Dog Breed Review

Cairn Terrier




Are you looking for a best pal but at the same time in need of driving out pests? The answer may very well be with the Cairn Terrier; an alert, busy, and cheerful breed out of the highlands in Scotland.

This old rat chaser has been a favorite of the U.K. for centuries, while becoming a household name around the world, thanks to their appearances in classics like Wizard of Oz.

So what is it about this breed that makes them such a popular choice in Europe and America?

Here is what you need to know about the Cairn Terrier.


The breed’s name comes from the word “cairn,” which was a mound of stones built up to serve as a boundary around things like graves. And in Scotland, especially during the 16th century, the Scottish had problems with pests disrupting those sacred symbols.

So to solve this rich problem, fanciers and breeders began breeding a dog that could flush and chase away these cairn bandits. This would entail the enlistment of several breeds, in which over time would become the modern version of the Cairn Terrier.

Perhaps the man most responsible for this breed is Captain Martin MaCleod. Moreover, MaCleod was a famously known otter hunter and sportsmen. In fact, he is the man who bred a pack of Cairn Terriers for 40 years plus.

However, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s, that the breed began making appearances at canine shows. Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest this breed’s existence as far back as the 1600’s. That said, there was no distinction separating the Cairn Terrier from other Scottish terriers. Furthermore, this group would include the likes of the Western Highland White, Skye and Scottish Terrier.

Interestingly, the Cairn was known as the short coat Skye Terrier, which raises the amount of difficulty in tracing this breed’s dates of origin.

At the turn of the 20th century, as imports grew in the United Kingdom, fanciers saw to it that this breed had their own recognition. In fact, thanks to the work of two British fanciers, in 1910, the Cairn would receive recognition with the Kennel Club. 

In 1912, the breed began competing in British show rings competitions.

Meanwhile, in 1913, imports began to surge in the United States. Word was getting out about the breed’s working and companion abilities. That year, the American Kennel Club made it official with recognizing the Cairn Terrier as its own breed.

What made this breed stand out for centuries was their gritty nature. In fact, if not for their willingness to take on pests like foxes, rats and rabbits; an argument could be made that the breed would have never seen separation from the Scottish Terrier group.

Additionally, the legacy of the Cairn is their high threshold for pain. This is a breed that has no problem fighting on and making sure the job is done. This would help grow their following in the United States. However, the role of a Cairn Terrier in the U.S. is more of a companion/family dog.

Today, this breed ranks as the 70th most popular breed, according to the American Kennel Club’s rankings. 


The American Kennel Club considers the Cairn Terrier as a small breed. Moreover, the standard height for a male should be 10 inches. A female should stand at 9.5 inches.

A male should weigh in the neighborhood of 14 pounds, while a female should weigh 13 pounds, according to the AKC standard.


The Cairn Terrier is the perfect dog for a novice owner or a hand with experience. This is a breed that finds it easy to adapt. You can bring them along to a large living space or qualify them into apartment living. They may bark, but only when it’s absolutely necessary to do so. Moreover, you will need to train this breed out of their digging and chewing habits. Of course, most of these traits hinges on their past performance as a rat chasing dog.  You may find the Cairn exhibit prey drive at times, but again, this is nothing training and socialization can’t break.

This is a breed with a big heart and a personality to match. Expect somewhat of a diva. In fact, most owners say their Cairn Terrier thinks they’re bigger than what they really are. Don’t think this breed will back down. They can be very protective and will bark to alert their master. 

That said, with proper socialization as a puppy, this is a friendly breed. Cairn Terriers love affection and need attention from their family. That said, they aren’t fans of being alone for long periods of time. This can lead to destructive behavior due to boredom.

With regards to training, the Cairn can pick up commands without issue. They may exude a stubborn side making their master earn each request. However, at the end of the day, this is a breed that wants to please their owner. They are very intelligent and need training to be different and exciting. 

All and all, the Cairn Terrier is an explorer, that loves digging and nosing around. They love walks and quests outdoors. Regular exercise and mental stimulation will speak volumes towards this dog’s happiness. They should be fine with other dogs and smaller children. You may need to supervise interactions. 


The life expectancy of a Cairn Terrier is 13 to 15 years. By consideration, this is a healthy breed. However, they do encounter quite a laundry list of health complications. Whether the occurrence rate is low or high is benign in point. These are things to be weary of and keep an eye on.

First, the Cairn may be prone to battle Patellar Luxation. This orthopedic disease is when the knee cap slips out of the trochlear groove. This can quite painful, with a level of discomfort and lameness to follow. Patellar Luxation affects mostly small breeds like Boston Terriers and Yorkies.

Hypothyroidism can also be found with this breed. This is when there’s a lack of hormonal production from the thyroid gland. This condition has no cure but they’re treatment methods that makes life easier for the dog. Signs are hair loss, weakness and lethargy. Breeds like the Labrador Retriever, Doberman and English Setter have higher occurrences.

Another issue affecting small breeds like the Cairn Terrier is Legg Calve Perthes. This is when there’s a degeneration of the femur head bone or what some call “aseptic necrosis” of the femoral head. The result is typically inflammation of the joints and pain. 

Progressive Retinal Atrophy can be found in Cairn Terriers. At first, this may cause night blindness for the dog, but if it persists, then complete blindness may occur. Other breeds like the Siberian Husky, Akita, Beagle, and Pug have some of the higher occurrence rates. 

Your Cairn Terrier may be prone to issues like obesity, flea and grass allergies and heart issues like murmurs. This breed does have a lower occurrence rate for the bleeding disease Von Willebrand.

When you buy your Cairn Terrier, you should purchase from a reputable breeder, who can provide you with the proper documentation and health clearances. Couple that with regular inspections at the veterinarian and you increase the chances of a long and fulfilling life.


As a puppy, your Cairn Terrier may display some digging and chewing behaviors. This is normal, and they may not completely grow out of that behavior unless you stick with consistent training. They are curious explorers by nature, where their job in the past was to dig and chase out burrow mammals. 

They do require some exercise as they are a high energy breed. 45-60 minutes per day should be plenty enough recreational time. This is a breed that thrives in agility, tracking, herding and in earthdog events. These terriers need to stay busy and appreciate a task or job to do.

Plenty of love and affection is a prerequisite for this breed. You should include them in family outings and the breed doesn’t like being left alone for long periods of time.

A little bit of maintenance is necessary such as checking their ears for noticable bacteria to avoid infections. Brushing their teeth daily or regularly will help prevent tartar buildup and bad breath. You should only need to bathe them once per month depending on their position. Inspect their skin and eyes for debris and buildup.

Of course, if you want a social dog that is fine with strangers, early socialization and training is essential.


How much your Cairn Terrier eats will depend on whether or not you have a typical companion dog or a moderate working breed. Other factors like age and metabolism play a considerable role in the amount of food they consume. Spaying and neutering can also be factors in how much your dog eats.

With that said, you should feed your Cairn Terrier a high quality dry kibble with meat as the first ingredient. Meats like lean chicken, turkey, lamb, salmon are all suffice.

As far as the amount, most owners find success with feeding their Cairn Terriers 1/2 to 1 cup of top quality dry kibble per day. To avoid issues like obesity or bloat, you should break those meals up into twice a day.

For a 13 pound typical companion dog, your Cairn will only need around 450 calories per day, where a 14 pound Cairn will need 500 calories a day. For moderate working dogs at the same weights, you will need to feed them between 796 to 850 calories per day.

Of course, you should always provide your Cairn Terrier with fresh drinking water.


The Cairn Terrier has a double coat. They are rather easy to care for, with weekly brushing for this seasonal shedder. The undercoat consists of a furry and soft close to the skin texture. The outercoat is harsh and weather resistent. A soft slicker brush and weekly brushing should do the trick with this breed.

This breed has eleven acceptable coat colors; Black, black brindle, brindle, cream brindle, cream, gray, gray brindle, red, red brindle, silver, and wheaten.

There are three acceptable markings which are a black mask, black points and black markings.

Fun Cairn Terrier Facts

  • The Cairn Terrier was once known as the short coat Skye Terrier.
  • Remember Toto from Wizard of Oz? Yup, you have it right, that was a female Cairn Terrier.
  • Some believe that J Edgar Hooever use to breed several Cairns and gave them to friends and government officials.
  • There are historic references that indicate this breed belonging to King James I, who is said to have sent them to the King of France.
  • This breed has made many television appearances such as the shows “I Love Lucy” as Fred and the George Lopez Show as Mr. Needles.

Closing Words

The Cairn Terrier is one of the oldest working terriers around today. While this dog doesn’t go digging for trouble like it used to a century ago, they are still a curious breed that wants to explore.

However, it appears the days of chasing quarry out of their holes are over, and the days of being a kennel club athlete and companion are growing. A trend that most Cairn Terrier enthusiasts are happy to see.





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