Cairn Terrier: Dog Breed Profile

Characteristics, History, Care Tips and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Cairn Terrier

Tara Gregg / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Cairn Terrier, is a hardy, intelligent and energetic breed that is often considered to be the oldest of the Terrier types. Originating from the Islands of Scotland, they rose to prominence when one was used as Dorothy's dog, Toto, in the world-famed movie The Wizard of Oz.

This breed can make a great all-round family pet; they are outgoing and affectionate. They can also be vocal and get up to mischief; often enjoying digging and chasing small furries.

Group: Terrier

Height: 9 to 10 inches

Weight: 12 to 15 pounds

Coat and Color: Double coated with a wiry outer. They come in a wide variety of colors (no white markings though). The most common shades are black, cream and grey, often with a brindle mix.

Life Expectancy: 12 to 15 years

Characteristics of the Cairn Terrier

Affection Level Medium
Friendliness  High
Kid-Friendly  High
Pet-Friendly  Medium
Exercise Needs  Medium
Playfulness  High
Energy Level  High
Trainability Medium
Intelligence  High
Tendency to Bark  High
Amount of Shedding Medium

History of the Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terriers are a breed that originates from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Their exact history is slightly blurry as initially many of these working terriers were referred to simply as Scotch Terriers. It wasn't until the 19th century that distinct individual breeds began to develop clearly, and the Cairn Terrier was one of these. They are closely related to the Scottish Terrier (Scottie) and the West Highland Terrier (Westie), who they are often confused with.

They are believed to come from the Island of Skye and were used by farmers and gamekeepers to hunt and kill rats and other vermin. They would often root out rodents from their hiding places under mounds of stones that were used as memorials or to mark boundaries, often at the top of hills. The mounds are called Cairns, and this is where the name for the breed derived.

The American Kennel Club recognized the breed officially in 1913. The breed became even more popular when Terry the Cairn Terrier played Toto in the 1939 movie the Wizard of Oz, alongside Judy Garland.

The breed was popular with several famous figures. Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, loved the breed, and J Edgar Hoover (the first Director of the FBI) was a Cairn Breeder and enthusiast.

Cairn Terrier Care

Known for being robust, independent, friendly and fun-loving, the Cairn is often regarded as an adaptable little family dog.

They are not a lapdog though, and although they enjoy the company of their humans, they thrive on being active. Their playful natures mean they often get along well with children.

While they can live well in a multi-dog household, care should be taken if living alongside other small furries. Their heritage as ratting type dogs means they can have a strong chase instinct. This also means that you may have to put extra work in to achieve a solid recall.

Their ratting instincts mean that they can also have a propensity towards digging. Training and supervision will be required to ensure they do not dig up any prized flowers in your garden.

Cairns are very clever little dogs, but their independent characters also mean they can be strong-willed. Early and ongoing positive reinforcement training will be required to keep them out of trouble. Their intelligence, tenacity and energy levels mean that they can do well in competitive dog sports, like agility. It can be a great way to burn off some of their energy and build up a strong bond too.

Cairns don't shed excessively, and a weekly brush out should be enough to keep their coat in good condition. Their coats can grow quickly though, and it can impede their vision and begin to mat and tangle more easily when it is long. Some owners choose to have their coats hand-stripped to keep it tidy and comfortable. This technique, rather than clipping, ensures that the coat retains its condition and texture.

Two Adult Cairn Terriers
A grey brindle and a red-colored Cairn Terrier. GlobalP/ Getty Images
Cairn Terrier Puppy
Cairn Terrier color shades can change as they mature. This pup looks like a wheaten color. Bigandt_Photography / Getty Images
Cairn Terrier on agility seesaw
Cairns are intelligent and active and can do well in competive dog sports, like agility. s5iztok / Getty Images

Common Health Problems

Cairns are generally regarded as hearty little dogs that keep in good health and can live to a ripe old age. It is not uncommon to hear about Cairns living to be over 15 years old.

They can be prone to several inheritable health conditions, though. To minimize the chance of your Cairn developing these, always make sure that you seek out a reputable breeder that perform relevant health tests on prospective parents.

Some of the conditions to be aware of include:

  • Liver Shunt: This a type of liver disease where blood vessels bypass the liver, impeding its effective function. It can result in urinary and kidney problems. If diagnosed early enough, dogs can respond well to treatment and continue to live a long and full life.
  • Eye problems: Cairns are prone to Cataracts, Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), and Ocular Melanosis. Good breeders will do eye tests on prospective parents.
  • Hip and Elbow Dysplasia: This is when the joint has not developed correctly, and it can cause progressive mobility problems and pain.

Diet and Nutrition

As with every dog, you should make sure that you are feeding a high-quality and balanced diet. Cairns can be prone to obesity, so careful portion controlling is essential, and no unhealthy table scraps.

Pros

  • Family-friendly

  • Adaptable and can live well in apartments or on a rural farm

  • No excessive grooming requirements

Cons

  • They can be a vocal breed

  • Like to chase

  • Can be prolific diggers

Where to Adopt or Buy a Cairn Terrier

If you are looking to buy a Cairn puppy, doing your research to find a reputable and responsible breeder is vital. A good breeder will have mum and her pups in a nurturing home environment and will allow you to visit. They will not release the pups to their new homes until they are at least eight weeks old and fully weaned, and they will have had them vet checked too. A good place to start when researching breeders would be The Cairn Terrier Club of America.

There are lots of Cairn Terriers in rescue that are looking for loving forever homes. Reach out to your local shelters, or get in touch with a breed-specific rescue like Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network.

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

If you have a love of terriers, then you may also want to find out more about:

Do your research on the different types of dog breeds to work out which types may fit in with your lifestyle. Don't forget that there are lots of wonderful mixed-breed mutts and pedigree dogs in rescues looking for homes too.