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Cairn Terrier - What New Owners Need To Know

a brown cairn terrier running through a field on  a sunny day

Cairn Terriers are possibly one of the most well-known terrier breeds. This plucky, spirited little dog is quite adaptable and can live with most family situations, and other animals.


The Cairn Terrier was first bred on the Isle of Skye sometime before the 16th Century. One of the first historical references to them was when King James I gifted a group of them to the king of France. These dogs were such a gift that they were sent on separate ships to avoid any marine disaster affecting the whole group.

There are two schools of thought on their breeding. Some believe that the Skye Terrier was bred alongside the Cairn Terrier. Others believe that the Scottish Terrier, Skye Terrier, and West Highland White.

Whatever origin story is considered to be true, this dog was bred to run and dig through the Scottish terrain, and chase animals out of the crevices. Because of this, they are named after a Cairn, which is a grave marker built up with rocks.

The breed is recognized by all Kennel Clubs but some Kennel Clubs consider it to be a vulnerable breed.

Personality And Training

Many people when they begin looking for a pup to bring into the family want to know what kind of personality the breed has to see if it will work with the dynamic of the person or family. So what kind of personality does a cairn terrier have?

The cairn terrier can be a very lovable family dog. They tend to be good with children, and with other pets. They tend to be better if they’ve been raised with existing animals, as they may feel the need to chase new animals in the household or small and unusual animals. They are fearless, so the size of a new dog will not prevent a Cairn Terrier from starting a fight!

Like many terriers, they can be very stubborn. Consistent training and a firm but fair discipline is needed. It’s a very good idea to start obedience classes early into puppyhood and they will also need early socialization. They tend to respond well to positive reinforcement, so treats and clicker training can be an invaluable tool to use with your cairn terrier.

Cairn terriers are generally confident little dogs and are quite intelligent. They can learn quickly, and do enjoy learning. However, despite good, consistent training, these dogs will always have the digging instinct. They need supervision outside, and should only be off-leash if they have a very good recall, or in a well-fenced garden.

They have a moderate energy level, so will need around an hour of daily exercise. They will also benefit from puzzle toys, as it will give them mental stimulation. They can become destructive if they become bored.


When it comes to grooming a cairn terrier it is good it’ll be a good start to recognize that they have a double-coated breed. It has a longer, weather-resistant outer coat, with a softer undercoat. They don’t tend to shed much hair, but the coat does need regular grooming. Most Cairn Terrier owners recommend brushing your dog at least once a week with a pin bristled brush, although, brushing every few days is better.

They will also need to have the hair around their eyes and ears carefully trimmed every few weeks. Some owners will also periodically hand-strip the coat.

This is a process that uses the hands or a stripping knife to remove dead hair from the coat. It follows the natural growth cycle of the hair and is painless for the dog. Many dogs actually enjoy it.

Hand stripping is considered to be the proper grooming process for many of the terrier breeds, although some owners prefer to use a ‘hair-cut’ approach. Some owners recommend taking your Cairn Terrier to a professional groomer every 6 to 8 weeks.

As well as taking care of your dog’s coat, Cairn Terriers will need regular nail trimming and tooth brushing.

a white cairn terrier standing in a green field

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Common Health Concerns

There are a few health concerns that can be commonly seen in Cairn Terriers.

Hip And Elbow Dysplasia

Hip and elbow dysplasia are when the joints don’t fit properly into their sockets. It’s an inherited condition, and symptoms can vary, depending on the severity of the condition. Some dogs may be lame, whereas others can show signs of discomfort and pain.

Treating hip and elbow dysplasia also depends on the severity of the condition. Some cases can be managed through medication, diet and lifestyle changes, while more severe cases will need surgery to correct it.

Von Willebrand’s Disease

Von Willebrand’s Disease is relatively common in Cairn Terriers. It’s a blood clotting disorder where the blood does not have enough of the Von Willebrand factor. Many dogs show no symptoms, but others may have spontaneous bleeding from the nose, bladder or mouth.

As this can be common in Cairn Terriers, you should ask your vet to carry out a screening test and check the exact amount of Von Willebrand factor in your dog’s blood. This is a really good idea if your dog is going for any kind of veterinary surgery, including routine surgeries such as spaying and neutering.


Hyperthyroidism is when the thyroid gland in the neck produces too much thyroxine, a metabolism controlling hormone. Cairn Terriers can be prone to this condition. You may notice symptoms such as extreme weight loss, a huge increase in appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, and difficulty breathing.

Hyperthyroidism needs to be examined by a vet, as it can have many different causes, and therefore many different treatment options. Some cases can be corrected with medication. Some cases can be managed with dietary changes. Some cases are actually caused by a thyroid tumor and will need surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, or a combination of all three to treat and control it. 

Fun Facts

  • The Cairn Terrier makes an excellent watchdog. They will bark at strangers or anything they find unusual.
  • They are quite small. They should be around 10 inches in height and weigh about 12 to 14 pounds.
  • They need moderate exercise, so aren’t a typical lap dog. They are small enough to be carried, but they usually prefer to walk themselves.
  • They were bred to dig through rocks and help hunters by chasing prey through the rocky terrain of Scotland.
  • The front paws are more padded and slightly larger than the back paws. This helps them to dig through the rocks.
  • The most famous Cairn Terrier was Toto in The Wizard Of Oz. Toto was played by a female Cairn Terrier called Terry. Terry had 16 roles but was only credited in The Wizard Of Oz.
  • Terry was trained by Carl Spitz after a failed life as a family pet. The family could not toilet train her, so she gave her to the famous Hollywood dog trainer.

Meet The Author 

Grant Withers

Canine Specialist & Writer

Grant is an award-winning writer for SitStay with a passion for pets and especially dogs! Grant loves writing about furry little goofballs and aims to educate pet parents about anything and everything regarding their dogs.

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