There’s More to a Cairn Terrier than Toto


Hands down, the most famous cairn terrier is Toto, the (in our opinion) star of The Wizard of Oz. Now, while the whole flying houses/magical wonderland stuff might be fantasy, Toto is actually a pretty realistic representation of a cairn terrier. He’s smart, brave, loyal, loving, tough, cheeky, outgoing and more than a little bit stubborn. He was also actually a she called Terry, but you get our point. Toto/Terry wasn’t the only cairn terrier to make it big in Hollywood, one also made a star turn on the classic sitcom I Love Lucy

Not bad for a dog that was originally bred to chase otters, foxes, and vermin.

History of the Cairn Terrier

Despite the movie star reputation, cairn terriers started out as working dogs–although to be fair, Toto put in the hours. Originating in Scotland in the 16th century they were used to hunt rats and vermin. They got their names because they were directed to leap over cairns–piles of rocks that mark boundaries and graves–to scare out rodents and other small animals.

Cairn Terrier Appearance

These little guys usually weigh in at between six and eight kilos, but they’re hardly delicate. With compact bodies, short legs, and high tails they’re tough for their size. 

Cairn Terriers have a soft undercoat, but a shaggy water resistant top coat, meaning they always look a bit scrappy. They come in many colours, but tend to be black, red, brindle, silver, or a mix. Other than their messy hair, they’re probably most notable for their bright little faces and bushy eyebrows. Cairn terriers may look similar to a Westie, but they are are distinctly different breed.

Life Expectancy

12 to 15 years.

What You’ll Love about a Cairn Terrier

Smart: Their success in movies has more to do with their brains than their looks. Like most terriers they’re very bright so do well with training. 

Fun: Cairn terriers love to play and have fun. They’re obsessed with toys, get on well with other dogs, and can be quite cheeky.

Low maintenance coat: They don’t need much more than a regular brush, a bath, and a bi-yearly trim to look their best. While they shed a little bit, they’re hypoallergenic. 

Adaptive: This breed would suit most people. They’re sweet but independent, love to play but don’t need an excessive amount of exercise (a walk and run around a yard will do), and do well in apartments or with lots of space.

What You Might Find “Challenging”

Can be disruptive: Being so smart, they’re easily bored and have a tendency for barking, digging, and escaping back yards. 

Feisty: While cairn terriers do well with other dogs, they can be aggressive towards cats (unless socialised early) and shouldn’t be trusted around smaller pets like rabbits. Their prey instinct is high.

Poor recall: This breed can be taught to come when they’re called, but are often resistant to commands when in an open or busy space. For this reason they’re often best kept on leash as they have a tendency to bolt.

Common Health Issues for a Cairn Terrier

Luxating patella: More commonly known as “trick knee” this refers to issues where the knee-cap is displaced–it’s common in many small dog breeds.

Porto systemic shunt (PSS): This breed can be more susceptible to this liver disease.

Obesity: Cairn terriers can be prone to becoming overweight, so it’s worth keeping an eye on their diet.

Instafamous Cairn Terriers

Thinking about getting a dog? Check out our other great articles on the topic, like:

Should You Get a Dog?

Should You Get a Rescue Dog? How to Decide

What You Need to Know about Bringing a Dog Home for the First Time

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Written by on for Off The Leash

Article last updated on March 16, 2022

Wendy's never met a dog she didn't like. Although she has a special place in her heart for muts: three legs, one eye, missing fur, bit of a weird walk? The scruffier the better. Her favourite dog in the whole world though is her terrier-mix Stevie.
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