Complete Guide To The Cairn Terrier: Health, Personality, Exercise and More

The clever Cairn Terrier is the pride of the Scottish Highlands. A hunter extraordinaire, his tracking abilities are exceeded only by his charm.

I like to call these guys my little “footballs.” Their bodies fit right under my arm when I’m carrying them around my veterinary practice. Every single Cairn Terrier I’ve ever met I’d loved dearly. They are just wonderful little dogs.

How Big Do Cairn Terriers Get?

Male10″ at the shoulder14 lbs
FemaleAbout 9.5″ at the shoulder13 lbs

What Do Cairn Terriers Look Like?

The compact Cairn averages 14 pounds. Short, erect ears crown a broad head and soft round muzzle. Hazel eyes are highlighted by shaggy eyebrows. Square-bodied and short-legged with a curved, perky tail, they’re strong in both body and spirit.

Their profuse double coats come in a wide range of earth tones, including:


Brindle patterns and black markings are common — white is a fault in the ring.

Cairns are one of several Scottish terriers developed from a common gene pool in the 1800s. They’re easily mistaken for the similar Skye and White Highland White Terriers.

What Is The Personality Of A Cairn Terrier?

The Cairn Terrier is small enough for apartment living but too energetic to be a lap dog. They don’t need much space, but they like being busy and do best with families on the go.

Adventure-ready, they’re a pleasure to have around the house. They know how to have fun, and their exuberance is contagious. Scrappy, they’re playful with kids but can be sensitive to rough play, so supervision is important.

Responsive to training, Cairns are eager to please, but their hunting instincts are strong — digging and chasing small animals may prove hard to resist. Early obedience training tames those behaviors and helps keep them safe.

How Much Exercise Does A Cairn Terrier Need?

Cairn Terriers are high-spirited and need plenty of exercise. One 20-minute session of high-octane activity will tire them out for a while, but they’ll also enjoy shorter periods of exercise twice daily. You’ll need to tailor the amount of exercise to the needs of your specific dog.

Games that appeal to their hunting instincts, like Hide-and-Seek and DIY obstacle courses, are fun for the Cairn — use cardboard boxes to create tunnels and jumps, indoors or out.

Long walks and exploring parks are their favorite things to do on a sunny day, but canine athletics are an ideal outlet for their boundless energy. They excel in sports from tracking to agility — events that are fun for the whole family.

What Are The Grooming Needs Of A Cairn Terrier?

Cairn Terriers have a scruffy double coat — a soft layer close to the skin and a tousled top layer with a coarse texture that naturally resists matting. Weekly brushing with a metal comb or slicker removes debris while thinning the undercoat. Grooming is straightforward and can be done at home with a few exceptions.

Cairns have long facial hair that when wet, can cause a doggy odor. Many owners opt for occasional professional grooming to trim fur near the eyes, nose and mouth. Their coats also benefit from annual hand-stripping — it’s a simple but time-consuming technique that keeps them looking their best.

Because Cairns are short-legged, the long hair on their legs and torso tends to get wet and muddy. Chances are, they’ll need a bath every month or two. Stick to a gentle, pH-balanced shampoo to avoid over-drying their coat.

What Kind of Dog Food Is Good For A Cairn Terrier?

Most small kibble dry dog foods will be suitable for a Cairn Terrier. This particular breed has pretty large teeth so as long as the kibble isn’t too large it should be fine.

Grain-free diets are a myth. Please do not feed your dog a grain-free diet unless there are specific food allergies that would benefit from a grain-free diet. Always consult your veterinarian before you decide to make any major diet changes.

Some good brands that I recommend include:

I usually tend to go with the bigger dog food companies because of the amount of time and money they have to research and test their products. They also have a stronger history of safe foods (very rarely will they have recalls) over the newer, more boutique-style dog foods.

It is important always to give your dog high-quality dog food. Monitor the number of treats and “people food” you give your dog to keep him healthy and fit. Keeping your dog at a healthy weight is the best and easiest way to extend the life of your Cairn Terrier. 

How Long Does A Cairn Terrier Live?

13-15 years

What Health Problems Can Cairn Terriers Have?

Like many smaller breeds that look similar to it, the Cairn Terrier has certain health issues that prospective and current owners need to know about including:

  • Dental Disease
  • Luxating Patella
  • Obesity

Keep your Cairn at a healthy weight and stay on top of their dental care and your dog should have pretty great odds to live to at least 13 years old.

Where Can I Find Out More About The Cairn Terrier?

Cairn Terrier Club of America

AKC Breed Profile

Where Can I Find A Cairn Terrier?

Start with the Breeder Listings from the Cairn Terrier Club of America. That’s a good place to start and the national club has some great additional information on the breed so you know how to evaluate a good breeder.

The Cairn Terrier Club also keeps a list of regional contacts involved in rescuing Cairn Terriers in need of a new home. Cairns are also popular enough that you could find a local rescue with a Cairn on occasion.

Interesting Facts About the Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier is best known to some people as Dorothy’s dog, Toto, in The Wizard of Oz. But there’s much more to this enchanting breed.

Did you know?

Out of One Came Many

Cairn Terriers are just one of several breeds once collectively known as “Scottish Terriers.” But through selective breeding, lines diverged, and the Cairn became a separate breed.

Once called Short-haired Skye Terriers, they’re close cousins to today’s Skye and West Highland White Terriers. Though the name “Cairn” wasn’t referenced until the late 1880s, they likely existed in their modern form as far back as the 17th century.

• They’re Named After Mounds of Stones

Cairns earned their keep — and their name — by hunting vermin in the Scottish Highlands. Piles of rocks, used as grave or boundary markers, were convenient hiding places for mice and rats. Known as “cairns,” these mounds dotted the countryside, contributing to infestations.

• They’re Built for Digging

The Cairn’s petite stature and short legs are ideal for chasing prey down burrows, but it’s their paws that explain their success. Their two front feet are larger and thicker than their rear paws, allowing them to dig in rough terrain until they reach their quarry.

• The Star That Almost Wasn’t

The iconic Toto in the Wizard of Oz wasn’t the pampered pooch many fans may envision. Far from an expensive purebred dog with thespian aspirations, “Terry” was abandoned because she wasn’t housebroken. Her new owner was none other than renowned canine trainer, Carl Spitz, of the Hollywood Dog Training School — and the rest is movie-making history.