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Cairn terrier in the snow

Breed overview

  • Breed group — Terrier group (American Kennel Club)
  • Height — 9-10 inches
  • Weight — 13-14 pounds
  • Coat length & texture — Medium length, wiry double-coat
  • Coat color — Brindle color varieties, wheaten, and solid colors such as cream, grey, red, silver, and black.
  • Exercise needs — High
  • Intelligence — High
  • Barking — Somewhat more than average
  • Life span — 12-15 years
  • Temperament — Friendly, yet vigilant family dog
  • Hypoallergenic — Yes
  • Origin — Scotland

Cairn terrier fun facts 

👉 Coming up with a pet name can be fun but tricky. Search no further! According to PetScreening’s 2024 database, the majority of our users name their male Cairn Terriers Max; Charlie is the 2nd most popular male name. Meanwhile, most of our users with female Cairn Terriers love Lucy and Luna equally.

  • A breed of many names. Before settling on cairn, the Kennel Club considered other descriptive names like Waternish, Otter, and West Highland for this terrier.
  • Vanishing numbers. WWI and WWII did a lot of damage to many breeds, this one included. But, the cairn terrier never recovered; numbers are still on the decline.
  • There’s no place like home. Terry, the cairn terrier in The Wizard of Oz, helped put this distinguished breed on the map by playing Dorothy’s dog, Toto.
Cairn terrier on grass

Cairn terrier temperament and characteristics 

Playful and affectionate with both children and adults, these little dogs fit in well with families of almost all shapes and sizes. They do great with kids who love to run and play outside, but like all terriers, they were bred for the hunt. Homes with small animals, like cats, should be extra careful in evaluating a new cairn terrier pup before deciding they’re a perfect match.

While they may not be ideal for cat-friendly homes, they do well with visitors — human and canine alike — and are happiest when they can go everywhere with their family, including on vacation. As a matter of fact, it’s best to either take your terrier on adventures with you or have a trusted friend or family member dog-sit in their home. Cairn terriers don’t do well on their own and can develop separation anxiety.


The Cairn terrier is an active dog with a shaggy double coat in various colors. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), these colors include wheaten, brindle, cream, gray, red, red brindle, silver, cream brindle, black, and black brindle. The only color that is unacceptable is white. We teamed up with FidoTabby Alert, and according to their database, a common coat color for the cairn terrier is (79%) black. Dark ears, muzzle, and tail tip are desirable. 

Common cairn terrier health problems 

Overall, cairn terriers are a healthy breed. But all dog breeds big or small are prone to certain health conditions. While smaller dogs can more easily avoid things like hip dysplasia, there are other issues that pet owners of this small dog should be aware.

  • Patellar luxation. Common in small dogs, a luxating patella occurs when the knee joint in the hind legs slides in and out of place. With monitoring and care, cairn terriers with this condition can lead a normal life.
  • Globoid-cell leukodystrophy (GCL). GCL is also called Krabbe disease . It’s a rare, but fatal disease that is caused by a genetic mutation. Genetic screening allows breeders to greatly reduce the chances of breeding pups with GCL.
  • Congenital portosystemic shunt (CPSS). CPSS is a birth defect that occurs when blood bypasses the liver. Surgery can correct the problem, allowing patients to enjoy a normal lifespan.
  • Canine chronic hepatitis (CH). Inflammation of the liver is common in cairn terriers as well. Symptoms include lethargy and weight loss, among others. Additionally, CH can cause acquired portosystemic shunts.

Cost of caring for cairn terriers

The cost of caring for a cairn terrier goes beyond food, toys, and treats. Should a chronic health condition arise that requires treatment, regular vet visits and medication can add up. Some conditions, like CMO, are only temporary as puppies will “grow out” of it. Others may require surgery to correct the problem.

With this in mind, pet owners should expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 (which is the minimum cost of surgically correcting a shifting knee joint) to over $10,000 for a board-certified veterinary surgeon to correct a portosystemic shunt.

Fortunately, cairn terriers do tend to be a healthy breed. However, it isn’t wise to leave that up to chance. It’s a good idea to invest in pet health insurance early on to help mitigate those costs. You can also pair it with a pet savings account and budget so that a stressful situation doesn’t have to result in some hard choices.

Cairn terrier resting on a dog bed

History of the cairn terrier

It is an undeniable fact that cairn terriers have been around for over 200 years. Some historians believe that the breed stretches back even further to the 15th century and was a breed unique to the Isle of Skye. While terrier enthusiasts are divided about this, some believe that the cairn terrier is the foundation of many popular terriers today; others stoutly believe it was the Scottish terrier.

Regardless of the role cairn terriers had in shaping terriers, Captain Martin MacLeod played a big part in shaping the breed. His terriers were infamous for their short hair and silver-gray coloring. MacLeod, an otter hunter, valued cairn terriers for being a — sometimes overly — enthusiastic hunting partner. In fact, it was their ability to chase prey from piles of rocks used as markers (cairns) for their owner that earned the breed its name.

Other Scottish-born terrier breeds, sich as the Skye terrier or West Highland terrier, enjoyed popularity outside of Scotland during the 19th century, although cairn terriers themselves weren’t as popular until the persistence of two women paid off. Mary Hawke and Ida Monro (more frequently known as Mrs. Alastair Campbell), were able to get the breed recognized by the United Kingdom’s Kennel Club in 1910. In 1913, it was once again two women who got the breed recognized by the (American) Kennel Club: their names recorded as Mrs. Byron Rodgers and Mrs. Henry F. Price.

Caring for your cairn terrier

Caring for a new puppy of any breed can be overwhelming. You’ll need to make your first trip to the vet and schedule your dog’s vaccinations. We can even help you puppy-proof your home and prepare for teething. No one likes to think about losing their new dog, but FidoAlert provides a free Fido ID and tag so you’re prepared just in case. Here are some other basics specific to cairn terrier.


Highly adaptable, these high-energy dogs are small enough that they can live happily in the countryside or thrive in city apartments with the proper stimulation. Cairn terriers were bred to run, chase, and terrorize smaller prey, so training courses in the living room or in a fenced-in backyard suit these dogs just fine. They are highly intelligent, too, so games and tasks that involve a lot of thinking go a long way.

In cases where a dog has a luxating patella, it is best to exercise in moderation. This means that exercise, while important to maintain a lean physique (thus keeping excess weight off the knee joints), should also be low impact to prevent injury.

Dr. Erica Irish
Cairn terrier walking outside


Compared to some other breeds, cairn terriers are low maintenance when it comes to upkeep. Weekly brushing and combing can help prevent tangles, although, like other wiry-coated dog breeds, periodically hand stripping their coat allows for new hair growth and a better texture.

Like any other breed, baths depend on your lifestyle. For pups that love the outdoors and like to bring it home in their coat, a bath with a quality shampoo may have to be a more frequent part of their grooming routine.

In addition to maintaining their coat, it’s important to also have a routine that involves nail trimming, ear cleaning, and teeth brushing. Many pet owners find these activities difficult and choose to instead take their cairn terrier in for professional grooming services.

No breed is truly hypoallergenic. Allergic reactions occur due to the protein found in a dog’s dander, hair, and saliva. Dogs that are considered hypoallergenic simply shed less, and thus have a smaller effect on those with dog allergies.

Diet and nutrition

Regardless of a dog’s breed or size, pet owners should choose a dog food that’s high quality and designed for their dog’s size and life stage. For example, dog foods designed for puppies are formulated for a growing dog, while one formulated for a senior dog is made to account for biological changes that are typical in older dogs.

For a small dog like a cairn terrier, it’s best to ask your veterinarian for a recommendation on food and how much to feed your dog. In general, pet parents should expect to feed their cairn terrier around 1 ¼ to 1 ¾ cups of dog food a day, depending on the brand, size, and your dog’s specific health needs.

Training your cairn terrier

Cairn terriers have many positive traits, one of which is that they are very intelligent and thus, very trainable. They also have a few less desirable traits, such as being too intelligent and more likely to test the boundaries and patience of their owner. These dogs are excellent for novice pet owners, but it’s important to either take your new dog to a professional trainer or brush up on tips from trainers so that from day one, training is a better experience for both owner and pup.

Regardless of if you want a show dog that can run courses or a family dog, it’s important to socialize your pup, take time to crate train your puppy, and also start house training early.

Cairn terrier outside wearing a service dog vest

Breeds similar to the cairn terrier

Not quite sure that a cairn terrier is right for you? Even if you are, it’s worth taking the time to research and consider other similar breeds. Here are a few to get you started:

  • Coton de Tulear. Similar in size to the cairn terrier, this breed from Madagascar has a fluffy coat that’s just as friendly as the cairn terrier.
  • West Highland white terrier. Like the cairn terrier, the West Highland white terrier is a Scottish breed and is slightly heavier but roughly the same size as their fellow terrier.
  • Irish wolfhound. If all you love about the cairn terrier is a wiry coat, the Irish wolfhound and their extra-large stature might be for you.

Frequently asked questions

Is a cairn terrier a good family dog?

Cairn terriers are great family dogs. Affectionate, sociable, active, and with a longer lifespan, these small dogs are ideal family dogs for growing or established families.

Do cairn terriers bark a lot?

Some cairn terriers can bark excessively while others don’t. As terriers, they are active dogs, and given that they were bred for hunting, they can be vocal in alerting their owners to things of interest.

Do cairn terriers like to cuddle?

Some cairn terriers do enjoy cuddling. For the most part though, this active, high-energy breed would prefer to be up doing things, like sniffing out something interesting or engaging in playtime. Many cairn terrier owners will state that males tend to be more snuggly, though.