Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier dog breed is a small working terrier developed on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Farmers used them to rid their property of vermin, and they needed a dog with courage, tenacity, and intelligence—characteristics still found in today’s Cairn.

Even though these are purebred dogs, some may still end up in the care of shelters or rescues. Consider adoption if this is the breed for you.

Cairn Terriers are sensible, independent, and friendly dogs who excel as family companions. Compact and affectionate, these dogs do well in apartments and large homes with novice pet parents and experienced dog lovers, alike. They do, however, have high energy and will need their humans to keep them active with walks and play sessions. Cairn Terriers don’t enjoy being left home alone for long hours during the day, so make sure you can provide them with plenty of love and attention for their well-being if you decide that this is the breed for you.

DogTime recommends this carrier for traveling with your small Cairn Terrier. You should also pick up this interactive puzzle toy to keep your pup active indoors!

See below for complete list of Cairn Terrier characteristics!

Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Pictures

Breed Characteristics:


Adapts Well To Apartment Living
Good For Novice Owners
Sensitivity Level
Tolerates Being Alone
Tolerates Cold Weather
Tolerates Hot Weather

All Around Friendliness

Affectionate With Family
Dog Friendly
Friendly Toward Strangers

Health And Grooming Needs

Amount Of Shedding
Drooling Potential
Easy To Groom
General Health
Potential For Weight Gain


Easy To Train
Potential For Mouthiness
Prey Drive
Tendency To Bark Or Howl
Wanderlust Potential

Physical Needs

Energy Level
Exercise Needs
Potential For Playfulness

Vital Stats:

Dog Breed Group:
Terrier Dogs
9 to 10 inches tall at the shoulder
13 to 14 pounds
Life Span:
12 to 15 years

More About This Breed

  • If you've seen the movie The Wizard of Oz, you've seen one of the most famous Cairn Terriers ever. The dog who played Toto in the film was a female Cairn named Terry. Paid $125 per week for her role as Toto, she was owned by trainer Carl Spitz, and she had appeared in several movies prior to her famous role in Oz. She lived to be 11 years old.

    The film character Toto is characteristically Cairn: a small, sturdy, shaggy-coated terrier who's highly intelligent and confident. The breed is alert and always ready for action.

    The Cairn is also curious and quick to learn. And, like all terriers, he's independent and a bit stubborn. He must know who is in charge, or he will take charge. Early obedience training and socialization are essential.

    In spite of his independent nature, the Cairn is a sensitive dog. His feelings are easily hurt, and he doesn't respond well to scolding or harsh corrections. Kind, positive training is the best method for teaching the Cairn.

    There is little this smart dog can't learn. With proper training, a Cairn can master an unlimited number of tricks and commands. However, it may be downright impossible to stop a Cairn from doing what Terriers love to do: chase (and dig and bark). The Cairn will chase squirrels, cats, rabbits, and other dogs if given a chance. For this reason, he should only be walked in public places on a leash, and he should be given free run only in a securely fenced yard.

    The Cairn actively loves kids and will patiently bear their boisterous ways. Of course, children should not be left alone with dogs of any breed, including the Cairn, and responsible adults should always supervise interactions between kids and dogs.

    The Cairn Terrier is a family dog, and he needs to live in the house (or apartment or condo) with his family. He thrives on attention from his loved ones, and he's unhappy if left alone too much. He can become bored at such times, which leads to destructive or annoying behaviors like barking, digging, or chewing.

    A Cairn Terrier is a wonderful family companion. He's fun and entertaining, loves to play with kids, and sounds the alarm when visitors approach. He is able to compete in obedience, agility, or Earthdog trials. A Cairn is a great pet for anyone who wants an independent, alert companion with a take-charge attitude toward life.

  • Highlights

    • The Cairn is a Terrier, which means his natural instincts are to bark, dig, and chase. These behaviors can be minimized with training, but they can't be eliminated. If you don't enjoy the typical terrier temperament, you should consider another breed.
    • The Cairn is intelligent and curious. He also has a mind of his own. He will challenge your authority — good naturedly, of course — but you must be able to establish and maintain your role as pack leader, or he'll get the upper hand.
    • The Cairn loves the attention of his family. Do not leave him alone for long periods of time or he may become destructive.
    • The Cairn Terrier often thinks he's bigger than he actually is. Don't be surprised if he stands up for himself against large dogs or animals.
    • To get a healthy dog, never buy a puppy from an irresponsible breeder, puppy mill, or pet store. Look for a reputable breeder who tests her breeding dogs to make sure they're free of genetic diseases that they might pass onto the puppies, and that they have sound temperaments.
  • History

    The Cairn Terrier was developed more than 200 years ago on the Isle of Skye, where Captain Martin MacLeod is credited with developing one of the oldest strains of the breed.

    All terrier breeds in Scotland were originally classified as Scotch Terriers. In 1873, a new system was implemented and Scotch Terriers were separated into two classes: Dandie Dinmont Terriers and Skye Terriers.

    The Skye Terrier classification included Cairns as well as dogs that are now known as Scottish Terriers, West Highland White Terriers. These breeds were distinguished only by color, as all three could come from the same litter. A club for Hard-Haired Scotch Terriers was formed for the three breeds in 1881; a standard was approved in 1882.

    Toward the end of the 19th century, Scottish Terrier breeders began to select for different characteristics, color among them. The West Highland White Terrier became a separate breed in 1908.

    In 1912, the Cairn Terrier was designated as a breed, taking its name from the piles of stones that marked ancient Scottish burial or memorial sites. These stone piles were often hideouts for the vermin sought by the terriers.

    The first Cairn Terriers were imported to the United States by Mrs. Henry F. Price and Mrs. Byron Rodgers in 1913. In both the U.S. and in England, the Cairn and the West Highland White were interbred until 1917, when the American Kennel Club barred registration to any dog from such interbreeding. That same year, the Cairn Terrier Club of America was granted AKC membership.

  • Size

    Males stand 10 inches tall and weigh 14 pounds. Females stand 9.5 inches tall and weigh 13 pounds.

  • Personality

    The Cairn Terrier is a wonderfully friendly dog. He's happy and cheerful, and he seems to truly enjoy meeting people. He's also all terrier: independent, tough, and alert. Like any dog of the breed, he places digging, barking, and chasing high on his list of fun activities. He'll chase any small animal, including the neighbor's cat, if given a chance. He's a good watchdog, too, and will announce any visitor.

    Though independent, the Cairn is devoted to his family and is happiest when he's part of his owners' daily lives. He likes to be in the house, playing with the kids, following you room to room, joining you at the front door when you greet a friend. He's also known for being sensitive. He doesn't like to be scolded and is upset when you're not happy with him.

    Temperament is affected by a number of factors, including heredity, training, and socialization. Puppies with nice temperaments are curious and playful, willing to approach people and be held by them. Choose the middle-of-the-road puppy, not the one who's beating up his littermates or the one who's hiding in the corner.

    Always meet at least one of the parents — usually the mother is the one who's available — to ensure that they have nice temperaments that you're comfortable with. Meeting siblings or other relatives of the parents is also helpful for evaluating what a puppy will be like when he grows up.

    Like every dog, the Cairn needs early socialization — exposure to many different people, sights, sounds, and experiences — when they're young. Socialization helps ensure that your Cairn puppy grows up to be a well-rounded dog.

    Enrolling him in a puppy kindergarten class is a great start. Inviting visitors over regularly, and taking him to busy parks, stores that allow dogs, and on leisurely strolls to meet neighbors will also help him polish his social skills.

  • Health

    Cairns are generally healthy, but like all breeds, they're prone to certain health conditions. Not all Cairns will get any or all of these diseases, but it's important to be aware of them if you're considering this breed.

    If you're buying a puppy, find a good breeder who will show you health clearances for both your puppy's parents. Health clearances prove that a dog has been tested for and cleared of a particular condition.

    In Cairns, you should expect to see health clearances from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip dysplasia (with a score of fair or better), elbow dysplasia, hypothyroidism, and von Willebrand's disease; from Auburn University for thrombopathia; and from the Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) certifying that eyes are normal. You can confirm health clearances by checking the OFA web site (

    • Craniomandibular Osteopathy: This affects the skull bones of a growing puppy, causing them to become irregularly enlarged. Symptoms usually appear between four and eight months of age. The cause is unknown but believed to be hereditary. Often the puppy's jaw and glands will become swollen, and he won't be able to open his mouth. He'll drool, have a fluctuating fever that recurs every couple of weeks, and, in some cases, his chewing muscles may atrophy. Anti-inflammatories and pain relievers help the dog deal with what is a painful condition. The irregular bone growth slows and typically stops by the time the puppy becomes a year old. The lesions can regress, but a few dogs have permanent jaw problems and therefore have trouble eating. Occasional cases are severe enough to call for jaw surgery.
    • Cryptorchidism: Cryptorchidism is the failure of one or both of the testicles to descend into the scrotum. Testicles should descend fully by the time the puppy is two months old. If a testicle is retained, it is usually nonfunctional and can become cancerous if not removed. Treatment is surgical neutering.
    • Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy: Also known as Krabbe's disease, this is a degenerative disease of the white matter of the brain and spinal cord. Affected puppies die at a very early age or are euthanized. There is now a test available that can identify carriers of this disease. Breeding dogs should be tested.
    • Hypothyroidism: This is a disorder of the thyroid gland. It's thought to be responsible for conditions such as epilepsy, alopecia (hair loss), obesity, lethargy, hyperpigmentation, pyoderma, and other skin conditions. It is treated with medication and diet.
    • Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease: This affliction involves the hip joint. If your Cairn has Legg-Perthes, the blood supply to the head of the femur (the large rear leg bone) is decreased, and the head of the femur that connects to the pelvis begins to disintegrate. The first symptoms, limping and atrophy of the leg muscle, usually occur when puppies are four to six months old. Surgery can correct the condition, usually resulting in a pain-free puppy.
    • Patellar Luxation: Also known as slipped stifles, this is a common problem in small dogs. The patella is the kneecap. Luxation means dislocation of an anatomical part (as a bone at a joint). Patellar luxation is when the knee joint (often of a hind leg) slides in and out of place, causing pain. This can be crippling, although many dogs lead relatively normal lives with this condition.
    • Ocular Melanosis/Secondary Glaucoma: Formerly called pigmentary glaucoma, this is a fairly recent development in the United States (since 1984). It is a painful inherited condition that occurs primarily in Cairns between seven and 12 years old. The condition generally affects both eyes. Watch both eyes for small spots or patches of very dark pigmentation within the sclera (white part of the eye). The pigment deposits accumulate and decrease ability of fluid to drain out of the anterior chamber. This leads to increased pressure, which is known as secondary glaucoma. If diagnosed early, the condition can be controlled with medication.
    • Portosystemic Liver Shunt: This is a congenital abnormality in which blood vessels allow blood to bypass the liver. As a result, the blood is not cleansed by the liver as it should be. Surgery is usually the best option.
  • Care

    Caring for a Cairn Terrier isn't difficult. Because of his small size, he's a good dog for apartment dwellers, but he's also hardy enough to enjoy ranch life. He must have sufficient exercise and activity, however. A long daily walk or vigorous play for 20 to 30 minutes will help keep him healthy and alert.

    Despite the fact that he's a quick study, remember that the Cairn also has a stubborn streak. Regular obedience training (beginning with puppy classes) is essential to teach him good manners and respect for your authority. Don't be surprised if he challenges you — just keep training. Be positive, kind, and consistent.

    A "quiet" command should be one of your Cairn's basics. Don't let him off-leash in public places; he's likely to give in to any temptation to chase. And don't give him unsupervised free time in the yard. He'll dig, and he doesn't care whether he excavates a secluded area by the fence or your lovely new flower garden.

  • Feeding

    Recommended daily amount: 1/2 to 1 cup of high-quality dry food a day, divided into two meals.

    NOTE: How much your adult dog eats depends on his size, age, build, metabolism, and activity level. Dogs are individuals, just like people, and they don't all need the same amount of food. It almost goes without saying that a highly active dog will need more than a couch potato dog. The quality of dog food you buy also makes a difference — the better the dog food, the further it will go toward nourishing your dog and the less of it you'll need to shake into your dog's bowl.

    Keep your Cairn in good shape by measuring his food and feeding him twice a day rather than leaving food out all the time. If you're unsure whether he's overweight, give him the eye test and the hands-on test.

    First, look down at him. You should be able to see a waist. Then place your hands on his back, thumbs along the spine, with the fingers spread downward. You should be able to feel but not see his ribs without having to press hard. If you can't, he needs less food and more exercise.

    For more on feeding your Cairn, see our guidelines for buying the right food, feeding your puppy, and feeding your adult dog.

  • Coat Color And Grooming

    The scruffy-looking Cairn Terrier has a double coat: a wiry outer coat and soft undercoat. The coat comes in many colors, including red, brindle, black, sand, and gray.

    This coat is easy to groom. A thorough brushing once a week is sufficient, as is periodic bathing (every three months or so, or as needed). Frequent bathing isn't recommended because it softens the coarse terrier coat. While a soft coat isn't harmful to any dog, and is fine for a pet, it does detract from a show Cairn's physical appearance.

    Some trimming is necessary for the Cairn — mostly to tidy his look, not radically style his locks. If he's to be a show dog, his coat isn't trimmed with clippers (as is the Poodle's coat, for example), but shortened or shaped by stripping with a stripping knife. Stripping isn't really necessary for a family pet, however; a professional trim with clippers two to three times a year is fine (though be aware that this practice softens the breed's naturally coarse coat).

    Brush your Cairn's teeth at least two or three times a week to remove tartar buildup and the bacteria that lurk inside it. Daily brushing is even better if you want to prevent gum disease and bad breath.

    Trim his nails once or twice a month if your dog doesn't wear them down naturally to prevent painful tears and other problems. If you can hear them clicking on the floor, they're too long. Dog toenails have blood vessels in them, and if you cut too far you can cause bleeding — and your dog may not cooperate the next time he sees the nail clippers come out. So, if you're not experienced trimming dog nails, ask a vet or groomer for pointers.

    His ears should be checked weekly for redness or a bad odor, which can indicate an infection. When you check your dog's ears, wipe them out with a cotton ball dampened with gentle, pH-balanced ear cleaner to help prevent infections. Don't insert anything into the ear canal; just clean the outer ear.

    Begin accustoming your Cairn to being brushed and examined when he's a puppy. Handle his paws frequently — dogs are touchy about their feet — and look inside his mouth. Make grooming a positive experience filled with praise and rewards, and you'll lay the groundwork for easy veterinary exams and other handling when he's an adult.

    As you groom, check for sores, rashes, or signs of infection such as redness, tenderness, or inflammation on the skin, in the nose, mouth, and eyes, and on the feet. Eyes should be clear, with no redness or discharge. Your careful weekly exam will help you spot potential health problems early.

  • Children And Other Pets

    The Cairn Terrier loves kids and is highly tolerant of them. In fact, he enjoys the noise and commotion that goes along with children. As for other pets, a properly socialized and trained Cairn tends to get along with and respect those in the household. He's apt to chase any other animal that comes into his yard, however.

    As with every breed, you should always teach children how to approach and touch dogs, and always supervise any interactions between dogs and young children to prevent any biting or ear or tail pulling on the part of either party. Teach your child never to approach any dog while he's eating or sleeping or to try to take the dog's food away. No dog, no matter how friendly, should ever be left unsupervised with a child.

  • Rescue Groups

    Cairns are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many Cairns in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don't see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a Cairn rescue.

  • Breed Organizations

    Below are breed clubs, organizations, and associations where you can find additional information about the Cairns.

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