Cairn Terrier

Cairn terriers are loyal, intelligent, and playful little dogs who are just as happy snuggling on our laps as they are accompanying us on hikes. Learn more about cairn terriers’ behaviors and traits here.
By Lola Augustine Brown
Cairn Terrier
Breed Group
Dog Size
Other Traits
Temperament

Cairn Terrier

height
  • 9.5 to 10 inches
weight
  • 13 to 14 pounds
life span
  • 13 to 15 years
breed size
  • small (0-25 lbs.)
good with
  • children
  • seniors
  • dogs
  • cats
  • families
temperament
  • gentle
  • friendly
  • willful
  • playful
  • anxious
intelligence
  • high
shedding amount
  • occasional
exercise needs
  • medium
energy level
  • active
barking level
  • when necessary
drool amount
  • low
breed group
  • terrier
coat length/texture
  • short
  • wiry
colors
  • red
  • cream
  • black
  • gray
  • white
patterns
  • brindle
other traits
  • hypoallergenic
  • easy to train
  • easy to groom
  • tolerates being alone
  • apartment-friendly
  • cold weather tolerant
  • good for first-time pet owners
  • strong loyalty tendencies
  • good hiking companion

Cairn terriers are affectionate, intelligent, loyal, and generally fantastic small companions who thrive on attention from their people. They love to snuggle, but as they were originally bred to hunt foxes from their dens in Scotland, they also love hiking with their owners or enjoying a good romp in the yard.

Great with kids and other dogs, cairns make excellent family pets, and are adaptable to pretty much any living situation (apartments included!) so long as their moderate exercise needs are met. The cairn terrier has a short and shaggy coat that’s easy to care for, with minimal shedding. Though no dog is 100% hypoallergenic, people with dog allergies tend to report fewer issues with this breed, and the robust little pups tend to have few health issues.

The most well-known cairn terrier held a starring role in the original Wizard of Oz movie—Dorothy’s little Toto dog!

Appearance

The scrappy little cairn terrier has a sturdy body, with a wide head atop short legs. Rarely taller than 10 inches and weighing in at around 14 pounds, the cairn is perfectly sized for long cuddle sessions on his owner’s lap, but sturdy enough for rowdy playtime. His eyes are deep brown and intelligent looking, and his face is sometimes described as “fox–like,” an ironic statement since this little guy was originally bred to root out vermin—including foxes!—from rock piles in Scotland. 

Cairn terrier colors can include nearly every shade except white, with a number of different patterns and markings. Cairns don’t shed much, and their short, shaggy coats require minimal grooming. They are considered to be one of the better dogs to have if you’re dog-allergic, though technically no breed is actually hypoallergenic.

Temperament

Cairn terriers are sweet dogs with a lot of personality. Shlomo Freiman, DVM, founder of the Animal Hospital of Factoria in Bellevue, Wash., who also owns a cairn terrier, says that they are great small pets. “Cairns are what I would call ‘terrier-lite,’ as they have a mischievous side and a high intelligence and activity level, but they’re not just go-go-go and are a lot less challenging to own than other terrier breeds,” Freiman says.

Affectionate and loyal cairns are also gentle with children, tend to get along well with other dogs, and love a good play session. Though hardly guard dogs, they’d certainly alert you to a stranger coming to the house. These dogs are smart, too, which gives them a reputation of being easily teachable. They can be a good choice for first–time dog owners, and Freiman says he often recommends the cairn to his clients if they’re looking for a small breed. 

Living Needs

Cairn terriers are adaptable pups who can do well in homes or even apartments, so long as they get their daily exercise needs met. Though small, they do have lots of energy, so regular walks or visits to the dog park are a must. If left alone for many hours at a time, cairns can become destructive—so this might not be the best dog to bring home if you’re out of the house all day. Be sure your backyard is fenced in, as cairns can easily get distracted by small animals and run off to chase them, thanks to their hunting instincts.

A very affectionate breed, cairns make great companions for just about every kind of dog owner, and are awesome as family pets. Many cairn terrier owners even report that their dogs get along with their cats, but they might not have such sunny relationships with cats outside of the home (there go those terrier instincts again!). Because of the breed’s history as vermin hunters, it’s probably not a good idea to have your cairn around other small pets like gerbils or hamsters, either. 

Cairns love to lounge around with their owners and cuddle up on the sofa, but they can also make great outdoor companions. “My cairn runs trails with me, though he is often less enthusiastic about coming along than my Jack Russell, who has seemingly boundless energy,” Freiman says. “So they are active, but a couple of good walks a day and some time throwing a ball around with them will meet their exercise needs and keep them happy.”

Care

Cairn terrier grooming is pretty low-key. A brush every week or so will keep their coats looking tidy and at their best. Like most small dogs, cairns can be prone to dental issues, but regular tooth brushing can help counter potential problems. 

Because cairns are generally an active breed, they love good walks or play sessions with their owners. Giving them plenty of exercise and mental stimulation will help keep them happy and healthy. “We always have to look back at what these dogs are bred for and how those needs for stimulation still need to be met,” Freiman says. “If they aren’t getting that stimulation, they can be troublemakers.” 

Cairns are very social, and love being with their people and playing with other dogs. These smart little pups are generally considered easy to train—but consistency is key, along with positive reinforcement. Since they do have strong personalities, start obedience training early on to help avoid any behavior issues or “boundary testing” down the line. Get everyone in the house to help so that there is a consistent approach and your puppy knows exactly what the limits are. 

Health

Like other terrier breeds, cairns can live long and healthy lives—sometimes as long as 15 years. Freiman describes them as healthy and robust, “a hardy little breed.” But as they age, it's possible they’ll experience issues with luxating patella and retinal problems such as cataracts.

As these are typically genetic issues, Freiman advises finding out from your dog’s breeder if he’s been screened for them. Routine medical care is always important, and it’s key to speak with your vet about any red flags that you should be aware of right after bringing home your pet.

History

The cairn terrier originally hails from the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and for almost a century, the breed was known as the short-haired Skye terrier. Originally used as rodent-catchers, these working dogs were perfectly built for digging into cairns—traditional Scottish rock piles used as land boundary markers—and were responsible for chasing out the rodents that made their homes under the rocks. In the early 1900s, the Kennel Club of the United Kingdom recognized the breed on its own (outside of other terriers from the Skye region), and the cairn terrier received its modern name.

Fun Facts

  • Terry the cairn terrier took on one of the biggest canine movie roles ever: Dorothy’s companion, Toto, in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. 
  • Norbert, an adorable cairn terrier mix (along with Lhasa apso, Chihuahua, and a bit of poodle), is an Instagram influencer with 850k+ followers. He works as a therapy dog at Children’s Hospital LA.
  • Famous owners of cairn terriers have included Liza Minelli (daughter of Judy Garland, who starred alongside Toto in The Wizard of Oz) and Prince Edward and Wallis Simpson.