Cairn Terrier: Dog Breed Characteristics & Care

History, Care Tips, and Helpful Information for Pet Owners

Cairn Terrier

Tara Gregg / EyeEm / Getty Images

The Cairn Terrier is a small Scottish dog breed in the Terrier group with a round head, short legs, coarse fur, and small, pointed ears. This breed is often considered to be the oldest of the Terrier types. Originating from the Islands of Scotland, Cairn Terriers rose to prominence when one named Terry played Dorothy's dog, Toto, in the world-famed movie The Wizard of Oz.

Hardy, intelligent, and energetic, Cairn Terriers make great all-around family pets. These dogs are outgoing and affectionate, and they're known for their cheerful personalities with classic Terrier traits.

Group: Terrier

Height: 10 to 13 inches (males); 9 to 12 inches (females)

Weight: 13 to 18 pounds

Coat: Double coat with wiry outercoat

Coat Color: Black, brindle, cream, gray, red, silver, wheaten, or any combination with brindle

Life Span: 13 to 15 years

Temperament: Intelligent, courageous, friendly, playful, active

Hypoallergenic: Yes

Origin: Scotland

Characteristics of the Cairn Terrier

This breed is playful with its family and gets along well with children. Your Cairn Terrier will be happiest when he's allowed to run and play outside, especially when activities involve digging—so many owners give these dogs sandboxes to have fun without making too many holes in the yard.

Cairn Terriers are very loyal to their family and can be protective of them at times. It's best to socialize this breed to help your dog maintain its friendly personality with new people. The Cairn Terrier's spirited nature can also lead to chasing other animals, sometimes getting into tussles with dogs and cats. Thankfully, if they're introduced carefully, these dogs can coexist happily in a multi-pet household.

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

History of the Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terriers originate from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Their exact history is slightly blurry, as initially, many of these working dogs 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), and these breeds have similar appearances.

Cairn Terriers are believed to come from the Island of Skye, where they were used by farmers and gamekeepers to hunt rats and other vermin. They would often root out rodents from their hiding places under mounds of stones 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 is 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.

Cairn Terriers have also been the pets of 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 enthusiast.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Mr. Thomas, their cairn terrier

Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

Scottish actresses and a Cairn Terrier

Fred Ramage / Stringer / Getty Images

Cairn Terrier Care

Known for being robust, independent, friendly, and fun-loving, the Cairn is often regarded as an adaptable little family dog. Although they enjoy the company of their humans, they thrive on being active. This small breed is not suited to be a lapdog. Your Cairn Terrier needs considerable exercise and training, but grooming is fairly simple depending on your preferences for trimming the coat.


While it doesn't need extensive exercise, the Cairn Terrier still requires moderate levels of activity each day to stay happy and healthy. Plan for 30 minutes to an hour of exercise time, which can be completed through several daily walks or playtime in the backyard.

The playful nature of Cairn Terriers means they often get along well with children. Joining kids in games is a great way for your dog to stay entertained, along with activities like digging outside. If your dog's digging becomes excessive, consider placing a sandbox in the yard to allow digging in a specified area.


This hypoallergenic breed doesn't shed excessively. A weekly brush out should be enough to keep your dog's coat in good condition. Since their fur grows quickly, it can impede their vision and tangle easily if kept long. Some owners choose to have their coats hand-stripped to keep them tidy and comfortable. This technique, rather than clipping, ensures that the coat retains its condition and texture.


Cairns are very clever little dogs, but their independent temperament also means they can be strong-willed. This breed can be prone to barking excessively, so some owners train against this specific behavior. Ongoing positive reinforcement training is necessary to keep Cairns out of trouble; basic obedience lessons can begin when puppies are about eight weeks old. Their intelligence, tenacity, and energy levels help them excel in dog sports like agility training to burn off energy and build a strong bond with their owners.

While Cairn Terriers can live well in a multi-dog household, care should be taken if living alongside small animals like hamsters or rodents. Their heritage as ratting dogs has instilled a strong chase instinct in this breed. Because of these tendencies, owners may need to put extra work in to achieve a solid recall.

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 a healthy breed that can live to a ripe old age. It is not uncommon for this breed to live past 15 years old. However, like all purebred dogs, Cairn Terriers are susceptible to hereditary health conditions. Adopting from a responsible breeder that performs genetic tests on prospective parents can help ensure your puppy lives a healthy life.

The following are conditions to be aware of:

  • Liver Shunt: This type of congenital liver disease causes blood vessels to bypass the liver, impeding its function. This can lead to symptoms like stunted growth, neurologic deficits, seizures, and low blood sugar. If diagnosed and treated early enough, some dogs may respond well and live a long life.
  • Eye problems: Cairns are prone to Cataracts, Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), and Ocular Melanosis. Responsible breeders should have prospective parents tested before breeding.
  • Elbow and Hip Dysplasia: This condition affects your dog's joints, causing malformations as they grow. Dysplasia can cause progressive mobility problems, arthritis, and pain, but severe cases can be treated with surgery.

Diet and Nutrition

Feed your Cairn Terrier high-quality dog food twice per day. Since this breed is prone to canine obesity, owners should monitor treats and meal portions to ensure your dog doesn't gain too much weight.

Like other breeds, your Cairn will also need various nutrients at different stages of life. Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best diet plan for your specific dog based on its age, weight, and activity level.

Where to Adopt or Buy a Cairn Terrier

Breed-specific rescues for the Cairn Terrier are located in various parts of the United States, so prospective adopters should research local rescues to find Cairn Terriers in need of forever homes. Many similar dogs and mixed breeds can also be found at shelters, so it's helpful to meet the dogs in your region and see if your next best friend is waiting to come home with you.

If you're planning to adopt a Cairn Terrier puppy, it's important to work with a responsible breeder. Adopters should be able to meet the litter's parents, see the conditions they live in, and learn about their family medical history. Puppies from breeders can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $2,500, but some prices can be as high as $5,000 depending on pedigree and availability.

The national breed club, breed-specific rescues, and the AKC are great resources to start your search:

Cairn Terrier Overview

  • Family-friendly and playful

  • Adaptable to rural and urban life

  • Doesn't require extensive grooming

  • Some are vocal; may need training against excessive barking

  • Prone to chasing other animals

  • Can be prolific diggers

More Dog Breeds and Further Research

If you love the Cairn Terrier, you may also like these similar breeds:

There are plenty of different dog breeds that can suit your lifestyle. With a little research, you can find your next best friend!

  • Is a Cairn Terrier a Good Family Dog?

    Cairn Terriers are known for being great family dogs when given the proper training. These playful little canines enjoy being around children, and they can also do well with other dogs or cats when socialized consistently.

  • Do Cairn Terriers Bark a Lot?

    Not all Cairn Terriers will become excessive barkers, but it is still common for these dogs to be vocal. Thankfully, if your Cairn's barking becomes a problem, you can utilize training methods to discourage barking.

  • Do Cairn Terriers Shed?

    The Cairn Terrier is a great breed choice for owners with mild to moderate allergies, as this breed has a low-shedding coat and is considered hypoallergenic. Though no dog is truly hypoallergenic, these dogs produce very little dander around the home.

The Spruce Pets uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Favier, Robert P et al. Outcome of non-surgical dietary treatment with or without lactulose in dogs with congenital portosystemic shuntsThe veterinary quarterly vol. 40,1 (2020): 108-114. doi:10.1080/01652176.2020.1745928

  2. Petersen-Jones, Simon M et al. Ocular melanosis in the Cairn Terrier: clinical description and investigation of mode of inheritanceVeterinary ophthalmology vol. 10 Suppl 1 (2007): 63-9. doi:10.1111/j.1463-5224.2007.00558.x