Back to all breeds
Cairn Terrier
Characteristics, History, and Health

Cairn Terrier

The Cairn Terrier originated in the Highlands of Scotland, and the Isle of Skye in particular. The breed has been recognized since the 1600s and was one of Scotland's original terrier breeds. Their primary purpose was to assist farmers by hunting and chasing away vermin, foxes, and other small predators from cairns, which are piles of stones that serve as fences or boundaries on Scottish farms—thus, the breed's name. These small, hardy dogs were bred for their working ability rather than their appearance. It was not until the early 20th century that the Cairn Terrier began to be bred as a separate breed from the other Scottish terriers.

Main Info
Alternate Names
Cairn, Short-haired Skye Terrier (former name)
Life Expectancy
13-15 years
Average Male Height
10 inches
Average Female Height
9.5 inches
Average Male Weight
14 pounds
Average Female Weight
13 pounds
Coat Length
Coat Type
Double, Wiry
Coat Colors
Black, Brindle, Cream, Gray, Gray Brindle, Red, Red Brindle, Red Wheaten, Silver, Wheaten, Cream Brindle, Black Brindle, Silver Brindle, Wheaten Brindle, Silver Wheaten
Coat Pattern
Black Points, Black Markings, Black Mask

Genetic Predispositions and Health

Cairn Terriers can suffer from atopic dermatitis, base-narrow canines, cataracts, chondrodysplasia, chromatolytic neuronal degeneration, chronic inflammatory hepatic disease, cleft lip/palate, craniomandibular osteopathy, cryptorchidism, diabetes mellitus, ectopic ureters, elbow dysplasia, factor IX deficiency (hemophilia B), gallbladder mucocele, glaucoma, globoid cell leukodystrophy, hemivertebra (tail), hip dysplasia, hydrocephalus, hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, immune-mediated hemolytic anemia, Legg–Calvé–Perthes disease, macrothrombocytopenia, malocclusion, mitral valve disease, ocular melanosis, pancreatitis, patellar luxation, persistent hyaloid artery, persistent pupillary membranes, polycystic liver disease, portal vein hypoplasia, portosystemic shunts, progressive retinal atrophy, pulmonary fibrosis, pyruvate kinase deficiency, renal dysplasia, retinal dysplasia, seborrhea, sertoli cell tumor, spinal muscular atrophy, urolithiasis (calcium oxalate), vitamin A-responsive dermatosis, von Willebrand disease type I, and wry mouth. The Cairn Terrier breed club recommends patella and ophthalmologist evaluations, cardiac exams, kidney aplasia/dysplasia tests and evaluate for globoid cell leukodystrophy (DNA tests), portosystemic vascular anomalies and microvascular dysplasia. Genetic testing is recommended, including for the following additional conditions: hyperuricosoria, degenerative myelopathy, and progressive rod-cone degeneration.

Personality and Behavior

Cairn Terriers are renowned for their cheerful and assertive nature. They are known to be intelligent, curious, and often have a mischievous streak. Despite their small size, they are sturdy, brave, and love to play, making them excellent companions for children.

These dogs are very affectionate with their families but may be wary of strangers. They are known to be good watchdogs, and despite their size, they won't hesitate to protect their homes.

Cairn Terriers have a strong hunting instinct and enjoy outdoor games and exploring. They are independent and may show stubbornness, so consistent, positive training methods work best for this breed. Despite their independent nature, they are quite trainable and can excel in various dog sports, including obedience, agility, and tracking.

Cairn Terriers are energetic and need regular exercise to keep them healthy and prevent boredom. Without proper stimulation, they can become destructive.

Fun Facts

The Cairn Terrier breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club (AKC) in 1913.

According to the AKC, Cairns have unique qualities that are collectively referred to as "Cairnishness". These include a short, wide head, and a free-moving, short-legged body that display strength but not heaviness.

A Cairn Terrier named Terry became famous for her role as Toto, Dorothy's faithful companion, in the 1939 film "The Wizard of Oz," which significantly increased the breed's popularity in the United States