Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Information

About the Dog Breed Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is one of many breeds developed in the Scottish highlands. He was created as a natural solution to vermin control. Cairns are rock piles that were commonly found on Scottish farmlands. This small terrier’s job was to manage the piles, search for mice and other vermin, and swiftly dispatch them. Larger animals that are denounced in rocks could also be victims of the cairn who would burrow down into the pile and hold the animal in place until the handler could come to him. This is a job he excelled at, and if given a chance, still does today.

Physical Characteristics

The Cairn Terrier is a small breed dog of stocky build. He is not dainty or overly fragile as you find with breeds like the Yorkshire terrier. Instead, he is short on the leg and very muscular. His feet are designed for digging with thick pads and strong nails, and he has well-developed muscles in his shoulders and rear. He also has a thick tail. Thick tails are often used to pull dogs out of spots they find themselves in and are thicker by design to avoid damaging them.

The cairn is of mid-weight for a small dog at about 13-15 pounds. He can come in various colours, with the most common being the darker grey or brindle colour that Toto made famous in The Wizard of Oz movie or the lighter wheaten colour. He comes in other various shades of reds or tans as well.


The Cairn Terrier is a lively, fun-spirited little dog that is the life of the party anywhere he goes. He is a big dog in a small package, and many people that are normally not fans of small dogs eagerly enjoy the cairn terrier. They are outgoing, friendly, and intelligent little dogs, but they can make their own decisions as well. Those familiar with these terriers know very well that cairns are very intelligent, but they also don’t always follow every order on command!

Cairns are independent workers, and while they enjoy their human company, they often have their ideas about the task at hand. This means their owners should have a sense of humour and learn to laugh, as cairns can be quite entertaining.

Cairns fit into almost any lifestyle and living environment, but they are active dogs that need regular daily exercise to stay happy. They enjoy being part of the family and do not do well with social isolation. A bored and unhappy cairn will easily make himself busy with other tasks.

Cairns may not do well in homes with small handheld pets such as mice, rats, guinea pigs, or hamsters. Birds may also pose a challenge. These animals can all easily be viewed as prey. If raised and properly trained with a cat, the cairn may live compatibly with a feline, but some cairns may also view cats as prey, particularly if they have not lived with one early on.

Cairns can also do well with children, but early socialization is necessary. Terriers are not always tolerant of very young children and toddlers who may be heavy-handed. They often do best with children who are a little older and know how to interact with dogs properly.  



The cairn is easily trained, and he can learn obedience skills and tricks easily and quickly. He loves to learn new skills and play games. It’s all great fun! The challenge is keeping him motivated to work with you. Training based on positive reinforcement that utilizes a lot of motivation works best for cairns. He works even better if he thinks it’s all his idea.

Cairns have to be watched in open areas, and it is advised that one not allow the dog off-leash in open spaces. He will take to chasing after anything that moves quite easily, and being a terrier, he may or may not return on the first command!
Harsh training is not necessary at all, but consistency is required. He does need someone he can respect and follow. If not given this, he may be viewed as quite willful or disobedient at times.

Shedding & Grooming

Cairn terriers are a very wash-and-wear kind of dog with little maintenance. They have a wiry, harsh-feeling coat that is weather resistant. It is a double coat, with the outer layer being the rugged feeling layer. The undercoat is softer and denser and is much shorter in length.

Grooming a cairn terrier can be done at home if you learn the correct technique. Proper grooming is done through a process called stripping. Stripping can be done by hand or by using a stripping tool, but dead hair is removed by the roots in either method. This doesn’t damage his outer coat layer but allows new growth to come in.

Otherwise, he requires very little grooming except for the occasional brushing and bath. Regular nail trims and tooth brushing is also recommended.

Health & Life Expectancy

The cairn terrier is a fairly healthy dog and can be expected to live to about 13-14 years of age. The breed does have some issues that can occur, some genetic and others derived from the environment or age.

The Cairn Terrier Club of America ( is an excellent resource for health issues related to the cairn terrier. They identify the following issues as potential health problems for cairns:

  • Allergies
  • Cataracts
  • Craniomandibular osteopathy
  • Cryptorchidism
  • Globoid cell leukodystrophy
  • Heart defects
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Legg-Perthes
  • Luxated patellae
  • Ocular melanosis
  • Liver portosystemic vascular anomaly and microvascular dysplasia
  • Progressive retinal atrophy
  • Renal dysplasia
  • Seizures/epilepsy
  • Scottie cramps
  • Von Willebrand’s

These are health problems seen more frequently, but not all individual cairn terriers will be affected.