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Cairn Terrier: Dog Breed Info, Pictures, Traits & Care

Written by: Grant Piper

Last Updated on June 20, 2024 by Dogster Team

Cairn Terrier dog standing on grass

Cairn Terrier: Dog Breed Info, Pictures, Traits & Care

Cairn Terriers are small, scruffy dogs with big personalities. These dogs love to dig and play. They are very friendly, playful, and intelligent. Many people fall in love with the Cairn Terrier’s appearance and then learn about the dog’s cheerful and fun personality. Cairn Terriers can be great family dogs or loyal companions for single dog lovers. These dogs have a rich history, and there is plenty to like about them.

Breed Overview


9–11 inches


13–15 pounds


13–15 years


Black, cream, gray, brindle, red, and silver

Suitable for:

Individuals or families looking for a small yet upbeat terrier


Busy, happy, alert, and outdoorsy

Cairn Terriers are small enough to be considered a small breed but hardy enough to spend long hours outside. These dogs are tough, independent, and adorable. They come from a long line of popular terriers that include dogs like the Scottish Terrier, Skye Terrier, and West Highland White Terrier. Anyone who has a love of small dogs, dogs with big personalities, or terriers in general will find plenty to love in a Cairn Terrier.

Cairn Terrier Characteristics

High-energy dogs will need a lot of mental and physical stimulation to stay happy and healthy, while low-energy dogs require minimal physical activity. It’s important when choosing a dog to make sure their energy levels match your lifestyle or vice versa.
Easy-to-train dogs are more skilled at learning prompts and actions quickly with minimal training. Dogs that are harder to train will require a bit more patience and practice.
Some breeds, due to their size or their breeds potential genetic health issues, have shorter lifespans than others. Proper exercise, nutrition, and hygiene also play an important role in the lifespan of your pet.
Some dog breeds are prone to certain genetic health problems, and some more than others. This doesn’t mean that every dog will have these issues, but they have an increased risk, so it’s important to understand and prepare for any additional needs they may require.
Some dog breeds are more social than others, both towards humans and other dogs. More social dogs have a tendency to run up to strangers for pets and scratches, while less social dogs shy away and are more cautious, even potentially aggressive. No matter the breed, it’s important to socialize your dog and expose them to lots of different situations.

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Cairn Terrier Puppies

brindle cairn terrier puppy running on grass
Image by: thka, Shutterstock

Cairn Terrier puppies are super cute and scruffy. These dogs are very energetic and playful when they are young. The best place to get a Cairn Terrier puppy is through a reputable breeder. You should only consult a breeder with a known reputation when considering a Cairn Terrier because of some of the unique health problems that can appear in the Cairn Terrier’s genetic panel. Cairn Terriers are popular but not overly so. It is possible to run into Cairn Terrier puppies at terrier rescues and the local shelter. The odds are slim but not zero.

Cairn Terrier Origin & History

Cairn Terriers likely originated on the Isle of Skye in Scotland (also the home of the eponymous Skye Terrier), where they were bred to be vermin hunters. Cairn Terriers then spread to the Scottish mainland and then the British Isles as a whole. Cairn Terriers have been around since the 1600s (and likely even earlier), but they weren’t recognized as a distinct breed from other “Scottish Terriers” until the 19th century, when breeding programs began focusing on the Cairn Terrier in particular.

The name Cairn Terrier first appeared in print in 1887, and the breed was finally recognized as distinct from other similar breeds shortly after. The Cairn Terrier was recognized by the American Kennel Club in 1913.

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Temperament & Intelligence of the Cairn Terrier 🧠

Cairn Terriers are intelligent and fun, and they love to play. These dogs are very versatile and can happily exist in a number of different types of households, from suburban family homes to farms and apartments. Cairn Terriers are typically upbeat and friendly, but they can also be independent, mischievous, and stubborn. Many of these traits can be mitigated through training, but not all of them. Cairn Terriers love their owners and are very loyal to their families. Many are eager to please, which makes them relatively easy to train and manage.

Cairn Terriers are prone to barking and digging. These are two traits that some dog owners will find undesirable. Both can be mitigated with training, but these behaviors typically cannot be eliminated completely. Some Cairn Terriers can be prolific diggers, which can become a nuisance to yards that will quickly fill with holes.

cairn terrier dog in grass flowers
Image by: OlgaOvcharenko, Shutterstock

Are These Dogs Good for Families? 👪

Yes. Cairn Terriers can make for excellent family dogs. They are very happy and upbeat. Many children will love Cairn Terriers. Their scruffy visage is adorable, and they are often very friendly. Cairn Terriers might not be great with very young children and babies due to their propensity to bark, chase, and nip small animals. However, these dogs are eager enough and small enough to manage around kids.

Remember that no dog, not even small, cute dogs, should be left unattended with young children.

Does This Breed Get Along With Other Pets? 🐶 😽

Cairn Terriers typically do get along with other dogs, especially other dogs that will play respectfully. Cairn Terriers love to play, and they will get along with almost any dog that is willing to play with them. Cairn Terriers typically do not get along with small animals and small pets. Since they were bred to hunt vermin, such as rats, mice, and foxes, they tend to chase small pets. Anyone considering blending a Cairn Terrier with small pets should be aware of the risks. Particularly rambunctious Cairn Terriers can injure or harm small pets.

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Things to Know When Owning a Cairn Terrier

Food & Diet Requirements 🦴

Cairn Terriers do not have any special dietary requirements. A well-formulated dry dog food is recommended for the best quality of life for a Cairn Terrier. Owners should tailor their dog’s diet to their activity level. Active Cairn Terriers that spend lots of time outdoors will need slightly higher calories than Cairn Terriers that spend a lot of time lounging inside.

If you provide too many calories to a Cairn Terrier, they could become overweight or obese. It is also recommended to feed food based on your dog’s age, puppy food for puppies, senior food for seniors, and so on.

black cairn terrier dog in the grass
Image by: Marina Plevako, Shutterstock

Exercise 🐕

Cairn Terriers are energetic dogs that need an outlet for their energy and curiosity. They do not need a specific job or large amounts of exercise, but they need consistent times when they can romp, run, and play. A yard is suggested for Cairn Terriers. Their adaptability means that they can live in a variety of situations, including small homes with modest yards to large working farms.

Cairn Terriers love to sniff and dig, so giving them unstructured time to explore is imperative, in addition to twice daily walks. They do not need high-intensity exercise, but periods of moderate and low-intensity play and exercise are recommended for this breed.

Training 🎾

Cairn Terriers are loyal and intelligent, but they can also be stubborn and independent. Basic obedience training is a must. Cairn Terriers will often test their limits and find loopholes in your rules and expectations, so consistency is key. Cairn Terriers will also always have the urge to dig and chase small animals, so keeping your dog under voice command and setting firm behavioral expectations is necessary for a manageable dog. Luckily, these dogs aren’t very large, so they are easy to redirect in the event that they start to lose focus.

Cairn Terrier dog standing outdoors
Image Credit: everydoghasastory, Shutterstock

Grooming ✂️

Despite their generally shaggy appearance, Cairn Terriers do not need a lot of grooming. Surprisingly, their coat manages to keep itself in order with little input from people. Regular brushing (weekly) is recommended to keep the coat from getting too tangled or matted. This is especially true for Cairn Terriers that spend a lot of time outside, as they like to do.

If you plan on letting your Cairn Terrier roam around outside and dig, you should start brushing them regularly when they are a puppy, so they get used to the grooming routine. Cairn Terriers will also need standard grooming, such as nail trims and the occasional bath when they get dirty.

Health and Conditions 🏥

Cairn Terriers are generally considered to be healthy breeds, but they could have a few health conditions that should be noted. Like many purebred dogs, Cairn Terriers are prone to hip dysplasia, which can develop into a debilitating condition as the dog ages. They can also have a slew of kidney problems that are a result of poor genetic combinations. In some rare instances, Cairn Terriers can be born with only one kidney!

Responsible breeders should be able to screen for kidney problems and breed them out of their stock. Cairn Terriers with kidney issues (missing kidneys, deformed kidneys, and ineffective kidneys) can have lasting health problems that can damage their quality of life, which is why it is imperative to use a responsible breeder when getting a purebred dog. Minor health conditions include cataracts and luxating patella, which are easily manageable and won’t hamper your dog’s lifestyle in any meaningful way.

Minor Conditions
  • Luxating patella
  • Cataracts
Serious Conditions
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Genetic kidney problems

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Male vs. Female

There are very few differences between male and female Cairn Terriers. Males are slightly larger than females, but the size differences are so minute that it can be nearly impossible to spot them at first glance. Females typically stand 1 inch shorter and weigh 1 pound less than their male counterparts. This constitutes a negligible difference, but males are technically slightly larger and heavier than females.

3 Little-Known Facts About the Cairn Terrier

1. Cairn Terriers Are Named for Scottish Cairns

The word cairn is one that is no longer as popular as it once was. Cairns are towers of stones that were used to mark property boundaries and grave sites. These piles of stones would attract rodents and vermin that the Cairn Terrier would sniff out and drive away, hence the name.

2. Cairn Terriers Are Related to Many Extinct Dogs

Cairn Terriers have been around since the 1500s, and they used to live alongside a slew of British terrier breeds, many of which are no longer around. This makes the Cairn Terrier one of the strongest enduring links to a number of extinct terrier breeds that used to live in Scotland and England. Examples of extinct terriers related to the Cairn Terrier include the Black and Tan Terrier, Paisley Terrier, and English White Terrier.

3. Toto Was a Cairn Terrier

Cairn Terriers saw a massive boost in popularity in the 1940s due to the release of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. Dorothy’s adorable little dog Toto (“I’ll get you my pretty . . . and your little dog, too!”) was a Cairn Terrier. Toto immediately captured hearts and minds and propelled Cairn Terriers to a new era of popularity and appreciation.

Portrait of a cairn terrier on a dog walk
Image Credit: Francesca Leslie, Shutterstock

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Final Thoughts

Cairn Terriers are fun and friendly dogs with a great look and big personality. They make excellent family dogs and can find joy in almost any situation. Cairn Terriers are deeply connected to other terriers from this region, including the Scottish Terrier. Terrier lovers will find loads to love about a Cairn Terrier. They will also appeal to anyone who likes small or scruffy dogs.


Featured Image Credit: OlgaOvcharenko, Shutterstock

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