Cairn Terrier

Written by: Jamie
Updated: April 4, 2021

One of Scotland’s earliest working breeds is the Cairn Terrier. Find out everything you need to know about this cute and spirited dog below.

cairn terrier running outdoors

Height: Male 10 inches, female 9.5 inches
Weight: 6-7.5 kilos
Cairn Terrier Lifespan: 13-15 years
Pedigree? (registered with the KC?): Yes, this breed is registered with the Kennel Club.

Positives and Negatives

Check out the pros and cons of the Cairn Terrier below:


  • Ideal watchdog
  • Low exercise needs
  • Robust and sturdy despite their size
  • Great family pet, hypoallergenic


  • High grooming maintenance
  • Strong prey drive
  • Typical Terrier Temperament
  • Prone to separation anxiety

cairn terrier portrait close on sky background


The Cairn Terrier may be small in size, but these little canines are certainly tough! They’re ideal for dog owners seeking a small companion that is robust as opposed to delicate.

Adorable and cute, the Cairn Terrier is kept warm by its Shaggy coat. Colour combinations include red, black, brindle, wheaten, cream, and grey.

Due to their working lifestyle, the Cairn Terrier has larger front paws compared to their rear paws. It is a feature that allows them to dig better.

Owners should expect to find multiple holes in their garden as this breed loves digging! Some owners give their dogs a designated digging area to prevent them from wrecking the whole garden.

You may remember Toto from the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ 1939. A female Cairn Terrier called Terry played the role of Toto.

Terry quickly rose to fame and was known by many as ‘The Best Little Pal in the World’! She featured in at least 17 films with her earnings at one stage surpassing the wage packets of human actors!

Other famous films that feature the Cairn Terrier include Mary Queen of Scots 1971, Inkheart 2008, and Elizabeth: The Golden Age 2007. There are simply too many films to list!

King Edward VIII who later abdicated the English throne to marry Wallace Simpson, was also a proud owner to the Cairn Terrier.

Cairn Terriers are known for their adaptability and can be suitable for apartment living. Given the right socialization, exercise, and training, this breed can happily live in a flat.

Cairn Terriers have a low boredom threshold and will become destructive without the right stimulation.

cairn terrier running outdoors on a sunny day


Hailing from the Isle of Skye within the Scottish Highlands, the Cairn Terrier is an ancient breed. They were commonly found on farmland. One of their jobs was to prevent vermin from rock piles.

It is how they earned their name, with Cairn translating to stacks of stones. These were used to mark graves and boundaries.

Cairn Terriers have been in existence for hundreds of years. However, they weren’t categorized as their own breed until 1912, with their name first appearing in 1887.

It was during this period the West Highland Terrier, Skye Terrier, and Scottish Terrier were all distinguished as separate breeds.

Originally, this canine was bred to hunt vermin, rodents, rabbits, and foxes. They were commonly owned by Scottish hunters and shepherds.

Later, by the 18th-19th century, Badgers and Otters were added to their prey list. Whilst they may be one of Scotland’s earliest working breeds, they weren’t as popular as the Skye Terrier and Westie at the time.

At first, they were known as the ‘Short-coated Skye’ or the ‘Prick-eared Skye’. However, due to opposition from Skye Terrier breeders, they were finally given their own name.

This change led to their Kennel Club recognition in 1910. That same year The Cairn Terrier Club was established.

Today, Cairn Terriers are confident show dogs and companions. They still hunt vermin and have a strong prey drive.

Unfortunately, they have never won Best in Show at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. Unlike the Scottish and Skye Terriers who have taken several wins!


Cairn Terrier Temperament:

Cairn Terriers hold the Typical Terrier Temperament, displaying behaviours such as digging, stubbornness, fearlessness, and independence. They are devoted, loyal companions that require their owner’s company for the majority of the day.

cairn terrier standing on yard

As one of the easier members of the Terrier family, Cairns can be a good choice for first-time owners. Those that are willing to spend time meeting the Cairns needs.

They love to follow their owners wherever they go. If left alone for long periods of time Cairns could develop separation anxiety.

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Are Cairn Terriers Good with Strangers?

Cairn Terriers can be reserved around strangers, but are generally friendly. As natural watchdogs, they will always alert their owners to guests at the door. Introduce a Cairn Terrier puppy to a variety of different places and people to prevent anxiousness later on in life.

Are Cairn Terriers Good with Children?

Yes, this breed gets along well with children and makes a great family dog. Cairns love playing with kids although they aren’t always tolerant with poking and prodding from toddlers. For this reason, they are better suited to homes with older children.

Are Cairn Terriers Ok with Other Dogs?

Cairn Terriers can be territorial and may react aggressively towards strange dogs. This breed can live with other canines but may be dominant towards them. Due to their high prey drive, they will instinctively chase smaller animals, including rabbit-sized dogs.

Cairn Terrier puppies should be raised together with other household pets. They won’t be very accepting of any newcomers in their adult life.


The Cairn Terrier dog will need up to one hour of exercise each day. Due to their strong prey drive, they should only be allowed off-leash in enclosed areas.

This breed is high in energy and requires lots of stimulation to prevent boredom. Digging is an activity Cairns love, but it will need to be curbed to prevent this from becoming excessive.

A Cairn terrier pup should never be overexerted as this can be damaging for their joints. Vigorous play is recommended once the dog begins to reach maturity.

No matter where they live, be it the rural Scottish Highlands or the city, Cairn Terriers will thrive if their needs are being met.

Dog sports are great for the Cairn Terrier. They excel in earth dog trials, agility, tracking, obedience, coursing, and herding.

cairn terrier on snow

Recommended next: A fluffy coat is what makes the Pyrenean Mastiff ideal for outdoor living. Check our guide for information about this breed.


Check out the breed-related health conditions of the Cairn Terrier below:

  • Patella Luxation- The kneecap (Patella) will dislocate out of position for a short period of time before quickly relocating back into place.
  • Von Willebrands Disease- This condition affects the blood platelets causing excessive bleeding and bruising. It’s the most common inherited blood disorder.
  • Legg-Perthes Disease- This health issue will cause symptoms such as pain and limping. The affected hip joint will crumble and collapse. An operation can be undertaken to remove the affected hip joint.
  • Atopy- A lifelong incurable skin disease. Owners will have to learn to manage the disorder by identifying any triggering factors.
  • Glaucoma- Closed-angle Glaucoma is caused by a sudden increase of pressure within the eye. This will cause severe pain. Open-angle Glaucoma is less common in dogs and occurs over time. It is also less painful.
  • Portosystemic Shunt- An abnormal hole allowing fluid to bypass one part of the body to another. Most dogs affected are born with this condition.
  • Cataracts- A cloudiness of the eye appears after a change of lens. If the opacity is large this could affect vision, leading to blindness.

Intelligence & Training

Cairn Terriers are deeply intelligent, learning commands fairly quickly. It is their stubborn side and strong prey drive that lets them down. For training to run smoothly, the Cairn must know who is boss! Be firm, concise, and patient.

Respect training should be taught in the first few weeks of your puppy’s new life!

These canines are known to be sensitive. They won’t take to harsh training methods which could put them off learning all together! Ensure sessions are kept short and they have been exercised to avert distraction.

Digging, barking, and chasing will be the hardest tasks to tackle. All three are embedded in the Cairn Terrier!

cairn terrier sitting on grass

Obedience is vital for any Terrier. They will quickly run rings around a soft owner. Positive reward-based training is the best way forward, but you mustn’t let them push the boundaries.

To housebreak your pet make a schedule and stick to it. That way the dog can understand when their toilet time is by falling into a routine.

Socialization with other dogs is important for Cairns. They can become dominant and even scrappy with dogs they don’t know.

Due to their small size and ‘never back down’ personality, a larger dog could seriously injure this breed.

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You may be wondering do Cairn Terriers shed? The answer is very little and for that reason, they are known as a hypoallergenic breed. No dog is 100% allergy free but you are much less likely to experience allergies with this breed.

As they shed lightly, brushing will be needed to remove dead fur.

This should be done multiple times a week, increasing to daily brushing during the Spring and Autumn months. Pin brushes, slicker brushes, and metal combs are ideal for their fur type.

cairn terrier running on garden

Baths should be given every 10-12 weeks and never sooner than every 6 weeks. They can be towel-dried or air-dried. Some owners, particularly those of show dogs will hand strip their pet.

This allows new hair to grow through the follicles and should be done every 6-8 months. A stripping knife will be needed although some seek professional help.

Ears will need to be cleaned every week to remove any debris in the canal. Nails should be trimmed fortnightly to prevent overgrowth. This grooming technique should be introduced as early as possible.

Not all dogs like their nails being done. Teeth will need brushing three times a week although vets recommend daily brushing.

About the Author

Hi, I'm Jamie! I've always been around dogs and now writing about them is an absolute joy.
Read more about my story here.
Reach me at or connect with me on LinkedIn below.

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