Cairn Terrier: Passionate Digger

Written by: Bojana Radulovic
The Cairn Terrier dog breed is a small working terrier originally from Scotland. Read on to discover why they love to dig and how much exercise this breed needs every day.
Dog Breed Group:
Terrier Dogs
9 to 10 inches tall at the shoulder
13 to 14 pounds
Life Span:
12 to 15 years

Breed Characteristics:

Apartment Friendly


How well will this breed adapt to apartment living? Is the apartment size the most important factor when it comes to proper living conditions? Is the breed suitable for apartment living?

Good For First-Time Owners


Some dogs aren't suitable for first-time dog owners. Is this breed a good match for someone with no dog experience? Can training help them be on their best behavior with owners with no dog experience? Are they suitable to be handled by someone who is just entering the canine world?

Overall Sensitivity


Some dogs are sensitive. Certain breeds are rough on the outside, while having the softest heart on the inside. In other words, some dogs are 'thick-skinned' while some are 'easygoing.' Is this breed prone to sensitivity?

Tolerates Being Alone


Separation anxiety in dogs is a serious condition that can affect a dog's life quality. Is this breed prone to this condition? Can you leave him alone for hours? How destructive this breed can become when bored, neglected, or not loved enough?

Affectionate With Family


How affectionate this breed will be around his humans? Will he welcome new family friends easily or he will choose to be shy? Some breeds can be clingy with owners, while others don't attach a lot. Will this breed act as the family's best friend?



Some dogs will tolerate children, while others will adore well-behaved ones. Dogs and children should always be supervised, no matter how well trained the dog might be. Will this breed act as a nanny dog or he will stay away from children?

Friendly Toward Other Dogs


Some dog breeds cannot wait to run to the dog park and run with others. Others prefer to be with their humans, and not to be a part of a multi-pet household. Is this breed dog lover or not? How friendly this breed will be toward other dogs?

Friendly Toward Strangers


Some dog breeds tend to be reserved toward strangers and highly suspicious. Others are fast to walk away with them easily. How welcoming this breed is toward strangers?

Drooling Level


If you love to clean all the time drooling level in dogs is a trait that you should mind. Is this breed less likely to drool, or you will always need a towel on hand?

Easy To Groom


Heavier shedding during the shedding season is something that every dog needs to go through. However, some dogs shed just a bit all year round. Is this breed one of them? How often should you groom this dog?

Overall Health


What can you expect from this breed in terms of health? Are there any genetic conditions to vary about? Is obesity a major issue in this breed? By knowing more about the dog's health, you are learning how to help him live a longer and healthier life.

Prone To Obesity


Treats are a great addition to training sessions. Dogs love sweet bites of dog treats but they should be served in moderation. Treats can lead to obesity, next to poor nutrition. Can this breed gain extra weight from treats? How prone to obesity this breed actually is?

Trainability Level


Training some dogs is easier than others. How easy this dog will be to train? What can you expect? Some dogs are huge people pleasers and they will master commands easily, while others will try to outsmart you.

Intelligence Level


Dogs are smart beings. We do our best to train them, but they do still end up training us to adapt to their needs. How intelligent is this breed? Will he try to outsmart you? Or he will need multiple training sessions to master basic commands?

Prey Drive


Dogs were bred for a specific purpose. Those who were bred to hunt have natural instincts to hunt, even today. This is why many dogs, like Terriers, will chase other animals. They will also have a hard time concentrating on your commands when there is something small moving. Is this breed prone to following his prey instincts?

Barking Level


How vocal this breed is? Can you expect neighbors to ring you often to calm your dog? Or you can sleep without worries of hearing your Fido bark? Some breeds are highly vocal, others have unusual sounds, and some are silent. Is this breed prone to barking?

Energy Level


Low-energy dogs are happy with regular walks and indoor chill times. High-energy dogs are always ready for action. Is this breed a couch potato, energetic dog, or somewhere in between?

Exercise Needs


Some dogs are more than happy with a slow stroll down the street. Others need hours of active time to stay happy and fit. Is this breed demanding in terms of exercise? How much exercise this breed needs to stay happy and healthy?

Playfulness Level


Some dogs never lose that puppy spirit, not even in their senior years. Others are more serious and prefer having a job to do. Is this breed demanding in terms of playfulness? Can you expect playfulness in their senior years as well?

The Cairn Terrier is often described as a cheerful and alert dog, who loves to be busy.

Overall, this breed is happy, cheerful, and playful dog originally bred to fearlessly root out foxes and other small, furred prey in the rocky Scottish countryside.

Since they are curious and always alert, they prefer to have a place where they can simply spend hours digging.

Quick Facts

Real name: Cairn Terrier
Origin: Scotland
Breed type: Terrier Group
Weight: 10–16 lb (4.5–7.3 kg)
Height: 9–13 in (23–33 cm)
Lifespan: 12-17 years
Litter Size:2-10
Color: Cream, deep red, brindle, light gray, apricot or black
Coat: Double coat harsh and wiry

Cairn Terrier History

Cairn Terriers are originally from the Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye. They are grouped together with the Scottish and West Highland White Terriers.

In the early 1900s, the three breeds began to be bred separately. Knowing the breed’s precise history isn’t easy because, for years, they were lumped together as simply Scotch terriers.

In the 1800s, the breed fanciers devise strict breeding programs and classifications for this hardy family of small dogs. The name of the breed first appeared in 1887, although they were known from at least the 1600s.

These small terriers spend hours chasing rodents who live under rock piles, which is why that has a strong drive to dig even today.

By the turn of the 20th century, Britain’s terrier lovers had finally sorted out the various Scotch earth dogs and began breeding Cairn, Scottish, Skye, and West Highland White terriers as distinct pure breeds. In 1913 AKC recognized the breed.

Cairn Terrier Physical Appearance

At first sight, it’s clear that Cairn Terrier is a small-size dog with a slightly playful personality. This is also a working dog who loves to dig even today, so watch out if you have a backyard.

The Cairn Terrier has short legs, but it doesn’t stop him from being very active in movements.

Overall, this is a well-proportioned dog with a medium length of back, whit a weather-resisting coat, shorter and broader head than in any other terrier.

Some would even say that the head of this breed gives a very foxy expression. Skull is broad in proportion, while the muzzle is strong but not too long or heavy.

The nose is black as well as the eyes. Ears are small and pointed, and well carried erectly. The small Cairn Terrier has a well-muscled, strong, and active body.

Ribs are deep and coupled to strong hindquarters. Legs are always covered with hard hair. The coat is, as mentioned earlier, hard and weather-resistant. The coat is also double-coated with short and soft furry undercoat.

Cairn Terrier Personality

Cairn terriers are considered to be highly intelligent dogs, with strong loyalty. They can also easily adapt to new situations and environments.

At first, they are true terriers, which means that they are really active dogs.

Some may even be prone to excessive barking, while others can be excessive diggers. This is not a dog for someone who wants a companion dog with a low energy level and a tendency to be quiet all the time.

They can be feisty with other dogs, and deadly with small pets and errant rodents. That’s why you should always use a leash when in a walk.

If you want a cheerful and playful dog for the family, Cairn terrier just might be a perfect choice.

Cairn terriers are active dogs that should be allowed to play and romp. They don’t need a great amount of space to obtain the needed exercise.

Longer walks on a leash, indoor activities, or running in a well fenced-in backyard can keep your Cairn terrier happy.

Cairn Terrier Nutrition

As soon as you get a dog, you are directly responsible for the dog’s health. Therefore, you need to make sure that your dog doesn’t get extra pounds, which could lead to one of the most serious medical issues in pets – obesity.

The Cairn Terrier should do well on high-quality dog food, whether commercially manufactured or home-prepared, as long as your veterinarian approves it.

Any diet should be appropriate to the dog’s age (puppy, adult, or senior). Always watch your dog food intake, and know-how much you should feed him because some dogs are prone to weight gain.

Treats are great for training, but giving too much can cause obesity. Learn about which human foods are safe for dogs, and which are not.

If you have any concerns about your dog’s diet or weight, check with your veterinarian. Keep the dog’s bowl clean and always provide clean and freshwater.

Cairn Terrier Grooming

Cairn Terriers are easy keepers, although weekly combing and brushing are highly recommended. Occasionally hand-stripping is recommended to keep the coat’s texture.

Having a proper grooming tool and general grooming knowledge should be a must. If you think that you need professional help, think about hiring a professional groomer.

When you welcome a puppy to your home, make sure that you make him familiar with grooming time.

Plus, spending time together in grooming sessions helps to accustom him or her to being worked with. On top of that, this is an excellent opportunity for you two to bond.

Furthermore, grooming, and especially brushing is a great way to check your dog’s skin and check for fleas.

The nails should be trimmed regularly because long nails can cause discomfort. Check gums regularly, bath only when really needed, and provide regular training.

Cairn Terrier Training

When it comes to having a well-behaved dog, training is a must. Training starts as soon as you bring your puppy home.

Since Cairns are smart and love their family members, they may test the owner’s limits, so obedience training is necessary.

Still, they will learn quickly as long as you provide proper and fun training, supported with positive reinforcement.

As mentioned earlier, Cairns love to dig and chase small animals, so be prepared for these behaviors. Early socialization and puppy training sessions are key to a well-behaved and well-adjusted dog.

Cairn Terrier Exercise

Dogs love being active. If it were up to them, they would spend all day outside. Cairns is not an exception. They require a moderate amount of exercise, and they can adapt well and easily to various living situations when given daily trips.

Since they are energetic and love to learn, you can think about participating in obedience, tracking, herding, earthdog events, and even coursing ability tests, and many other activities that dog and owner can do together.

This breed will require up to an hour of exercise each day. After all, they are energetic little characters, and they like to be continually stimulated.

They really love being outside, so it’s important to have a backyard or garden space for some outdoor time and fun between walks.

Cairn Terrier Health

Cairn Terriers are fairly healthy, but like any other dog breed, they can be affected by several genetic health problems.

Small dog breeds, including the Cairn, may suffer from Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease (LCPD), a bone disorder that requires surgery, and portosystemic shunts. This liver defect also requires surgical correction.

Recommended Health Tests for this breed are:

  • Ophthalmologist Evaluation
  • Cardiac Exam
  • Patella Evaluation
  • GCL DNA Test
  • PSVA
  • MVD
  • Kidney Aplasia/Dysplasia

Cairns can suffer from the brain and spinal column disease known as globoid cell leukodystrophy. They may also suffer from abnormal growth of the jaw that may occur int he puppyhood, but luckily it usually resolves on its own by the time the dog is an adult.

They may suffer from allergies and experience epilepsy. This is why it’s important to deal only with experienced and responsible breeders who will test them for various medical conditions regularly.

If a breeder doesn’t show you any medical documentation of the dog or refuses to show you the dog’s parents, know that you are talking with someone who probably doesn’t care about dog’s health, and you should simply turn and go away. Always search for a responsible breeder.

Should You Have a Pet Insurance for Your Cairn Terrier?

Many pet owners think that pet insurance is too expensive, and not worth of money. However, unplanned things, and sadly even accidents, do happen occasionally. Life happens, and high veterinarian costs are sometimes too much.

So, it can’t harm to have a backup plan, just in case. Pet insurance can be a handy thing, especially if you and your dog spend days hiking or doing any other activity.

The Bottom Line

Do you remember Toto, the brave little terrier in the wizard of oz? Toto was a cairn terrier. This breed is the bold and experienced owner will do the best with small size breed.

They may be reserved toward strangers, and they are always quick to announce guests. This breed can be bossy with other pets, but if raised together, there should be no problems. However, strange animals may be a different story because they love to chase anything that moves.

They can be possessive of their food and toys. If you want a small, but sturdy dog, and far from a delicate lapdog, cairn terrier just might be for you.

This dog is a keen watchdog, who doesn’t shed too much, and is williNG to co-exist with other pets more willingly than some other terriers.

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