Cairn terriers are small working dogs that originally hunted rodents and small mammals among the rock piles called “cairns” in the Scottish Highlands. You may recognize the breed from its most famous representative, Toto, from “The Wizard of Oz.” Cairns are courageous, confident, highly energetic little dogs with muscular builds, strong jaws, large teeth and small, pointed ears. The breed has a shaggy, weather-resistant coat. While a weight of 13 to 14 pounds is the breed standard, fit modern cairns can weigh from 18 to 21 pounds. The breed is long-lived, with a 14- to 15-year lifespan. Cairns are generally healthy little dogs, but some genetic diseases are known to occur. Care must include providing your cairn with supervision and plenty of things to do to keep him out of trouble.
Training and Socialization
Keep your pet away from small children. While the American Kennel Club says the breed gets along with children, rescue groups warn that cairns are intolerant of the attention of young children and may use aggression to curb a child’s unwanted attention or behavior. Many rescues refuse to place the dogs in homes with children under age 7. Children can act in a manner similar to that of a prey animal, triggering a cairn’s hunting behavior, leading to a traumatic incident for the dog and child.
Socialize your cairn terrier early, especially if you have children or other pets. Supervise these interactions, and instruct children on proper behavior around dogs. Cairns are adaptable dogs. They pair well with other dogs, including same-sex dogs, if the same-sex dog is close to the cairn's age. Cairns can get along with cats if socialized early, but do not expect them to generalize and carry good behavior with one cat over to interactions with all cats.
Start training immediately, using positive reinforcement. Establish yourself as the boss, and provide consistent, kind treatment throughout the process. Strongly consider working with the help of a trainer familiar with the breed, as cairns are independent, intelligent dogs and typically require creative training and variety to keep them engaged. Avoid repetition and harsh treatment with these sensitive dogs. Try crate training to overcome resistance to housebreaking and to provide your dog a safe space to go to when he feels stressed.
Keep your cairn terrier occupied. Cairns are friendly, playful pets. Boredom leads to negative behaviors, including barking, nipping, digging, chasing and bolting. The Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network says of the dogs, “They're the best dog you'll ever own, but they just may be the worst dog you can imagine."
Habitat and Exercise
Walk your cairn terrier daily. Long walks are good for cairns, but keep your dog on his leash to prevent him from dashing off and running into danger if he suddenly chases after a small animal.
Explore other forms of exercise and activity for your cairn. These working-bred dogs need to have their minds and bodies occupied to reduce negative behaviors. Cairns perform well at tracking, flyball, agility, obedience and search-and-rescue work. Older cairns can serve as therapy dogs. Even if you just play ball in the yard with your dogt, you will enhance his life and your shared relationship.
Supervise your dog when he is outdoors. Cairns do well in the city or on a farm and make good watchdogs, but they are best kept as indoor dogs. A fenced yard is a plus; however, cairns are skilled at escape, so modifications may be necessary. Install a smooth-faced fence if your pet is a climber. Attach wire mesh to the bottom of your fence, and bury it at least 6 inches to prevent your dog from digging under. Do not depend on invisible fencing for your dog. Cairn terriers are capable of ignoring the shocks, and the fences do not protect your pet from other dogs, thieves, children or other hazards.
Health Care and Feeding
Familiarize yourself with the health issues and conditions that may affect cairns. While they tend to be healthy dogs with few genetic diseases, the dogs have a high pain threshold and may not make their suffering obvious. Cairns may experience atopic dermatitis; cataracts; ocular melanosis, which occurs only in cairns and can lead to secondary glaucoma; craniomandibular osteopathy (CMO), the abnormal growth of the jaw; hypothyroidism; orthopedic issues such as Legg-Perthes disease and patellar luxation; and portosystemic shunt, which allows blood to bypass the liver.
Measure your pet’s food. Cairns need approximately 1/2 to 2/3 cup of food per day, depending on factors including activity level and type of food. Divide your dog's ration over two meals a day, as this reduces nausea and vomiting that can occur with the breed. Strictly limit his treats, as cairns tend to put on weight. Be aware that cairns can develop dietary sensitivities to wheat, corn and beef.
Provide your cairn terrier with hard-rubber or nylon chew toys that he cannot destroy. They will help keep his teeth clean. Cairns may also appreciate squeaky toys, as they make prey-like sounds.
Brush your dog once or twice weekly to reduce shedding and maintain his coat. Bathe him only infrequently to preserve the weather-resistant nature and natural oils of his coat and promote healthier skin. Invest in a pin brush, comb and slicker brush so you can work on all parts of your pet’s coat.
Strip your dog’s outer coat using your fingers or a stripping knife. Cairns are double-coated, with a tough outer coat that covers a soft undercoat. Leave his outer coat natural and strip it twice a year, or strip it monthly for a more groomed look. Use clippers or grooming scissors to clean up sensitive areas. Keep grooming sessions short and sweet to prevent negative associations and behaviors from developing.
Enlist your veterinarian to trim your dog’s nails. Cairns have strong nails for digging, and they may need more frequent trimming than those of other breeds.
Have the vet show you the proper method and solution for cleaning your pet’s ears. Ask about a flea preventive regimen, as cairns are often allergic to flea bites.
Cairns are recommended for people with allergies.
Items You Will Need
- Dog crate
- Wire mesh
- Measuring cup
- Rubber or nylon chew toys and squeaky toys
- Pin brush, comb and slicker brush
- Stripping knife
- Grooming scissors
- Ear-cleaning solution
- Flea preventive
- American Kennel Club: AKC Meet the Breeds: Cairn Terrier
- Cairn Terrier Club of America: Meet the Cairn Terrier
- Cairn Terrier Club of Denver: Cairn Terrier Health and Care
- Cairn Rescue USA: Frequently Asked Questions
- Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network: Frequently Asked Questions
- Cairn Terrier Club of America: Health Related Concerns
- Cairn Terrier Club of America
- Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network: Cairn History: Meet the Cairn Terrier
- Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network: Grooming Your Cairn
- Col. Potter Cairn Rescue Network: Caring for Your Cairn: Links Index
- Lachleen Cairn Terrier: Cairn Terrier Colors
- Cairn Terrier Club of America: Affiliated Clubs