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Cairn Terrier vs Westie: Differences Explained (with Pictures)

Kit Copson

By Kit Copson

Cairn Terrier vs Westie - Featured Image

There are so many Terrier breeds that it can sometimes be tricky to distinguish between them, especially when they share similar physical traits like the West Highland White Terrier (Westie) and the Cairn Terrier. There are indeed plenty of similarities between the two, including in the common character traits department, but there are also some differences that can help you tell one from the other.

Let’s explore these two lovely breeds in more depth.

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Visual Differences

Cairn Terrier vs Westie - Visual Differences
Photo Credit: Left – EiZivile, Shutterstock | Right – Dora Zett, Shutterstock

At a Glance

Cairn Terrier
  • Average height (adult): 9.5–10 inches
  • Average weight (adult): 13–14 pounds
  • Lifespan: 13–15 years
  • Exercise: Around an hour per day, varies by dog
  • Grooming needs: Low
  • Family-friendly: Yes, with socialization
  • Other pet-friendly: Yes, with socialization
  • Trainability: Intelligent but can be stubborn, does best with positive reinforcement
West Highland White Terrier
  • Average height (adult): 10–11 inches
  • Average weight (adult): 15–20 pounds
  • Lifespan: 13–15 years
  • Exercise: Around an hour a day, varies by dog
  • Grooming needs: Moderate
  • Family-friendly: Yes, with socialization
  • Other pet-friendly: Yes, with socialization
  • Trainability: Smart and independent, needs consistency and positive reinforcement

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Cairn Terrier Overview

cairn terrier puppies
Photo Credit: Rybin, Shutterstock

In the late 19th century, breeding programs started to focus on developing Scottish farm dogs into the Cairn Terrier as we know it today, though these types of dogs have been around since the 17th century. They originated in the Western Highlands of Scotland and were used to hunt and exterminate rodents. Today, they sit at number 70 on the American Kennel Club’s breed popularity ranking.


The Cairn Terrier is short but surefooted, a bit smaller than the Westie, and has a very distinctive, strong, broad head on top of a little body. They have wiry, weather-resistant double coats of medium length, which gives them a shaggy look. The coat comes in a vast array of colors, including brindle, red, gray, cream, silver, wheaten, and black. Physically, this solid little canine gives every impression of being the perfect working dog.


Before we get into the common characteristics of Cairn Terriers, it’s important to note that every dog is an individual and will have different personality traits. Please get to know the dog, not the breed as a whole, to determine if you’ll be a good fit for each other.

With that out of the way, traits that are commonly associated with well-socialized Cairn Terriers include intelligence, alertness, independence (which can come with a hint of stubbornness), and a cheerful, peppy disposition. Though they may be on the small side, Cairn Terriers are very sturdy dogs that enjoy having a task to perform—a trait that harks back to their strong working roots.

7Cairn Terrier
Photo Credit: hazelw90, Pixabay


Cairn Terriers are very smart dogs, more than capable of learning good manners. That said, you’ll need to be a consistent and patient leader who is completely aware of what motivates their dog because Cairns are famously stubborn. As mentioned, every dog is different, but if your Cairn has that famous stubborn streak, you might find training a bit of a challenge.

What can help is having a reward system based on what your Cairn loves, whether that’s treats, toys, praise, or a scratch in the right place.


Though their exercise needs aren’t too intense, hardworking Cairn Terriers need a good amount of daily exercise—around an hour, but this varies from dog to dog—to keep them happy and out of mischief!

These dogs are sure to love being able to roam freely when possible, like on a forest walk with you or in a dog park (make sure your dog knows basic commands first) but they also do well with a few general walks and games. As you get to know your Cairn, how much exercise they need on a daily basis will become clearer to you. Too little can result in boredom and destructive behavior.

cairn terrier
Photo Credit: hazelw90, Pixabay


Cairn Terriers have a long expected lifespan and are pretty solid little fellows and ladies. Nevertheless, whether mixed or purebred, all dogs have the potential to experience a health condition. Knowing about breed-related conditions, however, can give you a heads-up on what to keep an eye out for.

Here are some of the conditions that have been linked to Cairns:
  • Diabetes
  • Liver conditions
  • Patellar luxation
  • Heart disease
  • Cushing’s disease

Suitable For:

If you’re patient, determined not to be swayed by a potential stubborn streak, and want a faithful, cheerful, and fearless little dog in your life, you and a Cairn Terrier could be the perfect fit for one another.

These spirited Terriers make the best friends, are often a great mix of being people-oriented and independent, and are suitable for all kinds of homes, both large and small, as long as they get enough exercise.

Be sure to socialize your Cairn with all family members, big and small, and start socializing them around other pets as early as possible to teach them not to give into that chase instinct. If you adopt an adult Cairn, your contact at the shelter or organization can help you decide if they would be a good match for your situation.

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West Highland White Terrier Overview

West Highland White Terrier dog on grass
Photo Credit: BIGANDT.COM, Shutterstock

The West Highland White Terrier originated in Scotland and very likely comes from the same family as the Cairn, Skye, Dandie Dinmont, and Scottish Terrier.

They were originally bred by the Malcolm clan for the purpose of hunting rats, but have also worked as farmhands and game retrievers throughout history. Today, they are the 45th most popular dogs in the U.S. according to the AKC’s breed popularity ranking.


Male Westies typically grow to be an inch or so taller than females and can weigh up to 20 pounds. They have medium-length, rough-textured double coats that come in only one color—white. This is in contrast to the multitude of coat colors possible for Cairn Terriers. The head is round, the face holds an intelligent and curious expression, and the body is well-balanced and muscular.


The Westie is generally characterized as being merry, good-humored, fearless, and adaptable. Smart and quick-thinking, the Westie’s working background has instilled in them a sense of independence and assertiveness, and these are not typically the kind of dogs to want to spend all of their time lazing about being waited on hand and foot.

More often than not, Westies are great at holding their own, enjoy exploring exciting places (think forests and dog parks), and tend to approach new situations with confidence and curiosity.

West Highland White Terrier Close up
Photo Credit: ana_olly, Pixabay


Westies aren’t too much of a challenge to train as long as you’re consistent, but they are known for being quite independent and self-assured. Be prepared for this possibility if you’re a first-time owner and get ready to be unflappably patient and stock up on your Westie’s favorite treats or toys (or whatever it is that motivates them).

Remember that independent dogs work best with a trainer that can match their possible stubbornness tenfold! Use positive reinforcement and remain cool and collected even if your Westie is seriously trying your patience—dogs find it easier to respect people who give off calm vibes.


The exercise needs for an adult Westie are about the same as for a Cairn Terrier—around an hour of physical exercise per day (give or take—this depends on your dog’s individual needs). You can try a variety of activities with your Westie, including general walks, free-roaming time, games like fetch and tug-of-war, and agility training. Westies are pretty easy to please in this department.

Westies siting
Image Credit: Pixabay


Like Cairns, Westies are generally sturdy, healthy, and long-lived dogs, but there are still some breed-specific conditions to read up on just in case.

Westies have been linked to:
  • Orthopedic conditions
  • Allergies
  • White Shaker Dog Syndrome
  • Digestive conditions
  • Pulmonary fibrosis

Suitable For:

Westies are highly adaptable dogs that tend to do well in all kinds of homes and families as long as all their needs are fully met. They make friendly and playful companions for children when properly socialized and introduced and can get on with other pets, too, though they do have a strong chase instinct like other Terrier breeds, so it’s best to start early with socialization.

If you plan to bring home an adopted adult Westie, learn as much as you can about their history with other pets and living with kids before you take the leap.

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Which Breed Is Right for You?

When it comes to picking a dog (or, rather, having a dog pick you!), we think it should always be about an individual dog and not a breed. It’s not wise to base your decision purely on breed, as every dog has an individual character, and you might find that the dog you have your eye on would be better suited for another type of home.

Instead, get to know as much as you can about your potential new companion and spend time with them to see how well you get on together. This is the best way to decide whether a Cairn Terrier or a Westie would be best for you and you for them.

See Also:

Featured Image Credit: Left – dendoktoor, Pixabay | Right – chriskeller, Pixabay

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