Cairn Terrier

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Cairn Terrier

Short-legged and strongly built, Cairn Terriers have a foxy expression, hard coats and small, pointy ears. Whilst not heavily built, they are well muscled, workman-like little dogs, with hard, profuse outer coats and short, soft, close undercoats.

  • Dog suitable for owners with some experience
  • Basic training required
  • Generally healthy breed
  • Enjoys active walks
  • Enjoys one to two hours of walking a day
  • Small dog
  • Minimum drool
  • Requires grooming every other day
  • Chatty and vocal dog
  • Barks and alerts to visitors/anything unusual
  • Could have issues with unknown dogs but gets along with known dogs
  • May need additional training to live with other pets
  • May need additional supervision to live with children
  • Needs a small garden
  • Can happily live in the city
  • Can be left occasionally with training

Key Facts

Lifespan: 12–15 years
Weight: 6-7.5kg
Height: 28-31cm
Colours: Cream, wheaten, red, grey or nearly black with brindling in all colours
Size: Small
Kennel Club group: Terriers


Family-friendly: 5/5
Exercise needs: 4/5
Easy to train: 2/5
Tolerates being alone: 1/5
Likes other pets: 4/5
Energy level: 5/5
Grooming needs: 3/5
Shedding: 3/5

cairn terrier standing on the hill


Cairn Terriers are a cheerful, alert, lively and extrovert breed that can be trained to happily live with children and, thanks to their history as a pack terrier, with other dogs too. Like most terriers however they may not be safe with small furry animals or strange cats. They are affectionate, bonded to their owners and enjoy being a part of everything they do.

cairn terrier in a field of flowers

History and Origins

Country of Origin: Scotland

Scotland has always had a variety of vermin-killing terriers and the ancestors of the Cairn have been known in the Western Highlands since the 17th century.

By 1887, the Cairn Terrier was first being mentioned as a specific breed with their job being to hunt the rodents that infested the cairns (piles of stones) that were found on the bleak game moors and that threatened the game there. They were also used in packs to rout out otters, foxes and even badgers – which they were more than happy to do despite being the smallest of the working Scottish terriers. Their thick shaggy coat that protected them from the harsh elements and their plucky nature meant that they were perfectly suited for their role. The Cairn Terrier breed has changed little over the years.

Health and Common Concerns

While the Cairn Terrier is generally a healthy breed, they can suffer from various hereditary eye disorders and so eye testing of dogs prior to breeding is therefore important. Like many small dog breeds they can also suffer from kneecaps that may temporarily slip out of place (luxating patellas). There are other issues affecting the breed, some of which have DNA tests available. The breed club monitors health closely and so should be consulted for up to date information.

Exercise Needs

When it comes to dog exercise, the Cairn Terrier breed is bursting with energy and must be given time to run and play, at least an hour’s walking daily ideally with lots of interesting smells. They are typical terriers and so will also need plenty of things to occupy their minds and bodies. This includes dog games, interactive toys, enrichment opportunities and, for many, a chance to dig!

Space Requirements

The Cairn is a small dog and so doesn’t need a big house. They do enjoy having a garden however – and if that can include a digging pit, they will be even happier. They also love to explore the sights and sniffs of the countryside and so a rural or semi-rural home (or at least regular access to the countryside) may suit them best.

Nutrition and Feeding

Small dogs have a fast metabolism, meaning they burn energy at a high rate, although their small stomachs mean that they must eat little and often. Small-breed foods are specifically designed with appropriate levels of key nutrients for a balanced dog nutrition and smaller kibble sizes to suit smaller mouths. This also encourages chewing and improves digestion.

Grooming Cairn Terriers

When it comes to dog grooming, the Cairn Terrier's weatherproof, double coat should be brushed and combed once a week. During moulting, which usually occurs twice a year, the coat should be hand stripped to remove the dead hair.

Training Cairn Terriers

The Cairn takes a typical terrier view of dog training but they are more biddable than many and if you can motivate them with reward-based, fun training, they can achieve a surprisingly high level and may even become experts at sports like mini-agility. As they have an instinct to hunt and chase, training a reliable recall is vitally important but even then, it is generally wise to keep them on the lead unless you are in a secure safe area.

Best Family Dog Breeds

The Cairn Terrier can make a really fun family dog but they may not have the best patience with younger unruly children who may want to grab or chase them.

While many dogs are traditionally thought of as being good with children, all dogs and children need to be taught to get on with each other and be safe together. Even so, dogs and young children should never be left alone together and adults should supervise all interactions between them.

did you know?

Did you know?

  • Probably one of the most iconic Cairn Terrier is Toto in the film The Wizard of Oz. It may be interesting to note that if Dorothy had just kept him on a lead, she’d have had far less trouble. But then also far fewer adventures!

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