Cairn Terrier

PetMD Editorial
Written by:
PetMD Editorial
Published: July 13, 2009

The breed’s five minutes of fame came in the film classic, The Wizard of Oz, as Toto was a Cairn Terrier. A small, hardy working dog originally bred in Scotland to hunt vermin, Cairn Terriers are now mostly concerned with obedience, agility, terrier and tracking trials.

Physical Characteristics

The Cairn Terrier is everything a working terrier should be: active, hardy, and mettlesome. The dog’s coat, which can be found in a variety of colors, is weather-resistant, comprising an abundant and harsh outer coat and close, soft undercoat. The furnishing circling the Cairn's face resembles a fox-like expression.

This short-legged breed is long in proportion to its height, but differs from the Scottish or Sealyham Terriers, in that it is not as low to the ground. Its good build allows it to squeeze through close quarters while chasing its quarry. Its powerful jaws, meanwhile, are due to its wide and short head.

Personality and Temperament

The courageous, inquisitive, spirited, bold, stubborn, clever, and hardy Cairn Terrier has a fighting streak, but is incredibly sensitive as well. The Cairn can be a proper house pet provided it gets daily mental and physical exercise. It enjoys playing with children, and can withstand mild roughhousing.

A devoted companion, the Cairn Terrier explores, hunts, digs and barks like the best of working terriers. When threatened, however, it may become aggressive toward other dogs or give chase to small animals.


Though a dog of small size, the Cairn Terrier requires daily outdoor exercises; this may be in the form of a game, an on-leash walk, or an expedition in a secure area. The dog's wire coat should be combed once a week and stripped of dead hair twice a year. The breed prefers to sleep in the house; however, it can live outdoors in cool climates.


The Cairn Terrier, which has an average lifespan of 12 to 14 years, may suffer from major health concerns such as Globoid cell leukodystrophy (GCL), or minor issues like glaucoma, portacaval shunt, and Craniomandibular osteopathy (CMO). Veterinarian often recommend tests to confirm GCL in Cairn Terriers.

History and Background

The Cairn Terrier retains features of its root stock to a larger extent than others that have descended along the same lines. It belonged to a group of short-legged terriers, bred on the Scottish Isle of Skye.

Such dogs were used to hunt otter, fox, and badger in the 15th century, and were skilled in jumping at otters from piles of stone or cairns. These dogs had several colors like gray, white, and red and were often entered into dog shows as Scotch Terriers.

In 1873, the Scotch Terrier group was divided into two distinct breed: the Skye Terrier and Dandie Dinmont. The group was further split in 1881 into Skye and Hard-haired Terriers. Later the Hard-haired Terriers were separated into the West Highland White, Scotch, and the variety that was later known as the Cairn. The name Cairn Terrier was adopted in 1912.

Most of the earlier Cairns were completely white, and crossing with West Highland Whites was abolished by the 1920s. Having gained popularity in England, the breed also made its mark in America, when the dog chosen to play Toto in The Wizard of Oz was a Cairn Terrier.

The British breed club’s motto, "The best little pal in the world," describes the true nature of a Cairn Terrier today.

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