Cairn Terriers: Should you get this shaggy & fearless Scottish earthdog?

Last Updated on April 24, 2023

Originating from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, the Cairn Terrier (pronounced /kehrn teh-ree-ur/) is a small working terrier.

Bred to be tenacious, courageous, and intelligent, Scottish farmers used these little dogs to rid their property of vermin.

Cairn Terrier close-up portrait

Since I’ve owned several different terrier breeds, I find it essential that people know what makes these doggos remarkable and what it takes to love and care for one. Want to know more? Keep scrolling.

History: Where did Cairn Terriers come from?

Along with several other terrier breeds, such as Skye Terriers and Dandie Dinmont Terriers, Cairns have been patrolling Scotland’s farms and game reserves for centuries – dating back to the early 1600s, where they dwelled on the Western Highlands near the Island of Skye.

Initially, they were grouped as Scotch terriers, making it challenging to unravel the individual history of Cairns.

Strict breeding programs and classifications for this rugged family of hunters were only developed in the late 1800s by breed enthusiasts.

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 houses various rodents within or beneath them, and these dogs would dig into the piles of stones and flush out and kill the critters.

Their courage, independence, alertness, and toughness served them well when digging into a cairn alone and facing the sharp-toothed mammals.

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

Prior to the separation of the breeds, the Cairn terrier, West Highland White Terrier, and Scottish Terrier were considered the same breed.

By the early 1900s, Britain’s breed enthusiasts sorted the various Scotch earth dogs as separate purebreds.

Short-haired Skye Terriers was the name used for the oldest strains of this purebred. But “Cairn Terrier” first appeared in print in 1887, then they were registered as their own breed in 1907.

In 1913, the Cairn Terrier received recognition from the American Kennel Club (AKC) under their Terrier Group.

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.

The other associations that recognize the Cairn Terrier breed are:

  • American Canine Association Inc. (ACA)
  • North American Purebred Registry, Inc. (NAPR)
  • Dog Registry of America, Inc. (DRA)
  • American Canine Registry (ACR)
  • Club Español de Terriers or Spanish Terrier Club (CET)
  • New Zealand Kennel Club (NZKC)
  • National Kennel Club (NKC)
  • Australian National Kennel Club (ANKC)
  • Canadian Kennel Club (CKC)
  • Kennel Club of Great Britain (KCGB)
  • United Kennel Club (UKC)
  • Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI)
  • Continental Kennel Club (CKC)
  • American Pet Registry, Inc. (APRI)

What does a Cairn Terrier look like?

As per their AKC breed standard, these rugged little canines have broad heads accented with pointed or pricked ears, giving them a foxy appearance. Although, some Cairns have one or both ears folded over.

Cairn Terrier puppy

With intelligent eyes and compact bodies, they have the robust build of a working dog. They are slightly longer than they’re tall, with reasonably short legs and a natural tail, which is carried high.

Check out this video to see how snappy and cute Cairn Terriers are in a dog show:

Size: How big does a Cairn Terrier get?

With a height of 9.5 to 10 inches (24 to 25 cm) and a weight of 13 to 14 lbs (5.8 to 6.4 kg), these toy- to small-sized little terriers have high energy levels and need regular physical stimulation.

With that said, they can easily adapt to any environment, whether it’s a condo unit in the city or a spacious farmhouse. Their size typically makes them the perfect pet for apartment dwellers.

The Cairn Terriers coat and colors

Cairns are double-coated dogs that have a wiry, harsh outer coat and a soft undercoat. For their coat color, it’s always a surprise because it can change from puppyhood to adulthood.

Cairn Terrier puppies usually grow up to have gray, black, red, silver, cream, wheaten, and brindle colors. They also have a black mask, points, and markings.

Temperament: Are Cairn Terriers good family pets?

They do make delightful family dogs, especially for those who have an active lifestyle.

Cairns are fun, friendly, and entertaining little furballs that it makes sense why a British breed club promotes them as “the best little pal in the world.” You can count on this dog breed to be always cheerful.

Cairn Terrier playing a ball

And not only do they love meeting new people, but they’re also affectionate with kids. There aren’t many small dogs that enjoy the commotion and noise associated with children, but the cuddly Cairn Terrier does.

It’s still best to be cautious because any dog may snap when hurt from having their ears and tails pulled or getting their paws stepped on. So, interactions between little ones and pups should be supervised.

When it comes to other pets, you should know that this terrier has a high prey drive. Even with early and proper socialization, they may tolerate furry brothers and sisters.

Cairn Terriers aren’t inherently aggressive, but it’s best not to trust predatory dogs around those that they can consider as prey.

Can a Cairn Terrier be left alone?

Cairns are tough, alert, and independent, but they tend to form tight bonds with their person and thrive on their family’s attention.

Leaving this purebred alone for more than four to eight hours a day can lead to separation anxiety, and eventually, destructive behaviors like chewing, digging, and barking.

Cairn Terrier sitting in the staircase

While we’re on that topic, Cairn Terriers are average barkers, but they can get yappy when they don’t get to use up all their energy.

If you want to keep your pup from getting possessive over his toys or food, socialization and training can help. Other than that, they don’t mind being the watchdog for their humans.

They’ll quickly alert you if there are any visitors, but depending on the dog, some adult Cairn Terriers can be friendly or reserved with strangers.

Curious about how loud they can be? Watch this video of a Cairn Terrier having a video call with its doggo friends:

Another heads up! Smart as they can be, Cairns has a stubborn streak partnered with being sensitive. They can be great pets overall for first-time and experienced dog owners, but training can be challenging.

Starting young when teaching your fido is best to ensure that unwanted traits are kept at a minimum while he’s growing up.

With this breed, you should know how to balance being a firm and consistent alpha while using positive reinforcement.

These no-nonsense dogs require discipline to know their place in the pack but avoid harsh corrections – verbally and physically.

Care Needs: Are Cairn Terriers high maintenance?

This is a low-maintenance breed, so taking care of it wouldn’t be stressful. With a proper routine that incorporates exercise and mental stimulation, you should have a pretty happy pup.

Cairn Terrier puppy playing colorful balls

And with its type of coat, Cairn Terriers can handle cold weather, but regardless of what season your place experiences, no dog should be left to live outside.

These canines may not be lap dogs, but our fur babies require constant companionship and are part of the family, so they should stay indoors with us.

Your Cairns exercise needs

With high energy levels, a Cairn Terrier will need up to an hour of exercise. To keep your pup physically and mentally stimulated, don’t just limit his workout with a daily walk.

Cairn Terrier swimming in the river

A clever and hardworking pooch has to be challenged. They’re excellent at plenty of canine sports like agility, earth dog, and obedience trials. There’s hiking, playdates at the doggy park, and even swimming.

If you fail to keep your doggo active, you might find him escaping to release his suppressed energy.

While out on a stroll, keep your dog on a leash so he won’t be chasing squirrels or cats. We recommend one that’s retractable or with a long line to offer your furry friend more freedom to romp a bit.

Grooming: Do Cairn Terriers shed?

These small dogs have a weather-resistant and low-shedding double coat that are relatively easy to maintain. A thorough weekly combing and periodic bathing – once every three months or as needed – are sufficient.

Cairn Terrier lying in the grass
Source: @mimi_la_57 / IG

Frequent bathing should be avoided, especially for show dogs, as it diminishes the coat’s natural appearance and purpose. It will also make him prone to dry skin.

If you want to shorten and shape a Cairn Terrier show dog’s hair, professional groomers agree that it should only be done through hand-stripping with a stripping knife.

Many owners who have this breed as a pet choose to just clip them, though.

Here’s a video on how to hand-strip a Cairn Terrier’s fur:

For dental care, aim to brush his teeth two to three times a week. Doing so will help prevent tartar buildup, bad breath, and gum disease.

Nails should be trimmed once a month, while the ears should be inspected and cleaned weekly. Check for signs of redness, foul odors, or mites, as these can indicate ear infection.

As you groom your little friend, keep an eye out for rashes and sores on his skin, feet, and in the eyes, mouth, and nose. Detecting these issues early will help prevent serious health problems in the future.

Nutrition: Feeding your Cairn Terrier the best dog food

Generally, a full-grown Cairn Terrier will do well with ½ to a cup of high-quality dry dog food. Split it into two meals a day so that your canine won’t go hungry and won’t have too much in one sitting.

You may think that might not be enough, or since there’s too little food, it’s okay to give him one meal for the whole day, but that would not be good. Cairns can suffer from nausea and vomiting due to an empty stomach.

It’s best to depend on your Cairn’s weight, age, activity level, and health when deciding what food and how much to feed him.

Whether you’re going for dry kibbles, wet food, raw diet, or homemade, Cairn Terriers require food that’s rich in “building blocks of life.” It includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, amino acids, and minerals.

Treats are excellent rewards during training, but they can quickly add up to a dog’s daily caloric intake and contribute to obesity.

Limit how much your pup eats and keep yourself from handing him table scraps.

If you prefer feeding your Cairn based on his required daily caloric intake, you can use this calorie calculator to compute for it using his weight.

Health concerns associated with Cairn Terriers

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

Cairn Terrier dog lying on the couch
Source: @dimmig_mamma / IG

One of the health issues that affect small dogs is Patellar Luxation. It’s a painful condition that causes the knee joint to slip in and out of place. Many canines lead a reasonably ordinary life with treatment, but this illness can be crippling.

Legg-Calve-Perthes Diseases affect the hip joint and cause atrophy of the leg muscle. Pups who suffer from this can start limping from an early age of four to six months old. Fortunately, this can be rectified with surgery.

Cairns can also have Craniomandibular Osteopathy. This causes a dog’s skull to become irregularly enlarged, and it usually becomes visible when a pup’s four to eight months of age.

Watch out for symptoms like swollen glands or jaw, which prevents a puppy from opening its mouth, drooling, as well as recurring fluctuating fever.

Pain relievers and anti-inflammatories may help, but there’s no cure for this disease.

The good news is that irregular growth slows and often stops when the puppy reaches the age of one. Very few dogs end up with permanent jaw problems like muscle atrophy.

There’s also hypothyroidism which can cause health issues like alopecia or hair loss, epilepsy, lethargy, hyperpigmentation, obesity, pyoderma, and other skin conditions.

Secondary Glaucoma, also known as Ocular Melanosis, is an inherited illness that manifests between seven and twelve years old.

Check for discoloration in your pup’s eyes for early detection, which can help make treatment more effective.

Cairn Terriers can also suffer from genetic diseases like Pyruvate Kinase Deficiency or hemolytic anemia.

It’s where dogs may get fatigued and have a lack of energy, as well as other bleeding disorders like a portosystemic liver shunt.

Bored Cairn Terrier puppy
Source: @nibbsandkeeks / IG

Cryptorchidism, where a male dog’s one or both testicles sink into the scrotum, affects dogs that are two months old and up. But it rarely happens to canines who are more than six months of age.

Those with Globoid-cell Leukodystrophy suffer from a mutation where the substance coating and protecting the nerves throughout the spinal cord and brain is in critical production because of abnormal processing and storage of an enzyme that creates it.

Some refer to this very rare yet fatal condition as Krabbe’s disease or Lysosomal Storage Disease.

It’s more likely that your Cairn Terrier puppy will never develop any of these health problems, but it helps to know everything about this dog breed.

When buying a puppy, you’ll know that you’re purchasing from a reputable breeder if they can provide health clearances for the pup’s parents. You should see certificates issued by:

  • The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) for hip or elbow dysplasia and hypothyroidism
  • Auburn University for thrombopathia
  • The Canine Eye Registry Foundation (CERF) to certify that their eyes are normal

How much do Cairn Terriers cost?

The price range for purebred Cairn Terrier puppies is from $725 to $1,450 each. The average cost is $950, but some can be more expensive.

It will all depend on its pedigree, the breeder’s location, the pup’s gender, how many left in the litter, and more.

Cairn Terrier puppy
Source: @finley_toto_bodhi_sofie / IG

Fun fact: Cairn Terriers’ litter size can be 2 to 10 puppies.

You should also take into account the expenses that come with owning a puppy. There’s food, training classes, emergency visits to the vet, vaccinations, grooming, toys, leash, bowls, and other miscellaneous costs.

If all those sound okay with you, then it’s time to browse some cute Cairn Terrier dogs!

Cairn Terrier Breeders

We’re all excited for you to get a new puppy to join the family, but it’s highly advisable that before you sign any contract with any breeder, make sure that you do your research.

Find out if they’re legit and what their previous clients are saying about them.

It’s also an excellent idea to visit the kennel. This will allow you to meet the parents and littermates of the puppy and see if the environment they were raised in is in top condition.

When I bought my pup, I even made a questionnaire to make sure I bring home a happy and healthy doggo.

Now let’s move on to the actual search! As a purebred, the first place that we recommend is the AKC Marketplace.

You can also visit Cairn Terrier Club of America’s breeder directory and choose near you or within your state.

But we also decided to give you actual breeders that have available Cairn Terrier puppies for sale:

  • Marma’s Cairn Terriers (Albany, OR)
  • Stonehaven Cairn Terriers (Jackson, TN)
  • Hickory Hollow Cairns (Huddleston, VA)
  • Whites Creek Cairns (Reno, NV)
  • Northwest Cairn Terriers (Longview, WA)

Cairn Terrier Rescue: Save a life by adopting

People often purchase a puppy without the slightest inclination of what it takes to own one. This is just one of the reasons why pets end up in rescue shelters waiting to be adopted.

If you agree with us that it’s better to adopt, call your local shelter or one of the following rescue organizations to see the fur angels who are up for adoption:

  • Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network (Mehoopany, PA)
  • Cairn Rescue USA (New York, NY)
  • Cairn Rescue League (Atkinson, NH)

Cairn Terrier Club of Southern California in Fallbrook, SC, has a questionnaire ready that you can fill out to get matched with a rescue dog.

Curious about Cairn Terrier mixes?

The Cairn terrier is also used to make designer breeds. Some are made from surprising choices, whereas others just make sense to suit better particular owners, like those who suffer from allergies.

Take a look at some of the more popular Cairn Terrier crossbreeds below.

Cairn Terrier Chihuahua mix (AKA Toxirn)

Cairn Terrier Chihuahua Mix
Source: @gotchadaypup415 / IG

Toxirns are charming hybrids that resulted from mixing Cairn terriers with Chihuahuas. They have a more petite size, no bigger than 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 cm), and only weigh 6 to 8 lbs (2.7 to 3.6 kg).

But despite being smaller, they have the same big personality and brains as their parents. They’re clever, confident and form close bonds with their families.

Some of their quirks are being overprotective, which often turns into aggression if not properly socialized from a young age.

This territorial trait can often get tiny fidos in problematic situations, especially around larger breeds.

Cairn Terrier Poodle mix (AKA Cairnoodle)

Cairn Terrier Poodle mix portrait
Meet the adorable Cairn Terrier Poodle mix

Just like many Poodle mixes or Doodles, the Cairnoodle is known by many names, like Poocan.

This Poodle-Cairn Terrier cross is incredibly sociable, loves being the center of attention, and typically displays an exciting mix of stubbornness and sensitivity.

Even though Cairnpoodles are active, they don’t need a lot of exercise, making them the ideal companions for most dog lovers.

It’s a plus that the combined intelligence of the Cairnpoo parents makes this designer dog easy to train.

Cairn Terrier Miniature Schnauzer mix (AKA Carnauzer)

Carnauzer relaxing outside
Source: @mikeyschance / IG

This mix between the Miniature Schnauzer and Cairn Terrier created an exquisitely spunky crossbreed.

Carnauzers are delightful, highly energetic dogs that require consistent training from an early age to curb their willfulness. They’re known to crave attention and love being surrounded by their family.

If you notice its rough and harsh coat, there’s no need to worry because it’s relatively easy to maintain.

Cairn Terrier Yorkshire Terrier mix (AKA Carkie)

Happy Cairn Terrier and Yorkshire Terrier mix playing
Source: @life_with_rhythm / IG

Carkies are playful and energetic canines that make excellent companions and are well-suited for all types of households.

Without the barking tendencies of the Yorkshire terrier, this mixed breed can even be a good option as a pet for apartment dwellers – only if their high-energy needs are met.

If you want this pooch, you should know that they’re alert, fearless, and have a high prey drive. And the Carkie’s medium-length coat requires regular grooming.

Cairn Terrier Shih Tzu mix (AKA Care-Tzu)

Care-Tzu dog portrait
Source: @sitshake / IG

To create a healthier and more amenable companion, the Shih Tzu was crossed with the Cairn terrier, giving birth to a new designer dog, the Care-Tzu.

These loveable puppies grow between 9 and 13 inches tall (22 to 33 cm) and weigh in at 15 to 20 (6.8 to 9 kg) pounds.

They have a straight and soft coat that needs regular grooming to maintain its condition and ensure it remains mat-free.

Care-Tzus are highly sociable and are happy little fellas that will fit right into families with small children.

Is a Cairn Terrier the right dog for you?

The Cairn Terrier dog breed is a sensible, friendly, and highly active companion that does well with experienced and novice pet parents. It can also adjust under all living conditions, from apartments to spacious houses.

Cairn Terrier riding a boat
Source: @virgilvandogg / IG

It’s a fido that will always look for attention and affection, so if you’re always away from home or for long hours, we recommend looking for a different breed. But don’t mistake this pup as a lap dog, either.

Cairns will get you up and off the couch and have you thinking out of the box for activities.

You may have to deal with stubbornness due to their independent nature, but it’s part of their charm!

What are your thoughts on the Cairn Terrier? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

Further reading: Other terrier breeds you might like

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