeep
  • Breed Health
  • Exercise Needs
  • Puppy Costs

History

Wheaten Dog on an Autumn Day
Cairn Terriers are rare in the US but are more popular in their homeland of Scotland.

The Cairn Terrier is one of many terriers born in the Scottish 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. After this time, breed fanciers devised strict breeding programs ensuring that all terrier breeds were kept separate.

Like most other Scottish terriers, the Cairn Terrier patrolled farms and game reserves. In his homelands, the word ‘cairn’ describes a pile of stones that marked a grave or a boundary. Rodents often nested here, and being one of the smallest of the terriers, they would dig into the cairns and chase out the critters. They also took on foxes, otters, and other larger predators when working in a pack.

They were mainly found in the western Highlands. Particularly in the Isle of Skye, his cousin, the Skye Terrier, was born and bred. This is why you might hear some people refer to him by his old name, the Short-haired Skye Terrier. It is not known when the first Cairns came over to 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. Many people mistake Toto for a Yorkshire Terrier. Toto’s real name was Terry, and he was actually a she. Terry starred in 12 other films, and her success was down to her trainability and likeability on set.

Temperament

Small Black Dog With Tongue Out
These pups are spunky little dogs with lots of personality.

The breed is, first and foremost, a ratter. You might not employ this go-to-ground exterminator to catch vermin, but he will retain this instinct. Meaning that he has a high prey drive which will be impossible to totally train out of him. It also means he loves to dig and chase things. As long as he has an outlet, he’s unlikely to dig up your prized flowerbeds. But be warned, he is a live wire that needs plenty of stimulation which we’ll talk about in the exercise section.

This also leads us to the next point – he is not the lapdog most people assume he is. He is a terrier by nature and heart and is fun and cheeky. Those looking for a smaller terrier will find a bestie in this Cairn canine for sure! And despite his small size, he is as tough as old boots. Meaning he can hold his own when playing with larger dogs or children. This is a huge appeal of his compared to other delicate small doggos.

He is a curious and alert canine, which makes him a fantastic watchdog. He’ll announce the arrival of the delivery person or your upcoming visitors, leaving no need for a doorbell. Thankfully, he is quite a friendly pup once he has sussed out the newbies. However, nothing will rival the love he has for his family. He is loyal and eager to please them (most of the time).

Cairn Terriers might be tough, but deep down, they are sensitive souls who crave the company of their loved ones. He hates to be left alone and will pine for you. So he ideally needs a family who can offer company for most of the day and spoil him with cuddling on the couch. A British breed club describes him as the “best little pal in the world.”

Size & Appearance

Small Wiry Dog From the Side
A small frame and wiry fur are characteristics that make this breed different from others.

Cairn Terriers are small-sized dogs small enough to fit into 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 overall appearance is that of a small but hardy working dog. He is often described as foxy-looking and has the shortest and widest head of any terrier breed.

His eyes are set wide apart, framed by shaggy eyebrows and his ears are small and pointed, also set wide apart. His front paws are often larger than his rear paws, which he’ll put to good use when he digs. If you want to show your Cairn in the conformation ring, he’ll have to abide by the Cairn Terrier breed standard. It is quite strict compared to other breed standards, and it hasn’t changed since 1938.

Coat & Colors

Black Dog With Tongue Out
This breed comes in a range of different colors.

Cairn Terriers have a harsh and wiry double coat giving him a scruffy appearance. The outer coat is profuse and stiff to the touch, and the undercoat is short, soft, and lies close to his body. The hair around his head and face are more plentiful than the rest of his body, making his head look even wider than it already is.

Many sources say that this breed is a hypoallergenic dog. However, he does not appear on the AKC’s list of hypoallergenic dogs. And although he doesn’t shed a lot, he isn’t the best choice for allergy sufferers compared to other breeds like the Poodle. So, allergy sufferers, be warned! Do not count on him being suitable for your home if this is part of your specific canine checklist.

This pup enjoys almost all of the colors available that you can find in a canine. The only color that he cannot be is white in the show ring. His most popular coat color is brindle. That’s followed by black, black brindle, cream, cream brindle, gray, gray brindle, red, red brindle, silver, and wheaten. Most Cairns will also have a darker muzzle, ear tips, and tail tip.

Exercise Requirements

Tiny Puppy Running in Grass
These spirited creatures need at least 30 minutes of intense exercise each day.

Cairn Terriers are much more energetic than most people think. And if you’re not prepared for his energy, it can come as quite a shock! He needs at least 30 minutes of intense exercise every day. Still, he could easily go for an hour without batting an eyelid. If he isn’t exercised adequately, he will become problematic and naughty. And he’ll probably start by digging up your yard or through your sofa.

He is inquisitive and alert, and that, combined with his high prey drive, means that he will chase anything and everything in sight. This means that you also need to be as alert as he is. Otherwise, he’ll probably take your arm off at the sight of a dashing squirrel! We wouldn’t advise letting this pup off-leash in an uncontained area. Because he will run in front of cars and down rabbit holes in the pursuit of ratting happiness.

His exercise should be varied so that he doesn’t take the same route every day. This dog likes to sniff new smells and explore new places. For the same reason, he needs to be mentally stimulated back at home in between exercise sessions. Invest in plenty of dog toys for him to play with if you want to keep him away from your favorite sneaker collection.

Living Conditions

Small Black Dog in Snow
The purse-sized pets can settle into just about any home.

This breed’s smaller stature means that he can live anywhere. And it might sound cheesy, but as long as he is with you, he couldn’t really care less what size home you have. As a country gent, he would appreciate having access to a yard, but he doesn’t need one. If he is lucky enough to have one, it must be secured so that he cannot escape. And trust us when we say he can fit through the tiniest of gaps!

He is a friendly pup who is happy to live with other dogs, just as long as he is socialized well as a pup. He might be able to live with a cat if he is raised with it as a pup. But this is not always guaranteed due to his high prey drive. And when it comes to anything else, he will not be able to help himself but chase it. So multi-pet households might not be suitable for the Cairn. Multi-canine homes probably will be.

His family needs to be relatively active to meet his energetic and curious nature and be home with him for most of the day. He will happily live with singletons, couples, retired individuals, or families with young or old children. Although he is small, he is sturdy enough to withstand overexcitable children. With that being said, responsible adults will always supervise kiddos and doggos no matter the breed or child experience.

Training

Profile of Small Dog
These pups often have a stubborn streak, but overall they are intelligent and trainable.

Like most terriers, the Cairn Terrier is an intelligent dog who is more than capable of being obedient. But he can be a little bit stubborn, and there’s no chance of training his high prey drive out of him. So, he is an overall averagely trainable dog with some canine caveats. This means that first-time dog owners need to be ready for a little bit of a challenge, but thankfully not too much.

Training needs to start from day one if you want to get the best from your Cairn. He needs to know who is boss, or he’ll try to become the boss. Establish a routine and get the whole family on board with the same command words and rules. Training needs to be entertaining. Otherwise, he’ll be off looking for something more interesting to do.

Positive reinforcement training is the only way to train the sensitive Cairn because he’ll skulk away if you’re too harsh. The Cairn Terrier is likely to be motivated by toys and fun objects to chase, so be sure to use these to your advantage. Praise and yummy nibbles will go down a treat too. But remember, all dogs are unique, so it’s important to figure out what works with your dog.

Socialization is important for all dogs, and that includes the Cairn. The optimum window for socialization is 3 to 12 weeks. So it’s essential to work with a reliable breeder who will begin the process. When you bring him home, be sure to mix him with as many dogs and humans as you possibly can. And expose him to as many new experiences as possible such as walking on loud sidewalks, his soon-to-be grooming schedule, and accepting visitors into his home.

Two final important training aspects for the Cairn are crate training and the ‘quiet’ command. Crate training will help to lower his anxiety when you have to leave him home alone. And to keep him out of mischief while you aren’t there. And teaching him the ‘quiet’ command will be beneficial for this super barky pup. Otherwise, he’ll be barking until the cows come home!

Health

Wheaten Dog Laying Down
As a small breed, they have a long lifespan compared to other breeds on average.

The Cairn Terrier is a relatively healthy dog breed that enjoys an expected lifespan of 13 to 15 years. Like other pedigree breeds, he is prone to certain health conditions more than others due to genetic inheritance.

Nonetheless, there are things that you can do to keep him as healthy as possible. Keeping up to date with regular health checks, giving him adequate exercise, and feeding him the best nutrition that you can afford goes a long way to keeping him healthy.

We have listed the most likely health concerns to affect the Cairn Terrier, so any prospective Cairn owners need to research them all. It’s not an exhaustive list, but it is a great place to start. Working with a responsible breeder who screens for health concerns will increase the chances of healthy litter.

Eye Conditions

Like many dog breeds, the Cairn Terrier suffers a wide variety of eye conditions. The most common are progressive retinal atrophy, glaucoma, and cataracts. Be sure to monitor the health of his eyes and eyesight. All puppies from responsible breeders should come with a health clearance from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA).

Cardiac Conditions

The Cairn Terrier is at risk of several heart conditions, particularly mitral valve disease. It mainly affects small dog breeds with a few exceptions, and it concerns a faulty heart valve. Heart murmurs and other issues are usually picked up at regular health checks, so it’s important to keep up to date with these.

Patella Luxation

This is a joint condition that mainly affects smaller breeds. It concerns the kneecap, and it occurs when the kneecap doesn’t sit correctly and floats in and out of position. It can prevent normal mobility and be quite painful for your pup. If your pup cannot walk smoothly or kicks out a lot, it’s time to get him checked out by a vet.

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 is a degenerative disease of the white matter in the spinal cord and brain. It is a fatal disease, and affected dogs tend to die very early. A DNA test should test for carriers, and affected dogs should not be bred. The first symptoms are trembling and overall weakness.

Portosystemic Shunt

This is a disease that affects the kidneys. It allows blood to bypass the kidneys, essentially causing a build-up of toxins. If left untreated, it can be fatal. Surgery is usually required. Symptoms of this include excessive urination and thirst, vomiting, head pressing, circling, and stumbling.

Kidney Aplasia/Dysplasia

This is another condition that affects the kidneys. Aplasia is where the kidneys do not form at all and therefore do not function. Dysplasia occurs when the kidney develops abnormally causing some, but ineffective function. Symptoms are similar to portosystemic shunt.

Nutrition

Cream Dog With Food Bowl
High-quality kibble specially formulated for smaller dogs is recommended for this breed. 

Being a smaller pup, the average Cairn Terrier will consume between half and one cup of kibble every day. This is different for every dog, and if you’ve got him working the farms exterminating vermin for hours, he’s likely to need a little more.

Always stick to the package instructions to avoid overfeeding him. Weight gain doesn’t tend to be an issue in the breed. But be sure that he doesn’t creep too much past his expected weight. His tiny mouth will need kibble pieces designed for smaller mouths, so it’s important to feed him ‘small breed kibble.’

It’s also crucial to feed him age-appropriate food to meet the nutritional needs of his every life stage. Many dogs who suffer from kidney problems are often put on a particular renal diet. So be sure to speak to your vet should you have any concerns about his kidneys and what diet to feed him.

Grooming

Face of a Black Dog
Overall, these pups are fairly low-maintenance when it comes to grooming.

The Cairn Terrier’s grooming schedule is relatively simple. He only needs brushing once a week to ensure that his coat doesn’t become tangled. Thankfully, because it isn’t too long, he doesn’t need daily brushing. He doesn’t shed that heavily either. But during the shedding seasons, you may have to brush him twice a week to catch most of his dead hair.

He only needs bathing once every three months or so. This might not sound a lot, but overwashing your Cairn will soften his naturally wiry coat. Although this isn’t a problem for non-show dogs, it detracts from his natural look, which many people love. Use a gentle doggy shampoo made with natural ingredients such as oatmeal for a soothing clean.

Smaller dogs need their teeth brushed more often than dogs with bigger mouths. This is because the cramped conditions heighten the risk of periodontal diseases. It’s important to clean his teeth at least three times a week with doggy-specific toothpaste. All other grooming aspects are the same as any other dog.

Breeders & Puppy Costs

Black Puppy Among Yellow Flowers
Expect to spend around $700 for a purebred Cairn Terrier.

The Cairn Terrier is a relatively rare dog in the USA. So, depending on where you live, it’s likely that you will have to travel to find a responsible breeder. Going the extra mile (or few!) will be worth it in the long run if you secure a happy and healthy pup. A great place to start your search for a purebred puppy is with the AKC’s Cairn Terrier breeder page.

A good quality breeder will screen their dogs for the relevant health issues discussed above where possible. So be sure to ask for a copy of these certificates. They will also be knowledgeable about life with a Cairn, and they will want to know why you are interested in the breed. Always meet the pups in their environment. The average starting price of a Cairn puppy from a reputable breeder is around $1,000 and up.

If you come across a Cairn puppy for any less than this amount, be warned, it may be too good to be true! Irresponsible breeders and puppy mills price their pups lower to lure customers in. But in return, you’ll often end up with a sickly pup and one who hasn’t been socialized or cared for. Please avoid them at all costs and keep these cruel breeders out of business!

You also need to remember the additional costs of owning a pup, not just the initial puppy price. Unfortunately, many soon-to-be dog owners do not factor this in and come to realize down the line that they do not have the budget for their pup. Thankfully, because Cairns are small, they aren’t the most expensive dogs around. But they still require things such as insurance, medical attention, food, crates, beds, toys, and all the other things dogs need.

Rescues & Shelters

Basket of Two Puppies
We always recommend looking at your local shelter for pups before shopping with a breeder.

For some families, rescuing an older pup, adult, or senior might be the better option, and there are a bunch of different reasons for this. Whatever your reasoning, it’s highly likely that rescuing is much lower in cost compared to buying a brand new puppy from a breeder. Plus, it’s an amazing thing to do! Remember that the Cairn is a rare breed, so he is equally rare in rescue shelters.

You have two main options here. The first is to head out to your local rescue shelters and speak to the staff there. They can talk you through the adoption process and maybe point you in the direction of a nearby Cairn 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.

As Family Pets

  • 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 risk of injury but sturdy enough to hold his own.

Final Thoughts

The Cairn Terrier is a rare breed in America, but one that people instantly fall in love with! His small frame is adorable, yet he is full to the brim with doggy personality and spunky character. One thing is for sure, there is never a dull moment with this dog around! Kids love him, dogs love him, cats tolerate him, and all else runs away as fast as possible! So, what’s not to love?

Despite being relatively easy to care for, he does have a few requirements that mean he is not suitable for every family. He is sensitive and needy, meaning his family needs to spend most of their day with him. And he needs plenty of mental stimulation throughout the day because his brain is full of crazy ideas that need an outlet. And this is not something that every family can offer or want. But overall, it’s easy to see why this breed is described as the best little pal in the world!

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