What to Know About Cairn Terriers


In this Article

  • Characteristics of Cairn Terriers
  • Caring for Cairn Terriers
  • Health Problems to Watch for with Cairn Terriers
  • Special Considerations for Cairn Terriers
  • History of Cairn Terriers

The cairn terrier is an adorable, friendly dog breed that everyone loves. These dogs are small, playful, and a favorite of children. 

The first cairn terrier originated in Scotland more than 200 years ago. It was initially bred to suppress the vermin population.

Cairns love to explore and dig. They have a wiry and medium-length coat, so they require less grooming.

Characteristics of Cairn Terriers

Cairn terriers are short-legged, happy-go-lucky dogs with short and wide heads. The average cairn terrier size is around 10 inches high and 15 inches long. 

Male dogs weigh around 14 pounds, and females weigh 13 pounds. The average cairn terrier lifespan is 13 to 15 years. 


The cairn terrier’s characteristics include a harsh, wiry coat on top and a downy coat underneath. This dog rarely drools, and their coat only sheds a little. They are small, hairy, alert dogs with bright eyes. 

They are cute enough to sit in your lap and strong enough to be your walking companion. For people who prefer to have a happy, thoughtful, playful, and loyal dog, cairn terriers are the perfect breed.


Cairn terriers are lively and friendly dogs. They are affectionate toward children and adults alike and can play all day. 

Cairn terriers are easily motivated and highly trainable. Sometimes, in fact, they require mental stimulation to engage in to avoid getting into trouble.

This dog breed is not friendly to other small animals, so never leave them alone with your other, smaller pets. Despite being small, cairns are bold and courageous, and they will attack larger dogs if they are not socialized well. 

Caring for Cairn Terriers

Cairn terriers are easy to take care of. They have a short coat that doesn’t require much grooming, but you should brush and comb it at least once a week. 

Long nails can lead to the dog’s discomfort in walking and jumping, so trim their nails regularly.

Cairn terriers can also face tartar buildup on their teeth that can lead to sore gums, bad breath, and eventual tooth loss. Make sure to clean their teeth daily with a soft toothbrush and pet-specific toothpaste.

Pets can also be at risk of becoming infested with fleas and heartworms. This may result in infesting the home with several diseases and causing serious damage to the pet’s health.

The Companion Animal Parasite Council suggests year-round prevention of ticks, heartworm, and fleas.


Your cairn terrier also needs a core set of vaccinations to stay protected from several diseases, including rabies and DHPP (distemper, hepatitis, parainfluenza, and parvovirus), and non-core vaccines for health conditions like leptospirosis, Lyme disease, kennel cough, etc.

The timing and dosage of these vaccinations vary according to the age of your dog, so stay in touch with your vet.


Cairns require a moderate level of activities to stay active and happy. They are adaptable, though, so this dog breed can live happily in an urban high-rise or a Highlands farm. This makes them friendly and relatively low-maintenance.

Cairn terriers love exercises that engage their body and mind. Some of their favorite training exercises include herding, tracking, coursing ability tests, agility, and any fun activity that gives owner and dog some time together.


Cairns have a loving and sweet nature, but they can also be pretty stubborn. Practice obedience training with them when they are puppies. 

The cairn loves to dig the ground and chase small animals. This may cause trouble for the owners at the beginning. Therefore, this dog breed requires early socialization and training classes if they are to grow up well-mannered and well-adjusted.


The cairn terrier can eat anything, ranging from homemade meals to commercially-prepared ones. Ask your vet about the best food for your pet and the right portion they need according to their age.  

Many dog breeds are at risk of getting obese, so you should monitor your pet’s calorie consumption and shape. Cairns like to have sweets and treats, especially during their training sessions, but too much can affect their health.

Meanwhile, ensure that you’re giving clean water to your cairn.

Health Problems to Watch for with Cairn Terriers

Cairn terriers are sturdy and healthy dogs, but they can have some underlying health conditions at any age. These could be dental issues, infections, obesity, genetic abnormalities, diabetes, and more.

Dental Disease

Dental issues are common in most dogs and affect 80% of them by age two. Often, diseases start with a tartar build-up on the teeth that leads to infecting the gums and roots. If not treated in time, this infection can rot your dog’s teeth and put them at a greater risk of kidney, liver, and heart damage.

Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease 

This is a commonly-occurring hip condition in small dog breeds that reduces the blood supply to the animal’s rear leg bone. The common symptom of Legg-Calve-Perthes is difficulty in walking, which starts to show when the dog is 3 to 18 months old. Dogs with this condition have to go for surgery as a treatment.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy

This is a rare genetic bone condition in small breeds that results from the swelling of the dog’s jaw or skull in the growth phase. Craniomandibular Osteopathy is also known as “mandibular periostitis” or “lion jaw”.

Dogs between the age group of 3 to 8 months are more likely to show the signs of this painful condition. Your cairn terrier may struggle to open or move the jaw for barking or chewing. Some dogs may also show excessive salivation, visible swelling, lethargy, or intermittent fevers.

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy

GCL is also known as “lysosomal storage disease.” The condition leads to unusual storage of an enzyme that is important in myelin production. Myelin is an element that protects the dog’s brain and spinal cord nerves. 

Any defect in myelin results in damaged nerve cells. Dogs with GCL show symptoms like tremors, weakness, disbalance, and staggering.

Kidney Dysplasia

Kidney dysplasia or renal dysplasia is an unusual development of the dog’s kidney when they are born. This congenital condition is transferred from the parent to the puppy. The signs of kidney dysplasia are similar to chronic kidney failure, including loss of appetite, vomiting, depression, diarrhea, nausea, and bad breath. 

It’s easier to diagnose the signs of kidney dysplasia when the dog is young. But in acute cases, they may not appear until the dog becomes several years old.


Obesity is a common health problem in almost all dogs. It can lead to severe health issues, like joint problems, digestive disorders, heart diseases, and back pain when not controlled. 

It’s hard to say no to your cairn when they demand treats with those cute little eyes, and you can give them delicious, sweet dog treats, but don’t do so excessively. Treats should account for less than 10% of daily calories.

When you’re training your dog with obedience exercises, you can simply pat or hug them as appreciation instead of giving them treats every time. 


This is another common disease that can affect any breed. Diabetic dogs can’t regulate the sugar metabolism in their bodies and need daily insulin doses. 

Diabetes can be treated more effectively when it’s diagnosed early. Common signs of diabetes include excessive drinking, increased urination, sudden weight loss, increased or decreased appetite, cloudy eyes, skin infections, and urinary infections. 

Take your dog to a vet as soon as you observe these symptoms.

Portosystemic Shunt (PSS)

This is a liver disorder that restricts the blood supply normally directed to the liver. This deprives the liver of sufficient blood to grow and work properly. As a result, a dog’s liver fails to remove the toxins from their bloodstream.

Eye Problems

Dogs can inherit or develop different eye problems that impact the quality of their life. Some of these eye issues can even cause blindness if they are not treated immediately. 

A few eye problems in cairn terriers include:

  • Glaucoma. This is a painful eye condition that leads to blindness if not treated. Common symptoms include watery eyes and redness in the white part of the eye. In some cases, the eye may also appear swollen. 
  • Cataracts. This is a common eye issue in older dogs, blurring their vision. It can lead to complete vision loss, but surgery can sometimes restore sight.

Special Considerations for Cairn Terriers

A cairn terrier is a friendly, happy, and playful addition to your family. These dogs are sweet and always want to spend more time with their owners, so you likely won’t struggle with their socialization and training.

They have a short, wiry coat that doesn’t require an extensive grooming routine.

Cairns are also good observers and can be extra protective. They may bark too much, which shows how energetic these cute dogs are. 

Cairns require high mental stimulation, so you’ll always find them doing something, and you’ll want to ensure that they have a good outlet for their energy.

History of Cairn Terriers

Cairn terriers have existed since the 1400s. They were used for hunting different animals on the Scottish Isle of Skye. The name “cairn” comes from their expertise in bolting otters from piles of stone serving as landmarks that were called “cairns”.

In the 1870s, the cairn and the other terriers from the same region were grouped in dog shows as Scotch terriers. 

Soon, in 1881, this group was further divided into several smaller categories. 

Finally, around 1921, the breed started to be known as “cairn terriers”.

Show Sources

Photo Credits:

1. jtyler / Getty Images


American Kennel Club: “cairn terrier Dog Breed Information,” “Flea and Tick Protection for Puppies,” “Hip Dysplasia In Dogs: Prevention, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment,” “Puppy Shots Schedule: A Complete Guide to Puppy Vaccinations.”

American Veterinary Medical Association: “Diabetes in Pets.”

Collie Health Foundation: “Canine Renal Dysplasia.”

Countryside Veterinary Clinic: “Learn About The cairn terrier Dog Breed From A Trusted Veterinarian.”

MSD Veterinary Manual: “Developmental Osteopathies in Dogs and Cats.”

VCA Animal Hospital: “Globoid-cell Leukodystrophy in Dogs.”

Veterinary Genetics Laboratory: “Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency (PKDef).”

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