West Highland White Terriers

Few sights elicit more delighted comments than a well-groomed West Highland White Terrier in a well-fitted tartan-patterned raincoat, and that’s because few breeds “clean up” as stylishly as this one. The Westie is comfortable in the city, the suburb and the country, and at their best, they are energetic, happy, people-oriented dogs, beloved and admired for their bright white coats and shiny dark shoe-button eyes. They're also true terriers, which means they live to dig, chase and, if they can, to destroy small furry creatures.

Traits, Personality and Behavior

Those drawn to the Westie for their looks alone will find some conflicting information on what these dogs are like: Fans say that they're independent dogs with a lot of energy; detractors may use words like "noisy" and "destructive." Either can be true, and the difference is in finding a dog from a reputable breeder who is striving to produce dogs with stable, happy temperaments and in providing consistent training to your dog from the day you bring him home.

These dogs need plenty of exercise and playtime, and they need to have nuisance barking and digging nipped in the bud. Westies can compete in American Kennel Club Earthdog trials and also do well in agility, obedience, flyball and other canine sports. These activities channel his bright mind and his energy in positive directions that he might otherwise spend excavating your garden or driving your neighbors crazy with his barking.

The West Highland White Terrier's rough coat sheds, but it can be minimized with weekly brushing or combing and occasional trips to a professional groomer. Most pet West Highland White Terriers are kept clipped, although for a proper look these dogs should be "hand-stripped," a tedious job of removing all the dead coat in small amounts with a special tool.

Westies are people-oriented dogs that are likely to make a lot of noise and a big mess if left too much to their own devices. That's one of the reasons they can't live in the backyard. A West Highland White Terrier needs to live indoors as a member of the family, or he's likely to turn into a noisy, destructive and very unhappy little dog.

Health Issues Common to West Highland White Terriers

The West Highland White Terrier is not a healthy breed. In the hopes of controlling the genetic diseases that already affect the breed and preventing any new ones from emerging, the West Highland White Terrier Club of America, which is the American Kennel Club parent organization for the breed in the United States, participates in a program operated by the Canine Health Information Center (CHIC).

The CHIC requires that breeders test all their breeding dogs for eye, hip and knee diseases that are prevalent in the breed. All breeders should be able to show you written documentation from the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) that the hips and knees of your puppy's parents are normal; PennHip certification of hips is also accepted.

Additionally, you'll need to see Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) records clearing your puppy's parents of the eye problems that are common to the West Highland White Terrier, including juvenile cataracts and "dry eye."

A top breeder will also have documentation that your puppy's parents have been tested clear through the Jefferson Medical College Department of Neurology for a brain and spinal column disease known as globoid cell leukodystrophy, as well as through the University of Pennsylvania for pyruvate kinase deficiency, an enzyme disorder that causes a fatal form of anemia that strikes dogs as young as 1 year old.

Some of the conditions that affect the West Highland White Terrier for which there are currently no screening tests include craniomandibular osteopathy, which is an abnormal growth of the jaw and sometimes leg bones that occurs in puppyhood and is very painful, but usually resolves itself by the time the dog is an adult; allergies and other serious skin conditions that are sometimes quite severe, including chronic ear infections; Legg-Calve-Perthes disease (LCPD), a bone disorder that requires surgery; copper toxicosis, a defect of the liver that allows toxic levels of copper to build up in the system; and bladder cancer.

One of the most serious of all breed-specific problems occurring in the West Highland White Terrier is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, also known as Westie Lung Disease. This condition is believed to be genetic, but its cause is unknown. The air sacs and connective tissues of the lungs become inflamed and scarred in affected dogs, and it is fatal.

West Highland White Terriers are also at increased risk of a liver defect, present at birth, known as "porto-systemic shunt." Dogs that have this defect require expensive surgery to survive. And like many small white dogs, Westies can suffer from "white shaker dog syndrome" (idiopathic cerebellitis.) Somewhere between the age of 6 months and 3 years, dogs with this condition will start trembling uncontrollably, especially when they try to move or get up. Some become unable to walk at all. Dogs with shaker dog syndrome will need to be on medication to control it for the rest of their lives.

Even though there is currently no screening test for these conditions, your puppy's breeder should be willing -- eager, in fact -- to go over the health histories of his parents and their close relatives, and to discuss how prevalent those particular health concerns are in his lines.

To protect yourself from the expensive vet bills associated with these conditions, you'll want to purchase pet insurance for your Westie before they show symptoms or are diagnosed.

Condition Risk Profile Cost to Diagnose and Treat
Epidermal Dysplasia High $1,000-$5,000
Chronic Active Hepatitis High $500-$5,000
Craniomandibular Osteopathy High $500-$2,000
Pulmonic Stenosis Medium $1,000-$7,000
Copper Hepatopathy Medium C$200-$1,000
Hernia Medium $150-$500
Panosteitis Medium $200-$800
Sick Sinus Syndrome Medium $5,000-$15,000
Legg-Perthes Disease High $1,000-$3,000
Addison’s Disease High $1,000-$5,000
Ichthyosis High $200-$1,000

6 Tips to Bring Home a Healthy West Highland White Terrier Puppy

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.

Start your search for a good breeder on the website of the West Highland White 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.

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 West Highland White Terriers. Look for your puppy elsewhere.

Consider an adult dog from a shelter or a rescue group. Many of the health and behavior problems in West Highland White Terriers aren't apparent in puppyhood, but by adopting an older dog, some of them can be ruled out. Since a West Highland White Terrier can live from 13-15 years, even an adult dog will be with your family for a long time.

Puppy or adult, take your West Highland White 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, particularly skin and ear infections.

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.

Pet Insurance for West Highland White Terriers

Despite what the breeder might say and regardless of whether your Westie's parents are perfectly healthy, it is impossible to guarantee your Westie will be free of breed-specific issues such as Legg Calve Perthes or any of the conditions above. You can protect against the unknown by getting pet insurance. The best advice we can give you when looking for pet insurance for your Westie puppy is to insure her when she's young, ideally 8 weeks to 6 months of age.

Picking the best pet insurance plan for your Westie means finding one that covers hereditary conditions. Sadly, most pet insurance plans do not cover these conditions but a few, including Embrace Pet Insurance, do. Because of this, pet insurance plans that cover hereditary conditions tend to cost more than plans from other leading companies such as VPI that do not.

Pet insurance does not cover pre-existing conditions. If you wait until your Poodle is too old there is a high probability that claims for any health issues he has had will be considered pre-existing and thus denied. Remember, pet insurance is the one thing you can't buy when you need it the most, you need to plan ahead and get it when your Westie is young.

Embrace pet insurance plans offer full coverage for all breed-specific conditions (excluding those that are pre-existing) to which West Highland White Terriers are susceptible. The best time to get pet insurance for your West Highland White 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.