Get to Know the Cairn Terrier Dog Breed

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Originating from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the Cairn Terrier is a small working terrier. Bred to be tenacious, courageous, and intelligent, Scottish farmers used these little dogs to rid their property of vermin.

Having owned several different terrier breeds myself, I find it essential that people know what makes these puppies remarkable and what it takes to love, have, and care for one; that’s why I put this article together.

Cairn Terrier close-up portrait

Cairn Terrier History: Where Does This Breed Originate From?

The Cairn, along with several other terrier breeds, has been patrolling Scotland’s farms and game reserves for centuries.

For a significant part of this period, all of these breeds were grouped merely as Scotch terriers, making it challenging to unravel the individual histories.

The first strict breeding programs and classifications for this rugged family of hunters were only developed in the late 1800s by breed enthusiasts, and the name Cairn terrier first appeared in 1887.

However, these puppies date back to the early 1600s when they dwelled on the Western Highlands near the Island of Skye, along with the Skye terrier.

Two Cairn Terriers in different colors

“Cairn” is a Gaelic word that refers to a mound of stones used as a boundary or to mark a grave. These rock-piles are known to house various rodents within or beneath it.

Among the smallest terriers, the Cairn was developed to dig into these piles of stones and flush out and kill the critters.

These little dog’s courage, independence, alertness, and toughness served them well when digging into a cairn alone and facing sharp-toothed mammals.

Grouped in packs, these hardy little exterminators would also hunt otters, foxes, and other small animals.

By the early 1900s, Britain’s breed enthusiasts finished sorting the various Scotch earth dogs. They initiated breeding programs for the Scottish terrier, Skye terrier, West Highland White Terrier, and Cairn terrier as distinct purebreds

In 1913, the Cairn Terrier received recognition from the American Kennel Club (AKC.) In 1939 the breed’s public profile received an enormous boost when a Cairn named Terry portrayed Toto’s role in the classic movie production, The Wizard of Oz.

What Does a Cairn Terrier Look Like?

These rugged little canines have a harsh outer coat with broad heads, sharply pointed ears, dark, intelligent eyes, and large teeth, giving them a general foxy appearance.

Cairn Terrier puppy

Their compact bodies are slightly longer than they’re tall with reasonably short legs and a natural tail, which is carried high. 

Originally bred as a working dog, these puppies have a strong build and move around with the agility, speed, and grace befitting a purebred terrier.

Size: How Big Does a Cairn Terrier Get?

With a height of 9 to 10 inches (23 to 25.5 cm) and weighing in at a mere 13 to 14 lbs (5.9 to 6.35 kg), these fearless little terriers obviously have no idea how small they actually are.

The Australian terrier will easily adapt to any environment and their size typically makes them the perfect pet for apartment dwellers.

Do keep in mind, though, these puppies do have high energy levels and need regular physical stimulation.

The Cairn Terriers Coat and Colors

What color your adult Cairn terrier will be is always a surprise, as their coat color can change over the years.

What is standard, though, is that they’ll always have a wiry outer coat with a soft undercoat. You can, however, expect your puppy to have any one of the following colors:

  • Cream or sandy
  • Brindle
  • Deep red
  • Black
  • Light grey

Cairn Terrier Personality and Temperament: Does This Breed Make a Good Family Dog?

This dog breed tends to be extremely friendly little furballs. The Cairn terrier is promoted by a British breed club as – The best little pal in the world.
Cairn Terrier playing a ball

Always willing to gleefully partake in a romp in the park and, when playtime is over, these small dogs will seek to comfortably snuggle up like a lap dog.

They’re always cheerful and happy and generally love meeting people. Yet, it needs to be kept in mind that they’re part of the terrier group, making them tough, alert, and independent.

The Cairn considers barking, chasing, and digging as fun and will endeavor to partake in these activities every chance he gets.

Although the breed is independent, they’re also extremely devoted to their family and don’t mind playing the watchdog to protect their people and home.

Cairn’s are happiest when staying indoors, where they can form an integral part of your daily life.

They’ll conveniently follow you about and become your wingman when greeting any visitors that may arrive at your front door.

Apart from their bravery, these puppies also have a sensitive side. They dislike being reprimanded and tend to become upset when you’re unhappy with them.

As with every other dog, the Cairn needs proper socialization when they’re young. Exposure to various sights, sounds, people, etc. is vital to ensuring that your little buddy grows up to be a well-adjusted dog.

To get a better understanding of the Cairn terriers personality, watch this short video:

Does This Dog Breed Make a Good Family Pet?

The Cairn Terrier should be the obvious choice for people who love the terrier qualities of independent thinking, sincere loyalty, and alertness.

This energetic breed is family dogs that need constant companionship from their people. Therefore, they need to stay inside the house close to the family.

Cairn Terrier sitting in the staircase

Being fun and entertaining to have around, these small dogs make delightful family pets. They’ll sound the alarm when something is amiss, and also make excellent competitors in agility, earth dog, and obedience trials.

How Does the Cairn Terrier React to Children and Other Pets?

This breed is particularly fond of being around children, as they enjoy the commotion and noise associated with kids. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of other pets.

The Cairn was bred to be a hunter and, therefore, to this day, have a high prey drive.

Even though it’s possible to get them to live in reasonable harmony with other small animals inside the house through proper socialization and training, they’ll gladly chase every other small animal that comes into their territory.

Although the breed actively loves kids and tends to be highly tolerant of their boisterous ways, adults should never allow unsupervised interaction.

As a responsible parent, you have to teach your child how to associate with, approach, and touch dogs, and to never bother a canine while sleeping or try and take his food away when eating. 

Does the Cairn Terrier Develop Separation Anxiety?

This breed tends to form a tight bond with their people and thrives on their family’s attention. Leaving them alone for extended periods makes them unhappy and will result in separation anxiety more often than not.

This typically involves boredom, which usually leads to annoying and destructive behavior such as digging, chewing, and barking.

Are Cairn Terriers aggressive?

Although these little terriers’ temperament is affected by several factors such as training, socialization, and heredity, they’re typically friendly puppies who are overly curious and playful. 

However, it’s strongly advised to meet at least one of the parents and, if possible, siblings or other relatives before you choose one.

Their temperaments are usually a good indication of what your puppy will be like as an adult dog.

Does Cairn Terriers Have Trainability Issues?

Cairn Terrier puppy playing colorful balls

Despite their stubborn streak and independent nature, the Cairn is a sensitive breed. They don’t do well with harsh corrections or scolding, and their feelings are easily hurt.

For these reasons, positive training methods work best for these small dogs.

Being an intelligent breed, they’re typically easy to train, and there’s little that they can’t learn. With a good training program, the Cairn is capable of mastering an unlimited amount of commands and tricks.

Be warned, though: trying to prevent terriers from doing what they were born to do (dig, bark, and chase) is a futile effort. 

Therefore, it’s essential to put them on a leash when walking in public places. The only time you should allow them to run free is when they’re in a securely fenced yard.

Cairn Terrier Care Needs

Taking care of your Cairn terrier may not be a difficult task, but it’s an important one. Building his routine care needs into your daily schedule will ensure that he lives a happy and healthy life.

The importance of regular exercise and a proper diet can’t be overemphasized.

Even though the breed typically has good teeth, it’s essential to maintain their condition by brushing them at least twice weekly.

It’s also crucial to regularly check and clean your puppy’s ears to prevent unwanted health problems.

Cairn Terrier Exercise Needs

Cairn Terrier swimming in the river
Image source

These little dogs have high energy levels, and they continuously need to be stimulated both mentally and physically. Even though an hour of exercise per day is efficient, they’ll eagerly participate in more. 

Failure to challenge their minds and not provide a release for their suppressed energy may cause them to develop behavior problems. This can include:

  • Digging
  • Barking
  • Escaping their confines to explore on their own
  • Destructive behavior
  • Potential aggressive behavior, although this is rare

To adequately cater to your puppies exercise needs, daily activities should include the following:

The Cairn terrier has an expected lifespan of 12 to 15 years but has been known to live past this age. Exercise remains essential throughout your puppy’s life.

For older dogs of this breed, being active is vital to managing their weight and maintaining their mobility and muscles.

The daily walk is crucial for your puppy to not only burn pent-up energy but to also stimulate his mind with the sound, smell, and sights they come across. Ideally, these walks should be between 30 and 60 minutes. 

If your little buddy is trained to heed your commands, letting him off the leash at the park is ideal. If not, it’s advisable to use a leash with a long line or a retractable one.

This allows your puppy more freedom while you still maintain control.

Cairn Terrier Grooming Requirements

Cairn Terrier lying in the grass
Image source

As mentioned before, these small dogs have a weather-resistant double coat (a soft undercoat topped by a wiry outer coat.) Their coats are relatively easy to maintain.

Thorough weekly combing and periodic bathing (once every three months or as needed) are sufficient. 

Frequent bathing, however, will soften the terrier’s coarse outer coat. Although this is fine for pets, it’s not good for show dogs; it diminishes your puppy’s physical appearance.

The Cairn’s coat also needs frequent trimming, which is typically done with a clipper. 

According to professional groomers, shortening and shaping a show Cairn’s coat should only be done through hand-stripping with a stripping knife

Brushing your puppy’s teeth two or three times a week is vital to:

  • Removing and preventing tartar buildup and the bacteria associated with it
  • Preventing gum disease
  • Avoiding bad breath

Their nails are also a priority. Trimming these at least once a month is vital in preventing tears and other problems.

Take care, though; a dog’s toenails contain blood vessels, and cutting too deep may cause bleeding and pain. This may result in your dog’s refusal to cooperate in the future.

Another area of concern is your puppy’s ears. It’s crucial to check them for signs of mites, redness, and foul odors at least once a week. The presence of any of these symptoms may be an indication of ear infection.

While you’re inspecting your dog’s ears, it’s essential to wipe them out with a soft cotton ball dampened with a pH-balanced ear cleaner to prevent infections.

While doing this, it’s imperative not to insert anything into the ear canal as this may cause damage. Only clean the outer ear.

As you groom your little friend, keep an eye out for rashes, sores, and signs of infection on the skin and feet and in the eyes, mouth, and nose.

Detecting these issues early will help prevent serious health problems in the future.

Feeding and Nutrition

These little dogs typically do well with 0.5 to 1 cup of high-quality dry dog food per day. If you prefer to prepare his food yourself, speak with your Vet for advice. 

Many breeds are susceptible to becoming overweight. Thus, watching your dog’s weight level and calorie consumption is vital.

All puppies deserve treats, especially during training, yet giving it to them too much or often may result in obesity.

Also, various human foods aren’t suitable for dogs. It’s best not to feed them people’s food unless you know which are safe and which aren’t.

Also, don’t forget to provide your little friend with a permanent supply of clean, fresh water.,

Health Issues Associated With This Dog Breed

Despite the fact that Cairn Terriers are generally healthy little dogs with a lifespan of 12 to 15 years, they are, like all other breeds, susceptible to specific health problems.

Although it’s more likely that your puppy will never develop any of these diseases, it helps to be knowledgeable about them if you’re considering this breed. 

Cairn Terrier lying on the couch
Image source

When you buy your puppy, it’s imperative to find a reputable breeder that can provide you with health clearances for both doggy parents. These certificates are issued by:

Health concerns that may afflict your Cairn Terrier are explained below.

Cryptorchidism. When this condition is present, either one or both of your puppy’s testicles fail to sink into the scrotum.

A puppy’s testicles should be fully descended by the age of two months. Retained testicles are typically nonfunctional and may become cancerous if not surgically removed.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy. This painful condition affects a growing dog’s skull structure, causing the bones to become irregularly enlarged. This disorder usually becomes visible between four to eight months of age.

Symptoms include:

  • Swollen jaw or glands, preventing the puppy from opening his mouth
  • Drooling
  • Recurring fluctuating fever

In some cases, the puppy’s chewing muscles may atrophy (waste away and decrease muscle mass resulting from extended immobility).

Although pain relievers and anti-inflammatories help for the pain, there’s, unfortunately, no cure for this disease. The good news is that the irregular growth slows and often stops when the puppy becomes a year old. 

Even though the legions often regress, a few dogs end up with permanent jaw problems, making it difficult for them to eat.

Hypothyroidism. This disorder affects the thyroid gland and is suspected to be the cause of conditions such as:

  • Alopecia (hair loss)
  • Epilepsy
  • Lethargy
  • Hyperpigmentation
  • Obesity
  • Pyoderma and other skin conditions

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy.

This degenerative disorder, also known as Krabbe’s disease, affects the spinal cord and the brain’s white matter. Affected puppies are either euthanized or die at an exceptionally young age.

A test to identify this condition’s carriers has been developed, and all breeding dogs should be tested.

Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease. As a result of this condition, the head of the femur’s blood supply is decreased, causing disintegration over time.

Atrophy of the leg muscle and limping are the first visible symptoms and usually start when the puppy is between four and six months old.

This affliction is easily corrected through surgery and generally results in a pain-free life.

Bored Cairn Terrier puppy
Image source

Secondary Glaucoma/Ocular Melanosis. Originally called pigmentary glaucoma, this painful inherited condition typically occurs in Cairns between the age of seven and twelve years.

This disorder affects both eyes. It’s vital to regularly examine your pup’s eyes to check for exceedingly dark pigmentation patches or small spots within the white part of the eye (sclera). 

Due to accumulating pigment deposits, the eye’s ability to drain fluid out of the anterior chamber decreases, leading to increased pressure known as secondary glaucoma.

With early diagnosis, this syndrome can be controlled with medication.

Portosystemic Liver Shunt. This congenital abnormality causes blood vessels to allow blood to bypass the liver.

This results in the liver not cleansing the blood as it usually would. Corrective surgery is typically the best solution.

Patellar Luxation. Patellar luxation is a common health concern in small dogs. This painful condition causes the knee joint, usually of a hind leg, to slip in and out of place.

Although many canines lead a reasonably ordinary life with this condition, it can be crippling.

How Much Can You Expect to Pay for a Cairn Terrier?

Cairn Terrier playing in the fallen leaves
Image source

When you consider buying a dog, you shouldn’t only account for the cost of the puppy itself but also the expenses related to food, training, vet fees, supplies, grooming, toys, and other miscellaneous costs.

When you’re buying a purebred Cairn Terrier puppy, you’re likely to pay between $725 and $1450.

Furthermore, the first year’s expenses will be in the region of $3,500 and about $1,150 per year after that. The average lifetime expense for owning one of these little dogs will be about $18,500.

Cairn Terrier Breeders

This breed is recognized by various organizations, including Britain’s Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club.

If you’ve decided on getting one of these cute little puppies, visit the Cairn Terrier Club of America’s website. This site will provide you with a list of all the reputable breeders in every state.

Cairn Terrier Rescue/for Adoption

People often purchase a Cairn terrier without the slightest inclination of what it takes to own one. For this reason, many of these puppies end up in rescue shelters waiting to be adopted.

If you’re opting to get one of these little dogs and don’t mind adopting, get in touch with the Cairn Terrier Club of America. They’ll gladly put you in touch with a rescue center close to you.

Curious About Cairn Terrier Mixes?

The Cairn terrier is also popular amongst designer mix breeders. Some of these mixed breeds are explored below.

Cairn Terrier Chihuahua mix (Toxirn)

Cairn Terrier Chihuahua Mix
Meet Natalie, the lovable Cairn Terrier Chihuahua mix – Image source

Toxirn’s are charming little fellows that came to life due to crossbreeding the Cairn terrier and Chihuahua breeds.

These petite puppies are intelligent, friendly, and confident and typically form incredibly close bonds with their families.

Unfortunately, their overprotective nature often turns to aggression in an attempt to protect their humans from strangers. 

They’re also somewhat territorial toward other dogs and will bravely defend what they consider to be their territory.

These cheerful and assertive puppies grow to an approximate height of 8 to 10 inches and weigh in at roughly 6 to 8 pounds.

Cairn Terrier Poodle Mix (Cairnoodle)

Cairn Terrier Poodle mix portrait
Meet the adorable Cairn Terrier Poodle mix – Image source

The Cairnoodle, also known as Poocan, Cairnpoodle, and Cairnpoo, is an adorable crossbreed between the Cairn terrier and Poodle.

Being an affectionate breed, they enjoy spending time with their humans and thrive on attention.

Even though these puppies are active, they don’t need a lot of exercise, making them the ideal companions for most people.

These little dogs’ inherited intelligence makes them easy to train, and consistent repetition is unnecessary.

They’re incredibly sociable, strive to be the center of attention, and typically display an exciting mix of stubbornness and sensitivity.

Cairn Terrier and Miniature Schnauzer Mix (Carnauzer)

Carnauzer relaxing outside
The courageous and determined Carnauzer dog – Image source

The Carnauzer is a delightful cross between the Cairn terrier and Miniature Schnauzer. These medium-sized puppies have a strong-willed personality, and they’re courageous, determined, and energetic.

They’re known to crave attention and strive toward being surrounded by company.

Even though they’re not excessive barkers, they should be trained from an early age what not to bark at.

The breed typically has a rough and harsh coat, minimizing grooming needs and making them relatively easy to maintain.

Due to their excessive energy levels, these puppies need regular high-impact exercises to ensure they remain healthy.

Cairn Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier Mix (Carkie)

Happy Cairn Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier mix playing
Meet the playful and nergetic Carkie dog – Image source

Their playful and energetic nature makes Carkie’s exceptional companions and perfect for every family. This wonderful designer mix came into being due to cross-breeding the Cairn and Yorkshire terrier breeds.

Their inherited social and intelligent personalities make them exceptionally popular amongst adults and children alike. 

Despite their small stature, these puppies are alert, spunky, and comfortable in their surroundings.

Unlike the Yorkshire terrier that’s known to bark, these little dogs will only use their vocal abilities when danger presents itself or if a stranger is nearby.

The Carkie’s medium-length coat, however, makes regular grooming maintenance a necessity. Simultaneously, their high energy levels require constant action and exercise.

Cairn Terrier and Shih Tzu Mix (Care-Tzu)

Care-Tzu dog portrait
The intelligent little dog Care-Tzu – Image source

The Care-Tzu is the delightful result of mix breeding the Cairn terrier and Shih Tzu.

This designer breed was created to be a healthier and more pleasant companion for families, and their social, intelligent, and friendly disposition makes them exceptionally popular.

These loveable puppies grow between 9 and 13 inches tall and weigh in at 15 to 20 pounds. 

Although these little dogs are occasional barkers, they’re typically more interested in knowing what you’re planning on doing next. Being an affectionate breed, they make the ideal companion, suitable for everyone. 

However, the breed’s straight and soft coat needs regular grooming to maintain its condition and ensure that it remains mat-free.

Regular exercise is also essential to guarantee that they stay physically healthy and mentally content.

Is a Cairn Terrier the Right Fit for You?

Cairn Terrier riding a boat
Image source

For me, there’s nothing more unique than the independent and somewhat stubborn nature of a terrier. These small dogs are extremely loyal companions that never let their guard down.

Whether you live in an apartment, the suburbs, or on a ranch, these little dogs will make the perfect pet. They’re uncomplicated to take care of and easy to love.

Please feel free to share your opinion on the Cairn terrier by leaving a comment below.


  • They’re small, lionhearted, and tough
  • They have a natural appearance
  • Excellent watchdogs
  • Minimal shedding
  • More willing to co-exist with other pets than most terrier breeds


  • High prey drive resulting in potential aggression toward other animals
  • Digging holes
  • Stubbornness
  • Frequent barking
  • A significant amount of potential health concerns

Further Reading

Not sure if a Cairn terrier is the perfect fit for you and your family? Maybe you first want to do a bit more research? No problem.

The Cairn isn’t the only terrier breed that originates from the United Kingdom. So, for your convenience, we have compiled a shortlist of some of these terrier breeds. 

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