Health Issues of the Cairn Terrier and Other Canines
The Cairn Terrier is, by definition, an "active, game, and hardy" small terrier. The breed is curious, busy, intelligent, and independent minded. Cairns are long-lived dogs, with a life span averaging 13-15 years. The Cairn Terrier is basically a healthy breed; however, since pure-bred dogs have, on average, 3-5 genetic faults, the Cairn Terrier is not without its health issues.
Due to advances in canine medicine, health problems are being treated, prevented, and/or avoided by careful health testing and breeding. The health problems noted below do occur occasionally in the Cairn Terrier. The Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, the Cairn Terrier Club of America (CTCA) and conscientious breeders are working towards the elimination of these problems.
Browse the information below to get to know the health ailments that affect Cairn Terriers and other breeds.
Click on a health condition for more information:
Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO)
Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (GCL)
Liver Portosystemic Vascular Anomaly
Ocular Melanosis (OM)/Secondary Glaucoma
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
Von Willebrand’s Disease (VWD)
Allergies can be broken down into inhalant, contact, or food allergy origins. Flea allergies, grass allergies, and environmental toxin induced allergies are the most common causes of skin conditions in Cairns. Allergies can be chronic or seasonal. They can be minor or severe in occurrence. They tend to worsen with age. Treatment is much better than in bygone days. Environmental controls, antihistamine treatment, and desensitization injections have made huge strides in the last few years.
Glucocorticoids (steroids) should be used only as a last resort due to serious side effects. Diagnosis and treatment of chronic or severe cases by a Board Licensed Veterinary Dermatologist is recommended.
The lens of the eye is clear and located behind the pupil. The job of the lens is to focus light into the retina. When the lens becomes unhealthy, it turns white or opaque. Cataracts are generally considered a common old age change, but a juvenile form can occur. Juvenile cataracts are inherited and are not usually present at birth, although this condition can present itself at any age--months to years. Juvenile cataracts affect different areas of the lens depending upon the breed of the dog. They do not always result in the lens becoming completely opaque. Complete cataracts result in blindness that can only be corrected by cataract surgery. A yearly CAER examination by a Board Licensed Veterinary Eye Specialist is an important tool in diagnosing this condition. Early diagnosis permits more effective proper treatment. For more information on cataracts in dogs, click here:
Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO)
Also known as "lion jaw," CMO is a non-cancerous bone proliferation occurring on the lower jaw, maxilla and, on occasion, the long bones of the legs. It is generally a self-resolving problem that corrects as the bone remodels during the growth stage. Diagnosis is by X-ray. Onset of symptoms generally occurs at about 4 months and resolve at about 1 year of age. Symptoms tend to occur in episodes that can be mild (off food for a day or two), or more serious (unable to open mouth and very painful). Treatment to reduce these symptoms may include the use of aspirin or steroids. This disease is inherited by a single autosomal recessively passed gene. The Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) maintains an open registry on Craniomandibular Ostepathy in Cairn Terriers. Research to develop a DNA marker test to identify carrier, clear, and affected CMO animals has been funded cooperatively by the Cairn, Scottish and West Highland White Terrier clubs and foundations in conjunction with the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Health Foundation. The research began in 1998 and as a result, a test identifying the causal gene mutation was developed. The causal mutation gene was first identified based on research conducted in Europe.
In the United States, research by Dr. Patrick Venta of Michigan State University, and partially funded by the Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, has resulted in a simple cheek swab test that can identify dogs that carry the CMO gene. Thus, breeders are able to make informed decisions when considering breeding two canines and avoid producing puppies that will be affected by CMO.
CMO DNA testing is now available from OptiGen in Ithaca, NY. OptiGen is a commercial health testing and research laboratory founded by veterinarians from Cornell University. For more information about CMO and testing, click on this link to OptiGen:
Cryptorchidism is the failure of one or both of the testicles to descend into the scrotum. Normal descent is often complete by 6 to 8 weeks of age, but may be delayed as late as 6 months of age. The undescended testicle may be found within the abdominal cavity, in the inguinal canal or under the skin next to the penis. The condition is considered hereditary in most breeds. The mode of inheritance for cryptorchidism is still in question. Because of the increased incidence of cancer in retained testicles, cryptorchidic dogs should always be neutered. A neutered cryptorchidic dog should have no other expected health risks due to this condition.
Cushing’s Disease is a collection of symptoms caused by an excess of a hormone called cortisol. There are three main causes of Cushing’s Disease: a tumor on the pituitary gland; a tumor on the adrenal gland; or veterinarians who over-prescribe corticosteroids to treat itching skin. It is, as yet, unknown whether there is an inherited predisposition to Cushing’s Disease. Signs of Cushing’s Disease are drinking huge amounts of water and urinating frequently, losing coat, skin darkening, muscle atrophy and the development of a pot belly. If your vet finds the following 4 symptoms, your Cairn probably has Cushing’s Disease: your Cairn is drinking copious amounts of water and urinating frequently; your dog has an elevated SGPT; your Cairn has an elevated alkaline phosphatase level; and your dog’s ratio of urinary cortisol to urinary creatine is greater than 24.
Cushing’s Disease is usually treated successfully with a drug called Lysodren. Surgery is rarely recommended and radiation therapy, used in humans, is very expensive and rarely available for dogs. Cushing’s Disease can affect several breeds of dogs as well as mixed breeds.
Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (GCL)
Also known as Krabbe’s disease, this is a degenerative disease of the white matter of the brain and spinal cord. Affected puppies die at a very early age or have to be euthanized. The mode of inheritance for GCL is via a single autosomal recessively passed gene. A blood test can identify carriers of this disease. Breeders can use this test to eliminate GCL in Cairns by not breeding animals that carry the gene. Animals to be bred should be tested and the results registered with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA). Test information can be found here: Instructions for your vet are on the second page of the document.
A variety of heart defects can occur in every breed of pure-bred dogs. A careful examination of puppies by a veterinarian at 6 weeks of age is recommended since most congenital heart problems can be detected this way. There is no predominant disease identified with Cairns, though various murmurs do occur.
Hypothyroidism is characterized as an underproduction of hormone by the thyroid gland. It occurs in many breeds, including Cairns. Diagnosis is done by a blood test for complete thyroid activity. Symptoms include poor coat, infertility, lethargy, and intolerance to cold. It is important to determine the exact cause of your dog’s hypothyroidism before embarking on a course of treatment. Your veterinarian must run a full thyroid panel and have the blood tested at a laboratory that uses canine thyroid values. Do not be tempted to start thyroid treatment without proper veterinary supervision. A balanced endocrine system is critical to your dog’s health and you can cause an otherwise healthy thyroid gland to atrophy by giving medicine improperly. Treatment with synthetic hormones is successful in controlling this condition. Annual blood tests to evaluate the dosage of medication needed are important. For more information, click here:
Legg-Perthes is an aseptic necrosis of the femoral head (meaning bone death, not due to infection). This disease occurs in many small breeds of dogs, including Cairn Terriers. It involves the spontaneous degeneration of the head on the femur bone, located in the dog’s hind leg. This results in disintegration of the hip-joint (coxofemoral) and bone and joint inflammation (osteoarthritis). It may require corrective surgery. Diagnosis is by X-ray which should identify any changes in the femoral bone and joint. For more information, click here:
Liver Portosystemic Vascular Anomaly
Liver Portosytemic Vascular Anomaly (PSVA) and Microvascular Dysplasia (MVD) are commonly referred to as “Portal Shunt” or “Liver Shunt” and may occur in many small dog breeds. PSVA and MVD are related abnormalities. They are both an abnormal flow of blood between the liver and the body. In PSVA, the portal vein that carries blood from the intestines to the liver is affected. In MVD, abnormally miniaturized portal veins can be found in the liver itself. MVD causes microscopic shunting in the liver. Affected dogs many not have symptoms, but may be ill or require medical or dietary treatment. Rarely, some dogs with MVD have a problem with drug metabolism (e.g. antihistamines, certain anesthetics).
Since the liver is responsible for detoxifying the body, metabolizing nutrients and eliminating drugs, blood bypassing the liver can cause many symptoms. Indications of possible PSVA include, but are not limited to, excessive thirst and urination, head pressing, lethargy, diarrhea or vomiting, seizures, eating abnormal substances, elevated (paired) bile acid results, low cholesterol, small red blood cells, behavioral changes such as confusion, circling and head pressing, anorexia, hypoglycemia, drug and anesthesia intolerance, failure to thrive and poor growth. Most dogs with PSVA will also have ammonia biurate crystals in their urine. It is important to note that not all dogs with PSVA or MVD have symptoms or are ill. Protein C analysis can help differentiate between PSVA and MVD. Signs of PSVA usually appear before two years of age, but later onset has been recorded.
Pursuing a dog without symptoms that has high bile acids (greater than 25) and a normal Protein C can result in costly and invasive testing and thus some MVD dogs are subjected to rigorous evaluations that may not be needed or useful. If an animal has confirmed PSVA, corrective surgery can be helpful in long-term management of these animals. Best outcomes are realized in hospitals with an experienced surgical, medical and nursing staff team. Dietary manipulation is also important in maintaining dogs with PSVA.
The mode of inheritance has not been established, but a research project is being conducted at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine by Sharon Center, D.V.M. DACVIM, Professor of Internal Medicine. This research has been partially funded by the Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America, other breed clubs and the American Kennel Club (AKC) Canine Health Foundation.
IMPORTANT UPDATE (10/14/2014): Regarding liver shunt and bile acid testing, Dr. Center is now recommending, based on several years of tests and results, that bile tests still need to be paired, but it is not necessary to fast a dog before the first test. Protocol is blood draw (no need to fast), food, wait 2 hours and perform a second blood draw. We will continue to update this information as it becomes available.
Ocular Melanosis (OM)/Secondary Glaucoma
(Formerly referred to as Pigmentary Glaucoma)
Awareness of this condition in the United States is fairly recent, as the first known cases were diagnosed in 1984. It is an inherited condition that occurs predominantly in Cairn Terriers, although there are some unconfirmed reports of a similar condition in other breeds. The condition generally affects both eyes. Onset of the more obvious changes usually occurs between 7 to 12 years of age, which make this a vital time to closely watch each eye for small spots or patches of very dark pigmentation within the sclera (white part of the eye). Visits to the veterinarian when Cairns are this age should include an examination of the anterior chambers of the eyes for pigment deposits as well. The pigment deposits accumulate and decrease the eyes’ ability to drain fluid out of the anterior chamber. This fluid accumulation leads to an increase in pressure in the eye known as secondary glaucoma. If the elevated pressure goes undiagnosed and/or untreated, the dog will not only go blind, but also suffer from pain because an increased pressure in the eye can be very painful. Because of this, it is often required to remove the eye due to pain caused by a build-up of pressure. If caught early, the damage that glaucoma causes can be slowed, and vision maintained longer by use of medications. It is important that all Cairns be checked regularly for the early signs of Ocular Melanosis (pigmented scleral patches and thickened iris roots) especially those dogs who are related to dogs that have, or that are suspected to have Ocular Melanosis. This condition is also part of the GDC Registry.
Research into Ocular Melanosis is currently being conducted by Dr. Simon Petersen-Jones at Michigan State University (MSU), East Lansing. Dr. Petersen-Jones is collecting blood samples and pedigrees of normal and affected dogs as well as organ donated eyes from all Cairns. If your Cairn has been diagnosed with Ocular Melanosis and you would like more information, please contact Dr. Petersen-Jones at . He can also be contacted through the Comparative Opthalmology laboratory at MSU by telephone at (517) 353-3278.
The Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America is proud to help fund this research.
EYE REGISTRY UPDATE: As of November 1, 2012, the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) had endorsed the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) Eye Certification Registry (OFA ECR), also referred to as CAER, as its recommended canine eye registry. Diplomates of the Veterinary College could submit eye registrations for either the OFA ECR or the CERF programs. Exam protocols were exactly the same for both registries. As of 2014, CERF closed and forwarded all its information to the OFA CAER registry. More details can be found at: and .
This is a problem in many small dog breeds, including Cairn Terriers. In this disorder, the kneecap luxates, or pops out of place, either in a medial or lateral position. Testing has proven this to be an inherited disorder in Cairns. Diagnosis is by X-ray and palpation exam. The condition is also on the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals website for Cairn Terriers. Severity of the condition is quite variable. It can occur in one back leg, or both. Grade 1 cases can be very mild, with minor gaiting anomalies. Mild cases will present as: picking up one leg for a few steps when moving over irregular ground (gravel or long grass), lope or gallop rather than trot. They are often straight in the stifle and have no “drive” to their rear movement, so movement is impaired. Grade 3 and 4 cases are less common and require surgical correction. This condition does weaken the integrity of the joint, predisposing the dog to arthritis and traumatic injury.
Research has been partially funded by the Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)
Also known as PRA, this eye disease is also referred to as “night blindness”. This however, is a misnomer because the blindness caused by this disease is eventually total. In the early stages, the dog’s vision is impaired at night and eventually becomes worse in daylight and dim light conditions. Ultimately, the dog becomes completely blind as both eyes are affected. This condition is inherited when both parents are carriers. Diagnosis of PRA can be detected by a CAER exam. This condition exists in several breeds of dogs, including Cairn Terriers. PRA is a condition that is registered with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. You can read more about PRA here: and
Renal dysplasia is an inherited disease characterized by abnormal development of the kidney, which takes place before puppies are born. This results in incomplete or unorganized development of the kidney tissues, which can lead to a decrease in kidney function with associated clinical diseases and possibly death at an early age. Clinical signs may include polyuria (increased urination) and polydipsia (increased drinking) as well as vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, and weight loss.
Renal dysplasia researcher, Dr. Margaret Casal, DMV, Ph.D., Dipl. ECAR, of the University of Pennsylvania, published her research findings on imaging and renal dysplasia indicating that ultrasound imaging correlated with histopathologic changes in the disease. Dr. Casal also notes that longevity and symptoms can vary in individual dogs. Renal aplasia is a condition in which there is only one kidney present. Renal dysplasia is diagnosed via kidney ultrasound and performed by a trained professional. The following locations conduct kidney ultrasound screenings by a board certified specialist:
Durham, North Carolina
Triangle Veterinary Referral
(Dr. Lisa Woolman, board certified)
Southpaws Veterinary Specialists
(Dr. Cynthia Sloane, board certified)
Shamrock Animal Hospital
(Dr. Patricia Walter, board certified)
Yonkers, New York
Animal Specialty Center
(Dr. Kerry Heuter)
The Foundation of the Cairn Terrier Club of America has partially funded Dr. Casal’s research into renal dysplasia.
Although named for Scottish Terriers, Scottie Cramp also affects Cairns. Research is being conducted to identify the genetic cause of this disease. Dogs exhibiting Scottie Cramp are normal at rest and exhibit normal ability to walk until they are stressed. Common stimuli are exercise, hunting, fighting, or courtship. As the dog’s level of stress increases, his gait begins to change. The forelegs move out to the side and forward rather than straight forward, called winging. The spine in the lumbar area may arch and the rear legs begin to over flex. If the excitement or exercise continues, the dog begins to exhibit a “goose-stepping” gait. If the dog is running, he may somersault and fall. Severely affected dogs may find their ability to walk or run completely inhibited. This is not a seizure. There is no loss of consciousness. As soon as the stimulus abates, the symptoms disappear almost immediately.
The severity of symptoms in affected dogs varies widely as does the amount and type of stimulation necessary to elicit clinical signs. The symptoms appear to be caused by a buildup or depletion of some chemical compound in the dog’s central nervous system, most probably serotonin. In layperson’s terms, the signal from the brain telling the dog how to run gets garbled in transmission on its way to the various muscles. The dog’s muscles are not cramping and he is not experiencing pain. He has just temporarily lost the ability to coordinate his movements. Scottie Cramp is present from birth and is a permanent condition that does not worsen with age.
The AKC Canine Health Foundation, together with the Scottish Terrier Club of America (STCA) Health Committee funded a project to collect DNA from affected and normal Scottish Terriers. Cairn Terriers are also studied. To read more about the research being conducted into Scottie Cramp, click here: and
Epilepsy is a general term for neurological conditions that cause seizures. It is among the most common neurological disorders in dogs. Any breed of dog and mixed-breeds can be affected by epilepsy. Epilepsy can be heritable and some breeds are believed to be predisposed to the condition. Epilepsy can usually be controlled by medication. Specific diagnosis of the cause of seizure symptoms is critical to successful treatment. Seizures can start early in life or be sudden onset in adult dogs of varying age. There are a myriad of reasons for a dog to suffer seizures. Seizure episodes that occur over an extended period of time are likely to be genetic in origin.
Von Willebrand’s Disease (VWD)
Von Willebrand’s Disease is the name given to a group of similar inherited bleeding disorders that occur in humans, pigs, dogs and rabbits. VWD is usually less clinically severe than hemophilia and is inherited as an autosomal trait. This means that it can be transmitted equally by and to both sexes. VWD is characterized by excessive bleeding due to delayed clotting. There is a rather low occurrence in Cairn Terriers. While carriers are asymptomatic, affected dogs may exhibit the following symptoms: excessive bleeding when nails are cut too short, severe bleeding during surgery, bleeding from the nose or gums, particularly during teething, bleeding from the vagina or penis, hematomas on the surface of the body, limbs or head, internal bleeding, lameness from bleeding into the joints, stillbirths or neonatal deaths with evidence of hemorrhage at autopsy, chronically infected and bloody ears, prolonged bleeding during heat cycle or after whelping, bleeding in stools or urine.
A simple DNA test to detect Von Willebrand’s Disease is now available from Vetgen.
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