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Cairn Terrier | Dog Breed Info: Pics, Puppies, Traits & Facts

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By Nicole Cosgrove

Cairn Terrier dog standing on trail

Height: 8 – 10 inches
Weight: 12 – 14 pounds
Lifespan: 12 – 15 years
Colors: Black, brindle, cream, grey, red, silver
Suitable for: Apartment dwellers, families with children, first-time dog owners, anyone looking for an active dog breed
Temperament: Alert, Independent, Friendly, Curious, Attention-seeking

Hailing from Scotland but popular the whole world over, you’ve likely already seen a Cairn Terrier without even knowing it. Terry the Cairn Terrier, famous for their role in The Wizard of Oz, brought this historic dog breed into the U.S. public’s eye as Toto – Dorothy’s adorable and persistently helpful companion.

Curious and independent, this breed is always alert and ready to explore. Highly active and energetic, they make wonderful companions for any person or family that has a lot of love to give. Yet as a very compact breed they’re equally well-suited to living in smaller condos or apartments as well, making them a versatile and adaptable companion animal.

If you’re thinking about bringing one of these dogs into your home, read on to find out more about the Cairn Terrier’s history, behaviors, and health.

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Cairn Terrier Puppies

cairn terrier puppies
Image Credit: Rybin, Shutterstock

Adding a dog to your home is a large, multi-year commitment of your time, energy, and finances – which is why it’s wise to consider whether the Cairn Terrier will fit perfectly into your life. To help inform your decision before purchasing or adopting a Cairn Terrier, looking at the breed’s history and origin will clue you in to what you can expect of one in your home.

Cairn Terriers are one of the oldest terrier breeds, bred in the Scottish Highlands as a working dog responsible for hunting vermin. Originating on the Isle of Skye, they were once part of a larger classification of breeds simply known as “Scotch Terriers”.

The “cairn” in this breed’s name refers to the piles of stones sometimes used as markers in the Scottish Highlands, where these Terriers would hunt and chase the pests that bothered farmers. Because vermin would often hide in the rocks, these dogs developed specially padded front paws that are perfect for digging them out.

This hunting and chasing heritage can be seen on full display in the behavior of Cairn Terriers even today. Highly energetic and always ready for action, they’re an exceptionally intelligent dog breed that can be easy to train or stubborn and willful, depending on their mood. Given the prospect of chasing a small animal, they’ll drop everything else they’re doing to pursue their game.

Capable of getting plenty of exercise without a yard, Cairn Terriers have become the pet of choice for many apartment dwellers in large cities. That said, this particularly playful dog can require nearly double the amount of exercise of larger breeds; be prepared to spend significant time taking walks and playing games with them.

3 Little-Known Facts About the Cairn Terrier

1. The Wizard of Oz’s Toto Earned a Hefty Paycheck

Terry, the famous Cairn Terrier known for their role as Toto, was paid $125 per week for their acting in the film – roughly equivalent to $2,300 per week in today’s dollars. Interestingly enough, the actors playing Munchkins may have received pay of only $50 to $100 per week.

2. Cairn Terriers Are Usually Left-Handed

Just as humans, most dog breeds tend to be right-handed. Not so with the Cairn Terrier, whose left-hand-dominant behavior is an anomaly in the dog world. In addition, their front paws are larger and better padded than their back paws – making them naturally proficient diggers, and a terror to gardens everywhere.

3. Toto Isn’t the Only Famous Cairn Terrier

Since its appearance in The Wizard of Oz, this breed has enjoyed Hollywood’s lights many times over. Also seen in I Love Lucy, Dennis the Menace, EastEnders, George Lopez, Portrait of A Lady, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and even the hit anime series Dragonball, Cairn Terriers are renowned for their ready-for-the-screen attitudes and trainability.

cairn terrier dog standing on grass
Image Credit: D_Theodora, Pixabay

Temperament & Intelligence of the Cairn Terrier 🧠

The Cairn Terrier is possessed of a fascinating combination of attributes: exceptionally clever and friendly yet also stubborn and willful. Their characteristic “Cairnishness” lends them personality in spades.

Are Cairn Terriers Good for Families? 🏡

Well known for their friendly and agreeable natures as well as their high activity requirements, Cairn Terriers are a natural fit for families of all sizes. They thrive on affection and attention and are sturdily built enough to roughhouse with kids without worrying about getting hurt.

Staunchly protective of their owners, it would be hard to find a better small dog breed as part of your family. As with all dog breeds, you should never leave the Cairn Terrier unattended with small children, no matter how well they seem to get along, because of the possibility of accidents.

Do Cairn Terriers Get Along with Other Pets? 🐶 😽

Small but feisty, Cairn Terriers do well with other dogs of all shapes and sizes as well as most cats. Because of their heritage as vermin-hunting dogs, however, they should not be kept with prey animal pets such as rabbits or rats.

Early socialization is key to making sure that your Cairn Terrier gets along well with other dogs. When introduced to dogs and cats as a puppy, Cairn Terrier’s will grow accustomed to life around other animals. If this was absent in your pet’s early life, you may notice that they become territorial and aggressive around other dogs, especially larger breeds.

Golden Cairn Terrier running
Image Credit: Peakpx

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Things to Know When Owning a Cairn Terrier:

Does the lovable and personable Cairn Terrier sound like it might be the right pet to add to your home? If so, it’s wise to consider whether their diet and exercise requirements match up with what you are able to provide. In the case of Cairn Terriers, leaving them alone without enough exercise can be quite harmful to the health of your home and furniture!

Food & Diet Requirements 🦴

Petite as they are, Cairn Terriers do not require a large amount of food to keep them in excellent health. Half to two-thirds of a cup of high-quality dry dog food, spread out over two to three meals, is sufficient for most Cairns, with growing dogs requiring more and older dogs often needing less. Because Cairn Terriers are somewhat prone to weight gain and obesity, monitor their food intake closely, and only use treats as training aids sparingly.

Exercise 🐕

Due to their high energy levels and playfulness, Cairn Terriers need to be exercised longer and more frequently than many other dog breeds. While they can get by on an hour of moderate to intense exercise per day, two hours is better for their mental health. This can come from a combination of taking walks, playing games, engaging in obedience training, and even training for dog agility courses.

When insufficiently exercised, Cairns will often display destructive behaviors like chewing up furniture and scratching at carpets and rugs. Even obedience training is unlikely to solve this problem, as their constantly active natures demand an energetic outlet.

cairn terrier in grass flowers
Image Credit: Olga Ovcharenko, Shutterstock

Training 🦮

Smart and quick-witted, Cairn Terriers can pick up new tricks faster than many other dog breeds. Getting them to consistently perform these tricks, however, can be a different story. Cairns tend to test their limits and can stubbornly insist on having their own way.

Obedience training will go a long way towards making the Cairn Terrier a pleasant companion. Like many dog breeds, the Cairn Terrier thrives on a consistent schedule of positive reinforcement. It’s wise to keep food rewards as an occasional treat due to the Cairn’s natural tendency to put on weight, but clicker training and verbal encouragement are highly recommended training methods.

Even with consistent training, however, it is never guaranteed that your Cairn Terrier will be completely obedient. Many happy owners say that it’s simply an endearing characteristic of the breed’s Scottish heritage. If your Cairn Terrier does misbehave, though, it’s important not to resort to negative reinforcement like harsh words or scolding, as this sensitive breed’s feelings are easily hurt.

Grooming ✂️

Cairn Terriers require little more than a weekly brushing and combing to keep their coats healthy and in great shape. Thanks to a semi-waterproof coat, they’re not prone to developing odors or collecting dirt and grime.

Plan to trim their nails regularly, as overly long nails will cause this digging dog breed much discomfort. With a little bit of experience, this is easy enough to do at home and should be performed every week or every other week. If you’ve not trimmed a dog’s nails before, consider scheduling an appointment with your vet where you can observe the process more closely.

Health and Conditions ❤️

While generally healthy and long-lived, Cairn Terriers are prone to certain health conditions just like any purebred dog. Some of the conditions to be aware of include:

Minor Conditions
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Astigmatism
  • Cryptorchidism
  • Patellar luxation
Serious Conditions
  • Hip dysplasia
  • Elbow dysplasia
  • Von Willebrand’s disease
  • Craniomandibular osteopathy

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Male vs. Female

Both male and female Cairn Terriers display many of the same “Cairnish” qualities that the breed is well known for, with neither sex being noticeably unique. Female cairn terriers may be generally more prone to weight gain as they age and males sometimes possess a higher energy level, though both characteristics are mitigated if your pet is spayed or neutered.

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Final Thoughts: Cairn Terrier

If you’ve never met a Cairn Terrier in person, there’s much to be gained from seeing firsthand how their unique personalities get along with your own. Intelligent, energetic, curious, and friendly, they’re many an owner’s dream pet – as long as you don’t mind their penchant for running after squirrels while out on a walk.

For anyone thinking about including a Cairn Terrier in their life, it’s worth checking out the Cairn Terrier Club of America. In addition to resources and events related to this wonderful breed, they have links to both breeders and rescues where you can buy or adopt a Cairn Terrier. If those lists don’t lead to any Cairn Terriers in your area, consider using AdoptAPet’s search function to find a Cairn Terrier near you.

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Featured Image Credit: everydoghasastory, Shutterstock

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