Cairn Terrier – Everything You Need To Know

One of the smallest Scottish dogs of the terrier group, the Cairn Terrier, also known as the short-haired Skye terrier, is a hardy, fearless, intelligent, and affectionate toy-size dog that exhibits all the traits of a faithful standard terrier. They are considered to be the oldest breed of Terrier types. Initially, these working terriers were bred in Scotland to rout vermin from cairns (rock piles). These bossy lap dogs have tenacious but devoted personalities. A dedicated owner can train and socialize Cairns into delightful companions. In addition, their unconquerable spirit makes them ideal watchdogs. If you are looking for a companion with boundless energy and an all-rounder who is active, adaptable, and dedicated to their family, you will witness your ideal partner in a Cairn Terrier.

Cairn Terrier Overview

Cairn Terriers are happy, playful, elegant dogs characterized as hyperactive but are perfect family companions. They are affectionate towards their human family, as anyone would expect from a companion hound. However, being dutiful to their terrier lineage, Cairns are suspicious of strangers and bark at strange sounds. Therefore, considering your neighbors, it’s essential to tone down their unhappiness and guide them on when and when not to bark. Besides their fearless and bossy personality, Cairns has a soft side that requires lots of attention and time with their human family. They do better with kids who’ve been taught to respect them than with toddlers and small children. 

Cairns will be happiest when allowed to play and run outside, mainly when activities involve digging. So many owners give these breeds sandboxes to have enjoyment without making too many holes in backyards. You’ll have a devoted, lifelong companion if you can provide plenty of attention, patience, and space to move.

Cairn Terrier Pros and Cons

Very affectionate and great family petsSome are vocal
Adaptable to urban and rural lifeCan be prolific diggers
Easy to groomProne to chasing other animals 

Cairn Terrier Basic Information 

  • Name: Cairn Terrier
  • Origin: Scotland
  • Group: Terrier
  • Size: Small
  • Height: Male: 10 inches; female: 9.5 inches
  • Weight: 14 – 12 pounds 
  • Coat: Double coat with the wiry outer coat.
  • Color: Black, brindle, cream, gray, red, silver, wheaten, or brindle.
  • Energy: High
  • Activities: Agility, confirmation, field trials, hunting tests, obedience, rally, watchdogs, therapy dogs. 
  • Barking Level: Occasional 
  • Shedding Level: Low
  • Hypoallergenic: Yes
  • Litter Size: 6 puppies
  • Other Names: Cairn
  • Breed’s Original Pastimes: Hunting
  • Life Span: 13 – 15 years

History of Cairn Terrier

It is difficult to unravel Cairn Terrier’s history because they were lumped together as Scotch terriers for years. However, it is believed that Cairn originates from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Farmers and gamekeepers used these breeds for hunting rats and other vermin. They would often root out rodents from hiding under piles of stones used as memorials or to mark boundaries. The mounds are named Cairns, and this is where the term for the breed is derived. Not until the late 1800s did dog fanciers devise strict breeding schedules and varieties for this hardy family of exterminators. The term Cairn Terrier did not appear in print until 1887, though the Cairn-type terrier had been around for an extended period. Cairns was known from the 1600s to dwell in the Western Highlands, mainly on the Isle of Skye, the birthplace of their family, the Skye Terrier.

By the turn of the 20th century, Britain’s terrier enthusiasts had sorted out the various Scotch earth dogs and began breeding Cairn, Scottish, Skye, and West Highland White terriers as different pure breeds. Hence, Cairns was exhibited at British dog shows of the era, and the AKC recognized the dog breed in 1913.

Cairn Terrier Highlights

  • As a true terrier, Cairn loves to dig, bark, and chase. 
  • Cairn is curious and intelligent, and maintain your role as pack leader, or they will get the upper hand.
  • Obedience training is highly advised. The “come” command can be challenging to teach.
  • Cairns is known for being an expert escape artist. 

Cairn Terrier Personality

The Cairn Terrier is a fun, good-tempered, and loving companion who is feisty, active, affectionate, domineering, and highly connected to its owners. The sight of a Cairn is a scene of striking beauty. They are excellent watchdogs but can be snappy towards other children if not treated gently or respectfully. Some Cairns might be aggressive toward other small pets, but they live peacefully with dogs and cats if introduced to them from the very initial stage. 

Intelligent and self-assured, the Cairn combines an endearingly small size and an adventurous terrier nature. Also, they portray a range of characters, such as:

  • Mischievous
  • Outgoing
  • Cuddly
  • Perky
  • Charming
  • Playful
  • Lively

Enrolling Cairn in a puppy kindergarten class is an ideal start. Inviting visitors regularly and taking them to busy parks, stores that allow hounds, and on strolls to meet neighbors will also aid them in polishing their social skills.

Friendliness Overview

Affection level High
Family-friendly High
Kid-friendly High
Pet-friendly Medium to high
Stranger -friendly Medium to high

Adaptability Overview

Good for apartment living High
Good to new owners Medium to high
Sensitivity level Medium 
Tolerates being alone Low
Cold-tolerance Medium to high
Heat-tolerance Medium to high

Cairn Terrier Physical Features

Head: Broad skull, strong muzzle, large teeth, black nose, medium-sized hazel or dark hazel wide-set eyes, and small, upright pointed wide-set ears. 

Body: Well-muscled, strong, active body with deep ribs.

Tail: Short tail, full of hair but not feathery.

Forequarters: Sloping shoulders, medium leg length, acceptable but not too heavy bone. Forelegs never out at the elbow. Legs covered with short hair.

Hindquarters: Powerful muscular thighs. Hocks well let down, inclining neither in nor out when viewed from the rear.

Coat: Medium-length double-coated with a hard top coat and short soft undercoat.

Color: Black, cream, gray, red, silver, wheaten, and brindle (subtle tiger stripes).

Gait: The gait is an effortless and free-flowing stride.  

Cairn Terrier Temperament

Cairns are highly energetic, independent, confident, and sometimes determined and headstrong. They always expect their humans to treat them well. If not, be ready to face their grudge. Cairns are mischievous beings who adore fun and frolic. Therefore, they frequently dig, chew, and exhibit destructive behaviors when not assigned a job. Hence, it would help if you kept them mentally and physically stimulated. They are good with kids, and their scrappy qualities allow them to enjoy the rough-and-tumble play outside with the little kids (as long as they obey the no-ear or tail-pulling rule). 

Even though small in stature, Cairns are real terriers at heart. So, they’ll need boundaries to keep them from showing less adorable qualities like separation anxiety, excessive barking, or distrust toward strangers or other pets. They represent boldness and are good watchdogs who value their family. With a do-it-all attitude and a keen intelligence, they discover and become adaptable, taking on any role you throw at them.

Cairn Terrier Training

Training a Cairn can be challenging, given their stubborn attitude and agile build. However, you can take benefit of their intelligence, eagerness to please, and charming nature to ease the training method. It is good to offer constant training for your Cairn to harness their full potential. Also, their training sessions must include a blend to encourage their attention until the end. You can instruct them in complicated tricks and positively reinforce their learning with praise and treats. 

While Cairns can live well in a multi-dog household, supervision should be taken if living alongside small animals like rodents or hamsters. In addition, their ancestry as ratting dogs has seeded a strong chase instinct in this breed. Because of these inclinations, owners may need extra work to achieve a solid recall. Here are some of the training activities that you need to do with your Cairn: 

Trainability Overview 

Easy to train Medium
Intelligence High
Mouthiness tendencies Medium
Barking and howling tendencies Medium to high
Prey drive Medium to high
Wanderlust tendenciesMedium

Cairn Terrier Exercise Needs

Cairns require a lot of time and space to spend their high energy levels. They will thrive with a walk of at least 30 minutes or one hour of daily exercise combined with training lessons, play sessions, or activities like agility sports. You don’t have to take them for a jog or a long walk if you have a yard where they can effortlessly play and run. However, without a yard, you must invest your time in the canine’s park with a leash. On the other hand, they can easily adapt to an apartment if their necessities are fulfilled.

Furthermore, early socialization and proper exercise can avoid extreme guarding instincts and timidness. Hence, it is essential to encourage them to be occupied mentally. You can meet your Cairn’s daily exercise essentials by:

  • Teaching new tricks 
  • Walking 
  • Fetching 
  • Chasing 
  • Playing with puzzle toys 
  • Playing tug of war 
  • Schutzhund 
  • Frisbee 
  • Herding trials 
  • Flyball 
  • Agility training 
  • Hiking 
  • Dog park

Exercise Needs Overview

Energy level High
Exercise needs Medium to high
Intensity Medium to high
Playfulness High

Cairn Terrier Grooming

The Cairn Terrier is a hypoallergenic low-shedder that requires minimal grooming and is jacketed with a medium-length double coat. Cairn Terrier’s grooming needs are as follows:

  • Their weather-resistant coat should only be bathed about every three months.
  • Brush their teeth twice or thrice weekly.  
  • Brush their coat weekly with a bristle brush. 
  • Trim their nails once or twice a week using a grinder. 
  • Clean their eyes and ears weekly.

Grooming Overview

Easy to groomHigh
Drooling tendency Low
Amount of shedding Medium

Cairn Terrier Health

Cairn Terriers are relatively healthy breeds. Yet, like other hounds, they are also prone to health conditions stemming from their lineage. Thus, to keep them healthy, it is essential to take them to the veterinarian for routine health check-ups and make sure that they are updated with vaccinations.

Health Overview

Overall health Medium to high
Weight gain tendencies Medium
Size Low

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy: A degenerative disorder known as Krabbe’s disease, occurs in the brain and spinal cord. Affected dogs die at a very early age or are euthanized. Therefore, breeding dogs should be tested.

Portosystemic Vascular Anomaly (PSVA) and Microvascular Dysplasia (MVD): These genetic conditions cause liver circulation to malfunction. Therapy may include medication or surgery, especially for PSVA.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy: While a pup grows, this condition affects the skull bones, causing them to become irregularly widened. Symptoms usually occur between the ages of 4 to 8 months. 

Cryptorchidism: Most prevalent genetic and developmental defects in canines. This condition affects one or both testicles and leads to cancerous growth or spermatic cord torsion in the concerned testicles.

Legg-Calve Perthes Disease: The blood supply of the femur is reduced, due to which the pelvis begins to disintegrate, and the hip becomes weakened. Signs include limping and atrophy of the leg muscle. 

Diabetes: If your dog has Diabetes, you may notice symptoms like increased thirst and hunger and regular urination. Your dog may also begin losing weight or become lethargic. While it can be severe if left untreated, this disease can be successfully managed after diagnosis.

Glaucoma: A deadly eye condition that needs medical attention. Symptoms such as squinting, pain, watery eyes, and redness can display glaucoma, leading to blindness. 

Hip dysplasia: A hereditary condition in which the thigh bone fails to fit into the hip joint. One or both legs of your dog may become lame or ache. X-ray is the best way to analyze the situation. 


  • Wrong exercises  
  • Excessive weight gain  
  • Injuries  


  • Reluctance to rise, jump, run, or climb  
  • Enlarging shoulders  
  • Pain  
  • Stiffness  
  • Reduced activity and movements  
  • Reducing thigh muscle mass  
  • Grating in the joint during movement  
  • Lameness in the hind limbs  

Hypothyroidism: A dog’s metabolism is slowed due to insufficient thyroid hormone production. Symptoms are:  

  • Lethargy
  • Gaining weight
  • Reluctance to work out
  • Hair Loss

Eye Diseases: Some Cairn Terriers may develop various eye disorders. The breeder from whom you purchase your pup should have eye clearances dated within the past year for both parents, ensuring that their eyes are normal.

Elbow dysplasia: When your dog goes lame later in life, elbow dysplasia is the most common cause. It’s a malformation of the elbow joint, loss of motion, driving it to deviate, resulting in pain and, ultimately, lameness.

Patellar Luxation: This painful condition is the falling of the knee cap from its spot in the legs. Signs are dogs feel uncomfortable while hiking or running and kick their leg to set the knee cap in its position.

Portosystemic Liver Shunt: A disorder in which the liver does not get sufficient blood supply to purify it. As the name indicates, blood flow to the liver will be shunted. You can fix this condition through surgery.

Spay or Neuter: In spay, the ovaries or uterus in females is removed, and in the neuter, the testicles of the male dogs are removed. It is done to eliminate the possibility of pregnancy or fathering unwanted puppies and decrease the likelihood of certain types of cancer.

Recommended Health Tests

  • Patella Evaluation
  • GCL DNA Test
  • PSVA
  • MVD
  • Kidney Aplasia/Dysplasia
  • Cardiac Exam
  • Ophthalmologist Evaluation

Cairn Terrier Diet and Nutrition

A Cairn Terrier will consume 1/2 to 1 cup of high-quality dry food daily, split into two meals, depending on age, build, activity level, size, and metabolism. Hence, you can deliver them with a well-balanced protein diet for proper growth and body maintenance. If you find your Cairn overweight or obese, visit your vet and get a mealtime and exercise schedule to help them lose those extra flaps.

Cairn Terrier Living Condition

Cairn Terriers are adaptable and can thrive in any environment. However, they prefer human companionship, which can appreciate and fulfill the needs of these affectionate, caring breeds. In addition, they may locate an unwanted medium to keep themselves engaged when bored or lonely. Hence, they should not be left alone for long periods, mostly without toys to keep them equipped.

Did You Know?

  • The best-known iconic Cairn Terrier is “Toto,” ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ film in 1939. However, the dog’s real name was “Terry,” and though this Cairn played a male role, Terry was a female.
  • Celebrated owners of Cairn Terriers have included Liza Minelli (daughter of Judy Garland, who acted alongside Toto in The Wizard of Oz and Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson.
  • Cairn is alert, active, intelligent, and long-lived.

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