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Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Information & Characteristics

If there’s such a thing as a canine celebrity, the Cairn Terrier would be one! When a Cairn landed Toto’s role in Baun’s classic film The Wizard of Oz (1939), the breed became a cultural icon for generations. Although they’re recognized by audiences globally, this little terrier has a history that far predates Toto’s cinematic debut!


Cairns are one of the oldest terrier breeds in the world, with origins as a working dog dating back to the 1500s. The breed maintains the same intelligence, vigor, and liveliness as they did in their hunting days. Today, these same traits make Cairns some of the best family pets around.



Cairn Terrier Physical Characteristics

Cairn Terriers can look adorable or fierce, depending on their facial expression! Their shaggy eyebrows, which make them look comedically human-like, contribute to their expressiveness. Other facial features include a black nose, hazel eyes, and a medium-length muzzle.


The Cairn Terrier’s head is broad compared to the rest of its body. They’re known for having pointed, erect ears that sit far apart. The Cairn’s legs are short, but their bodies are sturdy and well-formed. The hindquarters are strong, the ribs are deep, and the back is level with a fluffy tail always standing high. Interestingly, their front paws are larger and more thickly padded than their hind paws.


Life Span

The average lifespan of a Cairn Terrier is 12-17 years and is also known for being a great hypoallergenic dog for people with allergies!


Want a little Toto of your own? You should go for it! Cairn Terriers are fantastic little dogs that stick by your side and bring that positive energy every day.


Cairn Terrier Dog Breed Size

Adult Cairn Terriers are only 9-10 inches tall, 15 inches long, and weigh a mere 13-14 pounds. 


These featherweight dogs might be small, but they are powerful for their size. Females are typically shorter and lighter than males.



cute dog with tongue out



Cairn Terrier Temperament & Personality

Scientifically known as ‘Canis lupus familiaris’, this pup is up for anything! These energetic, attentive terrier breeds take on every situation with enthusiasm and joy. Independent and curious, they fearlessly investigate unfamiliar scents in the hopes of discovering something new. The breed is exceptionally playful and gets along lovingly with their families.


Cairns befriend people effortlessly, although socialization plays an enormous role in this trait. This furry little terrier love to amuse themselves by hunting, digging, and chasing small vermin. Like all terriers, Cairns are very active and require plenty of mental and physical stimulation. Without an outlet for all their energy, a Cairn can become quite noisy and destructive!


Dominance is a must when living with a Cairn — this breed can be stubborn with owners that aren’t assertive. This trait occurs in almost all terrier breeds, and it results from their intellect. A weak-willed owner will find a Cairn Terrier hard to govern.



Exercise for a Cairn Terrier

This fiesty terrier need daily exercise. It would be best to walk them every day for at least 20 or 30 minutes. Off-leash playtime is also important and should be a part of your daily routine. They’re energetic dogs that will eagerly participate in just about any game you start with them. Have a go at fetch, tug-of-war, or go on a long walk and see what excites your little Cairn!



Training a Cairn

Most Cairn Terriers need regular behavior checks to keep them in line. This breed can be rebellious in the presence of meek people, and they aren’t afraid to challenge authority. Establishing yourself as the leader ASAP will spare you from stubborn behavior down the line.


Obedience Training

Obedience classes have enormous benefits for Cairn terriers because they kill three birds with one stone: socialization, obedience, and basic commands. All dogs should be exposed to other dogs and people when they are young, so they learn that others aren’t a threat. This early exposure, known as socialization, significantly reduces aggressive tendencies in mature dogs. Obedience classes provide ample socialization for your Cairn Terrier.


Obedience training also teach your dog that you are the boss, not them. This authority check is what a Cairn Terrier needs, as the breed is prone to bossing around owners who don’t put them in their place. Finally, your Cairn should (hopefully) come out of an obedience class knowing some basic commands. This knowledge is not only convenient but a step towards success later down the road. Fundamental obedience lays a foundation for future training.


RELATED: Mental Stimulation For Dogs: Why It's Important & Best Activities Explained


Hush Training

The Cairn Terrier can be quite the talker! Some owners don’t mind, but others have neighbors or suffer from migraines and need the yapping to cease.


Here are steps you can take if you have a chatty Cairn on your hands:


When your Cairn launches into full bark mode, wait the episode out. Once your terrier stops barking, reward them with a calming treat, and give them a cue word like “hush” or “quiet.” This pattern of reinforcement will get your dog to associate the silence with the command. Keep up this routine going for a week or two, and then try to give the order while your dog is barking. Reward them generously if they stop barking.


Another method you can try is the “talk to me” technique. If your Cairn knows how to “speak,” give them that command and get them to bark at you. Then, interrupt your terrier’s barking with a “quiet” cue and wait for them to stop barking. Once they stop, reward them with a treat! This technique gets your dog to associate silence with a cue word (and a treat).



white cairn terrier on ground



Cairn Terrier Dog Breed History

This Terrier’s first home was in the Scottish Highlands, specifically the Isle of Skye. They were bred to keep barns free of rats and other vermin, and they were quite good at their jobs. Back then, these useful little dogs weren’t called Cairn Terriers.


All the terriers in Scotland were simply known as Scotch Terriers until 1873 when the first breed division occurred. Scotch Terriers became classified as either Dandie Dinmont Terriers or Skye Terriers. Dandie Dinmont Terriers had longer bodies; they hunted badgers and otters. The short-haired Skye Terrier breed included the shorter-bodied dogs that hunted smaller prey — our beloved Cairn fell into this category.


Scottish Terriers and West Highland White Terriers also belonged to the Skye Terrier group. The only feature that distinguished these breeds from the Cairn Terrier was color. The name “Cairn” comes from the heaps of stones used to mark burial sites in Gaelic culture. Some say the breed got this name because of their ability to squeeze between these rocks to scare out vermin and foxes, who often made their homes in these gravesites.


The first Cairn landed in the United States in 1913. The American Kennel Club recognized the breed later that same year. The Cairn Terrier entered show rings across the nation and ditched their old hunting career, but they can still give a rat a good chase if given a chance.



Cairn Terrier Health Problems

Checking on your Cairn Terrier’s condition is crucial since the breed is at risk of many health problems. Regular vet visits are essential to maintain your terrier’s well-being. Bringing your little terrier to the vet for vaccinations, checkups, and preventive care ensures your dog stays healthy and provides the opportunity for early diagnosis.


Craniomandibular Osteopathy (Lion Jaw)

Craniomandibular osteopathy is an inherited condition that affects a developing puppy’s head. Instead of normal development, the skull and mandible (jaw) are replaced by immature bone. This abnormal development leads to excess bone growth and slight deformity. Symptoms include jaw swelling, drooling, pain, and difficulty eating. The condition usually resolves itself as the Cairn puppy ages, but it may leave lasting effects in some cases.



Cairn Terriers are more prone to diabetes than other dog breeds. Diabetes is a metabolic condition that causes high blood sugar through either insulin-resistance or insulin deficiency. Fortunately, diabetes is manageable through medication, diet, and exercise.



Hypothyroidism occurs when your dog’s thyroid gland, responsible for regulating metabolism and growth, doesn’t produce enough thyroid hormone. This hormone deficiency causes your dog’s metabolism to slow down.


Signs of hypothyroidism are weight gain, lethargy, and skin changes like hair loss and dandruff. You can manage hypothyroidism with medication and lifestyle changes.


Related Article: Dog Hair Loss Home Remedies [The Complete Guide]


Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease

Legg-Calvé-Perthes Disease is a degenerative condition that affects the head of the femur. The femur head connects to the hip in a ball-and-socket joint, so Legg-Calvé-Perthes causes arthritis in the hips. The most prominent signs of this condition are limping and pain, so it’s crucial to manage the disease with pain medication. Surgery is usually necessary to correct deteriorated structures.


Patellar Luxation

Many small dog breeds are prone to patellar luxation, a condition that occurs when the patella (knee cap) dislocates from its normal position. This sounds agonizing, but patellar luxation doesn’t cause your dog much pain. The condition inhibits the affected limb’s movement, however, and can cause your dog to limp. A veterinarian can correct patellar luxation through surgery.


Portosystemic Liver Shunt

A liver shunt occurs when your dog’s portal vein, the primary channel that carries blood to the liver, functions abnormally and causes blood to bypass the liver. Most liver shunts result from a congenital disability, but the condition can result from other diseases like cirrhosis. Liver shunts are treated with surgery or managed through medication and diet. Symptoms include seizures, circling, stunted growth, or low muscle mass.



small cairn with red ball



How to Care for a Cairn Terrier

Your terrier is undoubtedly your favorite friend, and we know you want to treat them right. You can easily care for Cairn Terrier with a balanced diet, regular exercise, excellent grooming hygiene, and normal vet checkups.




Nutrition and Feeding for Cairn Terrier Dog Breed

An adult Cairn Terrier should eat 1/2 to 2/3 cups of food a day, split into two meals. Terriers are prone to becoming overweight, so you must measure the amount of food carefully and balance it according to your dog’s activity level. For example, a leisurely dog will probably eat 1/2 cup of food a day, but a more active terrier will eat closer to 2/3 cup.


Puppies eat more often than grown dogs. The amount of food they consume depends on the feed, but a rough estimate is about 3/4 cup to 11/4 cups a day (split into 3-4 meals). This diet should be maintained until the puppies are about 9 months old. Kibble is recommended for this breed because it can control tartar buildup on the dog’s teeth, which are prone to decay. A kibble that has meat listed as one of the first three ingredients will provide ample protein for your terrier; just make sure there are some vegetable ingredients in the feed as well to supply fiber.


A preservative-free feed is the best choice for your pet. If you can, buy a kibble that doesn’t contain BHA or BHT. These ingredients are carcinogenic and don’t contribute to your Cairn’s well-being.


RELATED: Organic Vs Non-Organic Dog Food [In-Depth Comparison]


Coat Color And Grooming

Cairn Terriers have a double-layered coat that protects them from harsh weather. The outer coat is shaggy and wiry, while the undercoat is soft. These fluffy terriers come in many colors: wheaten, red, cream, black, gray, and brindled are all standard for the breed. Their coats often change color as they age!


How to Groom

It is best to brush your Cairn’s coat once a week to remove trapped hair. A pin brush is the best choice for this dog breed because it reaches deep to the undercoat but still grooms the outer coat. In addition to brushing, you should get in the practice of “hand stripping” your Cairn to keep their coat looking healthy. Wiry-haired dog breeds with a soft undercoat, like the Cairn Terrier, have a unique growth cycle – their hair becomes thicker as it grows.


Dead hair needs to be removed from the outer coat to keep the fur looking neat. To hand strip, gently grasp a section of your dog’s fur between your thumb and forefinger and pull. If the hair is ready to come out, it will fall away from the coat easily and cause your dog no pain.


It takes time and practice to get this technique right; don’t feel bad if you have trouble at first. A professional groomer can show you the ropes if you are afraid to try it yourself. Bathing every six to eight weeks is recommended for this breed type. All-natural dog shampoos will promote a beautiful coat and some options can also soothe and nourish the skin.



Children And Other Pets

The Cairn Terrier is especially fond of children! These dogs will play with a kid for hours if given the opportunity. Cairns adore little ones and are quite affectionate towards kids they know well. You need not worry about a Cairn being aggressive with your child, especially if you socialize the dog at an early age.


Their friendly attitude with children doesn’t necessarily extend to other pets, however. After all, the Cairn Terrier was bred to chase prey. This breed will run after hamsters, cats, or other critters in your home unless trained otherwise. Without proper socialization, they can be testy and defensive towards other dogs as well.



Rescue Groups

The Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network rescues Cairns from homelessness, puppy mills, and overflowing shelters. They arrange special veterinary care, and spay and neuter procedures, for every terrier that comes through their rescue. Col. Potter maintains a network of foster homes that shelter the terriers until they find placement in the perfect permanent family.


In Orange, California, Southwest Cairn Rescue saves Cairns in the tri-state area (California, Nevada, and New Mexico). Each terrier they rescue gets micro-chipped with the shelter as the primary contact, so the dog will never really be lost again. Southwest Cairn Rescue makes sure that their dogs go to only the most suitable homes!



Breed Organizations

If you’re looking for a reputable Cairn Terrier club, the Cairn Terrier Club of America (CTCA) promotes the Cairn race through superior breeding. The organization’s goal is to produce Cairns that meet the standards of the American Kennel Club and encourage participation in shows. This national breed club holds show events and maintains a breeder network.


The CTCA affiliates itself with many regional clubs – the Columbia River Cairn Terrier Club (CRCTC) being one of them. Based in the Portland-Vancouver area of Oregon and Washington, The CRCTC serves as a robust resource network for members that compete in various shows.




Similar Breeds

Though there are many different kinds of terrier dog breeds, some terrier breeds are much more similar to the Cairn terrier than others. The terriers listed below share many similarities with the Cairn!


Border Terrier

Similarities: Bred for hunting, require the same amount of grooming effort, both very smart and easy to train, hypoallergenic, and both have a life expectancy of up to about 15 years.


Differences: Border terriers are slightly larger but typically weigh less than Cairn terriers. They also come in different colors and have varying coats (Cairns are waterproof, while Border terriers have rough coats).


Norwich Terrier

Similarities: Bred for hunting, both recognized by the American Kennel Club, very intelligent and easy to train, and very playful and kid-friendly.


Differences: From the UK (the Cairn terrier originated in Scotland), smaller (in both size and weight), have wiry/soft fur rather than waterproof fur, much more stubborn than the Cairn, and may not be good for first-time dog owners.


Airedale Terrier

Similarities: Great for first-time owners, very playful and affectionate, both easier to train than other terrier breeds, and both make great watchdogs.


Differences: Shed less than the Cairn, about double the size (in height and weight), much more adaptable to different living environments, and make good therapy dogs.


Scottish Terrier

Similarities: Very emotional and social dogs, friendly towards children and cats, great for older people, prefer average to cold weather conditions, and are both hypoallergenic.


Differences: Usually a bit heavier than the Cairn, has wiry fur and very minimal shedding (if any at all), not as intelligent, and barks very rarely (unlike Cairns, who are frequent barkers).


Irish Terrier

Similarities: Bred for hunting, can live up to 15 years, high energy and need a lot of exercise, don’t need much sleep, hypoallergenic, and are easygoing and great for first-time pet owners.


Differences: From Ireland (not Scotland), can be about double the size (in height and weight), don’t get along as well with other pets or strangers, and are great at being guard dogs.


Popular Cairn Mixes

Since they make for such wonderful companions, Cairn terriers are also very popular for breeding with other dogs! We’ve listed some of the most popular Cairn mixes below:


  • Cairn-Tzu: The Cairn-Tzu was originally bred to be generally more healthy and sociable. These pups are similar in size to the Cairn but normally have floppier ears that sometimes perk up with curiosity.
  • Cairnoodle: These dogs are hypoallergenic, enjoy a good romp, and are very smart. So much so that they may act out if left unaccompanied for too long!
  • Carkie: Carkies are vibrant and curious pranksters! Though they are similar in appearance and size to their Cairn parent, this breed is very high-energy and requires much attention and care.
  • Cairhuahua: Imagine a chihuahua… and then make it fuzzier and scruffier. You’ve got a Cairhuahua! Though they may be on the small side, this dog breed generally lives for up to 16 years.
  • Cairnauzer: These pups are spunky and friendly. While they love a good run, they’re generally easy to maintain and enjoy company just as much as the next Cairn.
  • Cairland Terrier: What do you get when you cross a Cairn with a West Highland White? A Cairland! With small, erect ears and a big attitude, Cairlands are known to bark often and are happiest when kept busy.



More About The Cairn Terrier Dog Breed

Cairn Terriers are often mixed with Norwich Terriers to create an adorable mixed breed known as the Cairnwich Terrier. Though they are quite similar to Cairn Terriers, the Cairnwich is even shorter than the Cairn Terrier (shocking; I know).


Lights, Camera, Action!

While we mentioned previously that the leading doggy star in Baun’s The Wizard of Oz was a Cairn terrier (her name was Terry), did you know that Cairn terriers have starred in many other feature films and TV shows over the past century? Here are a few other well-known titles you might recognize this family pet in:


  • The Uninvited (1944)
  • I Love Lucy (1957)
  • Dennis the Menace (1959-1963)
  • Hocus Pocus (1993)
  • Twister (1996)
  • The Beautician and the Beast (1997)
  • Children of Men (2006)
  • National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (2007)
  • Inkheart (2008)
  • Kingsman (2015)
  • Brooklyn 99 (S4 E7) (2016)
  • Kingsman, The Golden Circle (2017)

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