Cairn Terrier - History and Health

Source: PetWave, Updated on July 16, 2015
Cairn Terrier


The Cairn Terrier descends from dogs that go back to seventeenth century in Scotland. They derive from a very old line of working terriers from the Isle of Skye that were bred for courage and for the bolting of otter, foxes and other vermin from rocks, cliffs and ledges on the wild shores of Scotland. These dogs were bred to work and to withstand harsh climates with boundless energy while they hunted and dug for assorted types of prey. Scotland’s terriers were grouped together as Scotch Terriers until 1873, when they were separated into the Dandie Dinmont Terriers and the Skye Terriers. While these dogs descended from the same stock on the islands and highlands of western Scotland, they ultimately developed into separate breeds. The dogs known today as the Scottish Terrier, the West Highland White Terrier and the Cairn Terrier all came from the same stock and were initially distinguished only by color. In 1881, a breed club for Hard-Haired Scotch Terriers was formed, and a breed standard was approved the following year. White markings were faulted, although an all-white dog was prized.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, fanciers of the Scottish Terrier type started to breed along separate lines. At Crufts in 1907, separate classifications were approved for white Scotch Terriers and those of any other color. The studbooks were opened to the West Highland White Terrier as a distinct breed in 1908. After some confusing classifications of “Short-Haired Skyes” and “Skye Terriers,” breed fanciers agreed on the name “Cairn Terrier of Skye” for the short-haired Scottish-type terrier in or around 1909. The first Cairn breed club reportedly was founded in 1910. The breed’s name later was shortened to “Cairn Terrier,” and it was first recognized at dog shows in Britain in 1912. The term “cairn” refers to the piles of stones found on the moors of the Scottish highlands, within which rodents and other vermin often hid. These cairns were used as boundary markers and gravesite memorials.

The American Kennel Club recognized the Cairn Terrier in 1913, as a member of the Terrier Group. In both Britain and America, Cairn Terriers and West Highland White Terriers were cross-bred for a time. In 1917, the Cairn Terrier Club of America was admitted to membership in the AKC. That same year, the AKC banned any Cairn from registration if was a product of mixed breeding. The Cairn Terrier standard in England permitted white dogs until 1923, when it too was changed. One of the most influential and important Cairn Terriers of all time was whelped in England in 1933. Eng. Ch. Splinters of Twobees would go on to indelibly mark the breed and set the type we know today. Splinters can be found in the pedigrees of most of the top winning and producing Cairns of modern time.

Not only is this one of the oldest terrier breeds, but the Cairn Terrier is also one of the most well known of all small shaggy terriers, thanks to the character “Toto” in the famous Wizard of Oz movie. The Cairn Terrier has remained remarkably true to its origins, despite nearly a century of participation in pure-pedigreed dog shows. It has become neither beautified nor exaggerated in appearance and is very close to its ancestral type.


This is a long-lived breed with an average life expectancy of 13 to 14 years. Breed health concerns may include atopy, allergies, cataracts, congenital polycystic liver disease, craniomandibular osteopathy, cryptorchidism, globoid cell leukodystrophy, hypothyroidism, Legg-Calve-Perthes disease, microvascular portal dysplasia, ocular melanosis, patellar luxation, portosystemic shunt, progressive retinal atrophy, refractory corneal ulceration and von Willebrand disease.

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