Cairn Terriers

The bright-eyed, ready-for-anything Cairn Terrier was bred in Scotland to dig into piles of rocks – the cairns from which he gets his name – in search of vermin. Today he's a full-time family pet and companion, but he's no lap dog. With his head up and ears and tail twitching, he's always up for a long walk, wrestling with the kids, or ridding the backyard of invading squirrels. The most famous Cairn of all? Why, that would be Toto, who wasn’t in Kansas anymore along with Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Is the Cairn Terrier the Right Dog for You?

The shaggy-coated Cairn only weighs 13 or 14 pounds, but he's one of those little dogs who clearly has no idea just how small he is. He's intelligent and fairly easy to train, with a streak of what he would call independence but you might call stubbornness.

Cairn Terriers are very affectionate and crazy about people, particularly children. And while some small dogs can't handle the rough and tumble games kids play, the Cairn Terrier loves them. He'll even invent some of his own if you let him.

Which isn't to say every Cairn Terrier will automatically be great with children. Adult supervision of playtime along with training and socializing of the dog is still required. But in most cases, kids and Cairns are a match made in heaven.

With small furry creatures, it's a very different story. The Cairn remembers his days rooting out otters, foxes and other vermin on Highland farms, and he's not likely to make a distinction when it comes to cats, hamsters and other small pets and wildlife.

The Cairn Terrier is a low-maintenance dog, needing just a weekly combing to keep shedding under control. Cairn Terriers don't do well if they're left along for long periods, and are not happy as backyard dogs. Let him live as a member of your family, preferably with the company of another dog, or you might find yourself with a lonely, bored, noisy and destructive nuisance instead of a happy, well-behaved companion.

7 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy Cairn Terrier Puppy

  1. Don’t ever, ever, ever buy a puppy from a pet store or Internet site that offers many breeds and popular mixes, or that ships with no questions asked. If you buy a puppy from these sources, you’ll be more likely to get an unhealthy, unsocialized and difficult to house-train puppy and will be supporting the cruelty of high-volume puppy mills.
  2. Start your search for a good breeder on the website of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, which maintains a referral list for breeders; choose one who has agreed to be bound by the club's Code of Ethics, which prohibits its members from selling puppies to pet stores and requires them to take lifetime responsibility for any puppies they sell if their owners are unable to care for them.
  3. Ask your puppy's breeder for written documentation from the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) that her breeding dogs have had their eyes tested within the last year, along with Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) clearances on their thyroid glands and knees. Make sure they have tested clear for a brain and spinal column disease known as globoid cell leukodystrophy.
  4. Do not purchase a puppy from a breeder who cannot provide you with written documentation that the parents were cleared of health problems that affect the breed. Having the dogs "vet checked" is not a substitute for genetic health testing, and any breeder who says her lines are free of all these problems, or that they're not a concern, is either lying or knows almost nothing about Cairn Terriers. Look for your puppy elsewhere.
  5. Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in Cairn Terriers aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, most of them can be ruled out. Since a Cairn Terrier can live to be 12-15 years of age, even an adult dog will be with your family for a long time.
  6. Puppy or adult, take your Cairn Terrier to your veterinarian soon after adoption. Your veterinarian will be able to spot visible problems, and will work with you to set up a preventive regimen that will help you avoid many health issues, and in particular to watch out for the early signs of the eye diseases that are so prevalent in the breed.
  7. Make sure you have a good contract with the seller, shelter or rescue group that spells out responsibilities on both sides. In states with “puppy lemon laws,” be sure you and the person you get the dog from both understand your rights and recourses.

Health Issues Common to Cairn Terriers

Cairn Terriers are fairly healthy, but they can be affected by several genetic health problems. For one, Cairns can suffer from the brain and spinal column disease known as globoid cell leukodystrophy.

Many small dog breeds, including the Cairn, suffer from Legg-Calvé-Perthes disease (LCPD), a bone disorder that requires surgery, and portosystemic shunts, a liver defect that also requires surgical correction. In fact, according to a study published in JAVMA in 2003, Cairn Terriers are 10.7 times more likely than all other breeds to be at risk for portosystemic shunts. There are no screening tests for these conditions.

Other conditions that affect the Cairn Terrier for which there are currently no screening tests include craniomandibular osteopathy, abnormal growth of the jaw that occurs in puppyhood but usually resolves on its own by the time the dog is an adult; allergies; and epilepsy. However, your puppy's breeder should be willing – eager, in fact – to go over the health histories of his parents and their close relatives, and discuss how prevalent those particular health concerns are in his lines.


Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease
High $1,000-$3,000
Portosystemic Shunts
Medium $2,000-$6,000
Craniomandibular Osteopathy
High $500-$2,000
Atopic Dermatitis High $100-$1,000
Hydrocephalus Medium $5,000-$10,000
Estimates based on claims paid by Embrace Pet Insurance


Pet Insurance for Cairn Terriers

Pet insurance for Cairn Terriers costs more than for mixed breed dogs. This is because Cairn Terriers are much more likely than mixed breed dogs to make claims for hereditary conditions that are expensive to treat.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which Cairn Terriers are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your Cairn Terrier is when he’s a healthy puppy. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, and pet insurance is the one thing you can’t get when you need it the most.