Cairn Terrier

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cairn terrier portrait
Meet the Cairn Terrier, a small but mighty dog breed that has captured hearts and homes around the world! With their scruffy, lovable appearance and an adventurous spirit that's hard to resist, these tenacious terriers are anything but ordinary.

Join us in this comprehensive guide as we explore everything you need to know about this breed, including their appearance, temperament, ideal environment, grooming, exercise requirements, training tips, dietary needs, health concerns, history, and more.

Best For

The Cairn Terrier is best suited for those who appreciate a spirited, intelligent, and loyal companion. While they adapt well to various living situations, including apartments, they do require consistent training and socialization to ensure they’re well-behaved little family members. If you’re ready for a devoted, fun-loving friend, the Cairn Terrier is the perfect match!


BREED GROUPTerrier Group
HEIGHT9-13 inches
WEIGHT13-18 lbs
LIFESPAN13-15 years
cairn terrier outdoor
Photo: D_Theodora/Pixabay


The Cairn Terrier is a small, sturdy dog that embodies the true terrier spirit. With their well-proportioned and compact frames, these dogs are built for agility and endurance. Their height typically ranges from 9 to 13 inches at the shoulder, and they weigh between 13 and 18 pounds, with males being slightly larger than females. Despite their size, Cairn Terriers are known for their strength and resilience.

The body of a Cairn Terrier is designed for versatility and efficiency. They have a level topline, deep chest, and well-sprung ribs, which provide ample space for their lungs and heart. Their muscular legs enable them to move with agility and grace, while their strong, flexible loin contributes to their overall sturdiness. The tail of a Cairn Terrier is short, but not docked, and is carried gaily without curling over the back.

One of the most distinctive features of a Cairn Terrier is their head, which is broad and strong, giving them a wise and alert expression. The breed’s medium-sized eyes are set wide apart, and their color varies from hazel to dark brown. The Cairn’s ears are small, pointed, and erect, adding to their lively and inquisitive appearance.

Cairn Terriers have a unique double coat that sets them apart from other terrier breeds. The outer coat is weather-resistant, consisting of harsh, wiry hair that can be straight or slightly wavy. Underneath the coarse outer layer, they have a soft, dense undercoat that provides insulation and protection from the elements. The combination of these two layers gives the Cairn Terrier its signature shaggy appearance.

The coat of a Cairn Terrier comes in a variety of colors, including red, brindle, black, sand, and gray. It’s worth noting that their coat may change color as they mature, and some may even develop silver or cream highlights. To maintain their coat’s texture and appearance, regular grooming is essential, including brushing to remove dead hair and prevent matting.

The overall expression of a Cairn Terrier is one of intelligence, curiosity, and friendliness. Their unique physical characteristics, combined with their lively and energetic personalities, make them an endearing and attractive breed for those seeking a small yet spirited canine companion.

cairn terrier walking on a beach
Photo: KayWellBeingCo/Pixabay


Cairn Terriers are known for their lively, spirited, and independent temperament, which is a testament to their working terrier roots. These small dogs are full of personality, making them an entertaining and engaging companion for those who appreciate their unique character traits.

One of the most defining aspects of the Cairn Terrier’s temperament is their energetic and playful nature. They are always ready for an adventure, whether it’s exploring their surroundings or engaging in a spirited game with their family members. Their innate curiosity drives them to investigate everything around them, which can make life with a Cairn Terrier both exciting and unpredictable.

Cairn Terriers are also intelligent and quick-witted, which contributes to their overall charm. They have a keen sense of humor and often display a mischievous streak that can be endearing yet challenging at times.

Despite their small size, they are confident and assertive, which can lead to them being somewhat stubborn and strong-willed. However, their intelligence also means that they are capable of learning quickly and adapting to new situations with ease.

The Cairn Terrier’s loyalty to their family is another remarkable aspect of their temperament. They form strong bonds with their loved ones and thrive on companionship and affection. While they are friendly and sociable with people they know, they can be reserved or cautious around strangers.

This wariness, combined with their natural instincts to protect their home and family, makes them effective watchdogs, as they will not hesitate to alert their owners to any perceived threats.

Despite their independent nature, Cairn Terriers are sensitive dogs that respond well to positive reinforcement and gentle guidance from their owners. They appreciate consistency and routine, which helps them feel secure and confident in their environment.

It’s essential to establish a trusting relationship with your Cairn Terrier so they understand that you are the leader and will look to you for guidance.

Cairn Terriers are generally good with children, especially if they are raised together from a young age. They are patient and tolerant with kids, but it’s essential to teach children how to interact respectfully with dogs to ensure a harmonious relationship. Due to their high energy levels and boisterous play, Cairn Terriers may be better suited to families with older children who can engage with them appropriately.

When it comes to other pets, Cairn Terriers can be selective about their companions. They typically get along well with other dogs, particularly if they are socialized early on. However, their strong prey drive may make them less compatible with smaller animals such as cats, rodents, or birds. It’s crucial to supervise interactions between your Cairn Terrier and other pets to ensure their safety and prevent any unwanted chasing or aggression.

Ideal Environment

The Cairn Terrier thrives in a variety of environments, but there are certain factors that contribute to creating an ideal living situation for this energetic breed. Understanding their specific needs and preferences is essential for ensuring their happiness and well-being.

Ideal Owner

When it comes to pet parents, Cairn Terriers are best suited for individuals or families who appreciate their lively nature and independent spirit. They need owners who are patient, consistent, and willing to invest time in building a strong bond with their canine companion.

Cairn Terriers respond well to positive reinforcement and gentle guidance, so a pet parent who is committed to using these training methods will be most successful in establishing a harmonious relationship with their dog.

Other Pets

In terms of other pets, Cairn Terriers can coexist with other animals if properly socialized from a young age. They generally get along well with other dogs, particularly if raised together. However, their strong prey drive may make them less compatible with smaller pets like cats, rodents, or birds. It’s essential to supervise interactions between your Cairn Terrier and other pets to ensure the safety of all animals involved.

Physical Environment

As for the physical environment, Cairn Terriers are adaptable and can comfortably live in various settings, from urban apartments to rural homes with large yards. Regardless of the living situation, they require a secure and stimulating environment where they can safely explore and satisfy their natural curiosity.

Climate Adaptability

Cairn Terriers are relatively hardy dogs, but certain precautions should be taken when it comes to their adaptability to extreme temperatures. They have a weather-resistant double coat that provides some protection against cold weather, but they are not immune to the effects of extreme cold.

During winter months, it’s important to monitor your Cairn Terrier’s comfort level outdoors and provide them with a warm, cozy place to rest indoors.

In hot climates, Cairn Terriers may be more susceptible to heat-related issues, such as heatstroke. It’s crucial to provide them with ample shade and fresh water during hot weather and avoid strenuous activities during the hottest parts of the day.

Additionally, consider investing in a cooling mat or vest to help keep your Cairn Terrier comfortable in warmer temperatures.

cairn terrier on a park
Photo: hazelw90/Pixabay


Cairn Terriers are a low-maintenance breed when it comes to grooming, but they do have specific needs that should be addressed regularly to keep them looking and feeling their best. A consistent grooming routine will not only promote good hygiene and appearance but also helps strengthen the bond between you and your pet.

Coat Care

Cairn Terriers possess a weather-resistant double coat, consisting of a soft, dense undercoat and a rough, wiry outer coat. This combination helps protect them from harsh weather conditions and provides a low-shedding quality. To maintain their coat’s health and appearance, regular brushing is essential.

Aim to brush your Cairn Terrier at least once or twice a week using a slicker brush or a pin brush designed for wire-haired breeds. Brushing will help remove any loose hair, prevent matting, and distribute natural oils evenly throughout their coat. Be gentle when brushing to avoid damaging their sensitive skin.

While Cairn Terriers don’t typically require frequent bathing, you should bathe them as needed, depending on their lifestyle and activity level. Use a mild, dog-specific shampoo formulated for wire-haired breeds to maintain the coat’s texture. Over-bathing can strip the natural oils from their coat, leading to dry, irritated skin.

Stripping and Trimming

Cairn Terriers’ coats need occasional hand-stripping or trimming to maintain their distinct appearance and texture. Hand-stripping involves plucking out the dead hairs from the outer coat, allowing new growth to come in. This process is typically done every 4-6 months and can be performed by a professional groomer or learned by the owner.

Alternatively, some owners opt for clipping or trimming their Cairn Terrier’s coat with grooming scissors or electric clippers. While this method is more convenient, it can alter the coat’s texture and color over time. If you choose to trim your Cairn Terrier’s coat, focus on areas such as their face, ears, and paws to maintain a neat appearance.

Dental Care

Like all dog breeds, Cairn Terriers require regular dental care to prevent plaque buildup, gum disease, and bad breath. Aim to brush your dog’s teeth at least two or three times per week using a soft-bristle toothbrush and dog-specific toothpaste. Incorporating dental chews or toys and providing a balanced diet can also help maintain good oral hygiene.

Nail Care

Cairn Terriers should have their nails trimmed every 3-4 weeks or as needed, depending on their activity level and nail growth rate. Overgrown nails can cause discomfort and affect your dog’s gait, potentially leading to joint issues.

Use a dog-specific nail trimmer or grinder to keep their nails at an appropriate length. If you’re unsure about trimming your dog’s nails, consult with a veterinarian or professional groomer for guidance.

Ear and Eye Care

Regularly inspect your Cairn Terrier’s ears for signs of infection, such as redness, swelling, or foul odor. Clean their ears gently with a dog-specific ear cleaner and cotton balls or pads, taking care not to insert anything deep into the ear canal. Keep their eyes clean by wiping away any discharge with a damp cloth or pet-safe eye wipes.

cairn terrier out in the snow
Photo: dendoktoor/Pixabay


The Cairn Terrier is an energetic and lively breed that requires regular physical activity to maintain their overall health and happiness. As a breed originally developed for hunting and working on the Scottish moors, they have an innate desire to explore and expend energy. Meeting their exercise needs is essential for keeping them mentally stimulated, physically fit, and preventing boredom-related behavioral issues.

Exercise Amount and Types

Cairn Terriers typically require a minimum of 30-60 minutes of exercise per day, which can be broken up into two or three shorter sessions, depending on your dog’s individual needs and preferences. Keep in mind that the exercise requirements may vary based on factors such as age, health, and energy level, so it’s crucial to tailor your Cairn Terrier’s exercise routine accordingly.

A variety of activities can be incorporated into your Cairn Terrier’s exercise routine to keep them engaged and challenged. Regular walks are a staple for any dog’s exercise routine, providing both physical activity and mental stimulation. Walking your Cairn Terrier on different routes or exploring new environments can help keep things interesting for both you and your dog.

Interactive play is another great way to engage with your Cairn Terrier and provide them with exercise. They love to play with their owners and engage in games like fetch, tug-of-war, or chasing a flirt pole. These activities not only provide physical exercise but also help strengthen the bond between you and your pet.

If your Cairn Terrier is well-behaved and has a reliable recall, allowing them to run off-leash in a safely enclosed area can be a great way for them to burn off excess energy. Dog parks can also provide an opportunity for socialization with other dogs, but always supervise interactions to ensure a positive experience.

Cairn Terriers have a strong prey drive and enjoy using their noses to sniff out hidden treats. Engaging in scent-based activities or providing them with puzzle toys can help keep their minds active and satisfy their natural instincts.

Dog Sports

Cairn Terriers are intelligent and agile dogs that often excel in dog sports such as agility, obedience, or rally. Participating in these activities can provide mental stimulation and help channel their energy in a positive direction.

Exercise Precautions

When planning your Cairn Terrier’s exercise routine, it’s important to consider factors such as the weather, your dog’s age, and any health-related limitations. In hot climates, schedule exercise during cooler parts of the day to prevent overheating. For seniors or dogs with health issues, consult with your veterinarian to determine the most appropriate exercise regimen.


Cairn Terriers are intelligent and eager-to-please dogs, which makes them relatively easy to train when compared to other terrier breeds. However, they can also be independent and stubborn at times, which may require patience and persistence during training sessions. Consistency and positive reinforcement are key factors in successfully training a Cairn Terrier.

When training your Cairn Terrier, it’s important to start early, ideally during the puppy stage. Early socialization is crucial for this breed, as it helps them develop into well-rounded and confident adult dogs. Introduce your Cairn Terrier to a variety of people, animals, and environments to ensure they become comfortable with different situations and stimuli.

Cairn Terriers respond best to positive reinforcement training methods, such as using praise, treats, and toys as rewards for good behavior. Avoid punishment-based techniques, as these can lead to fear, anxiety, and aggression in your dog.

Instead, focus on rewarding desired behaviors and redirecting or ignoring undesired ones. Keep training sessions short and engaging, as Cairn Terriers have a limited attention span and can quickly lose interest if sessions are too long or repetitive.

Obedience training is an essential aspect of raising a well-behaved Cairn Terrier. Teach basic commands like “sit”, “stay”, “come”, and “leave it” to help establish a foundation of communication and control. Due to their strong prey drive, it’s particularly important to work on reliable recall and impulse control, as this will help prevent your Cairn Terrier from chasing after small animals.

Cairn Terriers are known for their digging and barking tendencies, which can be challenging for some owners. Address these behaviors through training by providing appropriate outlets for their digging instincts, such as a designated digging area in your yard, and teaching the “quiet” command to curb excessive barking.

This breed is highly adaptable and can excel in various dog sports and activities, such as agility, rally, and earthdog trials. Participating in these activities can provide mental stimulation, strengthen the bond between you and your Cairn Terrier, and reinforce their training.

Although Cairn Terriers are generally considered to be trainable dogs, it’s essential to remember that each dog is an individual with its own temperament and learning pace. Some Cairn Terriers may require more time and patience during training than others.

If you encounter difficulties or need additional guidance, consider enlisting the help of a professional dog trainer or enrolling in a group obedience class.

cairn terrier standing on a teeter totter
Photo: s5iztok/Getty Images

Diet & Nutrition 

The diet and nutrition of a Cairn Terrier play an essential role in maintaining their overall health and well-being. Providing your dog with a balanced and appropriate diet can help prevent various health issues, support their energy levels, and contribute to a healthy coat and skin.

What to Feed & How Much

When selecting a diet for your Cairn Terrier, it’s important to consider factors such as their age, weight, activity level, and any specific dietary requirements or allergies they may have.

In general, it’s recommended to choose a high-quality commercial dog food that follows AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) guidelines. These guidelines ensure that the food meets the nutritional requirements necessary for your dog’s health.

There are various types of dog food available, including dry kibble, wet food, and raw food diets. Each type has its pros and cons, so it’s essential to research and consult with your veterinarian to determine the best option for your Cairn Terrier.

The amount of food your Cairn Terrier requires will depend on their age, weight, and activity level. Puppies typically require more frequent meals, usually three to four times a day, to support their growth and development.

As your Cairn Terrier transitions into adulthood, you can reduce the feeding frequency to two meals per day. Always refer to the feeding guidelines provided by the dog food manufacturer and adjust the portions based on your dog’s individual needs.

It’s crucial to monitor your Cairn Terrier’s weight and body condition regularly to prevent obesity, which can lead to various health problems. If you notice your dog gaining excessive weight, consider adjusting their food portions or increasing their exercise routine.

On the other hand, if your Cairn Terrier appears underweight, consult with your veterinarian to determine if there’s an underlying issue or if their diet needs adjustment.

Treats & Water

Treats can be a useful tool for training and rewarding good behavior, but they should be given in moderation to avoid excessive weight gain. Choose healthy, low-calorie treats, or consider using small pieces of your Cairn Terrier’s regular kibble as rewards.

Always ensure that any treats you provide are safe for dogs and avoid feeding them human food that may be toxic, such as chocolate, grapes, or onions.

Lastly, it’s important to provide your Cairn Terrier with fresh water at all times. Make sure their water bowl is clean and replenished regularly to encourage adequate hydration.


Cairn Terriers are generally a healthy and hardy breed, with a life expectancy of 13 to 15 years. However, like all breeds, they can be prone to certain health issues. Being aware of these potential problems and taking preventive measures can help ensure your Cairn Terrier lives a long, happy, and healthy life.

Some common health issues associated with Cairn Terriers include:

Patellar Luxation: This condition occurs when the kneecap (patella) slips out of its normal position, causing discomfort and potentially leading to arthritis or other joint issues. Regular veterinary check-ups can help detect patellar luxation early, and treatment may include surgery if necessary.

Hip Dysplasia: This is a genetic disorder where the hip joint doesn’t develop properly, leading to arthritis and pain. Maintaining a healthy weight and providing moderate exercise can help manage the condition, but severe cases may require surgical intervention.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA): PRA is an eye disease that causes gradual deterioration of the retina, eventually leading to blindness. There is no cure for PRA, but regular eye exams by a veterinary ophthalmologist can help identify the condition early and allow for proper management.

Allergies: Cairn Terriers are prone to various types of allergies, including food, contact, and environmental allergies. Symptoms can range from itching and skin irritation to gastrointestinal issues. Consult with your veterinarian to determine the cause of the allergy and develop an appropriate treatment plan.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO): CMO is a rare bone disorder that affects the skull and jaw, causing excessive bone growth and swelling. The condition usually appears in young dogs and can be painful. Treatment may include pain management and supportive care, with some cases resolving as the dog matures.

cairn terrier smiling
Photo: Hinotori Photography/Getty Images


The Cairn Terrier is a small, sturdy, and spirited dog breed originating from the Scottish Highlands. The breed’s history dates back several centuries, with its roots in the working terriers of Scotland.

These terriers were bred to be versatile and hardy, capable of hunting and exterminating vermin, such as rats and otters, that inhabited the rocky cairns (piles of stones used as landmarks or memorials) in the region. The Cairn Terrier’s tenacious nature and keen sense of smell made them well-suited for this task.

In the early days, there was little distinction between various terrier breeds in Scotland. They were often grouped together based on their size and function, rather than their specific lineage. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that efforts were made to distinguish and standardize the different terrier breeds.

In 1873, the first dog show classes specifically for terriers were held in Inverness, Scotland, where the early versions of Cairn Terriers were exhibited under the name “Short-haired Skye Terriers.”

The breed’s name changed to “Cairn Terrier” in the early 20th century to better reflect their original purpose and to differentiate them from the Skye Terrier, which had become a distinct breed by that time. The name “Cairn” was chosen because these dogs were known for their ability to hunt among the cairns in the Scottish Highlands.

The first breed standard for the Cairn Terrier was established in 1909 by the Kennel Club in the United Kingdom. The breed quickly gained popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, and the first Cairn Terrier was imported to the United States in 1913. The American Kennel Club (AKC) officially recognized the breed in 1914, with the formation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America following shortly thereafter in 1917.

Cairn Terriers have had a notable presence in popular culture, which has contributed to their enduring appeal. Arguably, the most famous Cairn Terrier is Terry, the dog who portrayed Toto in the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” This beloved character introduced many people to the charms of the breed and helped solidify their place in the hearts of dog lovers worldwide.

In addition to their success on the silver screen, Cairn Terriers have also made a name for themselves in the world of dog shows. One of the most celebrated Cairn Terriers in show history is Eng. Ch. Splinters of Twobytwo, who won Best in Show at Crufts, the prestigious British dog show, in 1961.

Today, the Cairn Terrier remains a popular and cherished breed, known for its friendly and affectionate nature, intelligence, and spirited personality. They are adaptable dogs that can thrive in various environments, from city apartments to country homes. Their size, combined with their low grooming requirements, makes them an appealing choice for many families.

Parent Club

The official parent club for the Cairn Terrier dog breed in the United States is the Cairn Terrier Club of America (CTCA). Founded in 1917, the CTCA is dedicated to promoting and preserving the Cairn Terrier breed through education, responsible breeding practices, and breed-specific events.

The club also supports rescue efforts and works to connect prospective owners with reputable breeders. The official webpage for the Cairn Terrier Club of America can be accessed here.

Breed Standard

A breed standard is a set of guidelines established by breed clubs or kennel organizations, defining the ideal appearance, temperament, and physical traits of a specific breed. It serves as a reference for breeders, judges, and enthusiasts to evaluate and maintain a breed’s unique qualities.

Covering aspects like size, appearance, and temperament, breed standards are used in dog shows and competitions to assess individual dogs against the ideal representation of their breed.

You can check the Cairn Terrier’s breed standard set by the American Kennel Club (AKC) here.

cairn terrier walking in the nature
Photo: Bigandt_Photography/Getty Images


When considering acquiring a Cairn Terrier, it’s important to research and prepare for the responsibility of dog ownership. Begin by gathering information about the breed’s characteristics, needs, and potential health issues.

Rescue organizations often have dogs in need of loving homes, and adopting from them is a great way to help these animals while also finding a wonderful companion. The American Kennel Club (AKC) and the Cairn Terrier Club of America (CTCA) can provide assistance in locating rescue organizations and reputable breeders in your area.

Before bringing your Cairn Terrier home, prepare by purchasing necessary supplies, such as a crate, food, toys, and grooming tools. Additionally, ensure you have access to a veterinarian for regular check-ups and vaccinations. By taking these steps, you’ll be well on your way to welcoming a happy and healthy Cairn Terrier into your life.


Are Cairn Terriers good family dogs?

Yes, Cairn Terriers make excellent family pets. They are known for their friendly, affectionate, and playful nature. They get along well with children and other pets, making them a great addition to families of all sizes.

Do Cairn Terriers bark a lot?

Cairn Terriers can be vocal dogs, and they may bark to alert their owners of strangers or potential threats. However, with proper training and socialization, excessive barking can be managed and reduced.

What are the disadvantages of owning a Cairn Terrier?

Some potential drawbacks of owning a Cairn Terrier include their stubbornness, which can make training more challenging, and their tendency to dig and chase small animals due to their hunting instincts. Additionally, they may require regular grooming to prevent matting of their double coat.

Do Cairn Terriers like to cuddle?

While each dog’s personality is unique, many Cairn Terriers enjoy cuddling and being close to their owners. They are affectionate and love spending time with their human companions.

How much exercise do Cairn Terriers need?

Cairn Terriers are energetic dogs that require 30-60 minutes of daily exercise to maintain their health and happiness. A combination of walks, playtime, and mental stimulation through activities like puzzle toys or training sessions is ideal for keeping them engaged and well-exercised.

Are Cairn Terriers easy to train?

Cairn Terriers are intelligent and eager to learn, but their independent and stubborn nature can sometimes make training more challenging. Consistent, positive reinforcement and patience are crucial when training a Cairn Terrier. It’s also important to start training and socialization early to ensure a well-behaved dog.

Are Cairn Terriers hypoallergenic?

While no dog breed is completely hypoallergenic, Cairn Terriers are considered less likely to cause allergies due to their low-shedding double coat. However, individual reactions to dogs can vary, and it’s essential to spend time with a Cairn Terrier before committing to ownership if allergies are a concern.

Fun Facts

  • Did you know that’s how this breed got its name? A “cairn” is a pile of stones, often used as a landmark or monument. The Cairn Terrier was so named because of its skill in hunting among these rocky piles. Who knew geology could be so important in dog naming!
  • The most famous Cairn Terrier is undoubtedly Terry, who played Toto in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Despite being a female, Terry convincingly played the male character of Toto and became one of the most recognizable dogs in cinema history.

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