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Living with Your Cairn Terrier

Living with a Cairn is a joyful experience. They are energetic, filled with curiosity, truly independent thinkers, and generally very healthy. Like any other breed they do need to be taken care of. If you are new to Cairns, we hope the information below will help you on your journey. Stumped? Email our Angus and he will try to help you out.

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living and travel
Living Arrangements and Travel with Cairn Terriers

Sleeping. Cairns like having a cozy den and use of a kennel or crate is highly recommended, particularly while your Cairn is young and needs a quiet place to nap. If you have children or other animals in your home, please provide your puppy with a safe private place to rest undisturbed.

Car Containment. For their safety, dogs should be restrained while riding in vehicles.  Options include a kennel or a harness restraint that clips into your seat belts.


Time Outdoors. The safest outdoor arrangement for a Cairn is a securely fenced yard and supervision when he is in it. Being left tied out in an unfenced yard can be dangerous to the Cairn as he is vulnerable to any attack that he might invite from larger dogs.

Cairns tend to find ways to amuse themselves when out in their fenced yard – and they do love to dig. Don’t leave your Cairn alone with a flowerbed that you value.


An exercise pen (“x-pen”) is useful to have on hand. It can be used to create a safe, portable spot in the yard or anywhere you travel.  The 3'  height pen is recommended; many Cairns can easily jump out of a 2' high enclosure.

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Grooming Cairn Terriers

Coat Care. Cairns of all ages need regular coat care. The Cairn Terrier Club of America has printed an excellent guide to grooming for pet owners as well as an introduction to Show Grooming. The guide, “Cairn Terrier Grooming - From Start to Finish” is available from the CTCA’s website >


Proper Cairn grooming does not include clipping the coat. The Cairn has a double coat which serves to protect the dog from heat, cold and rain. The inner coat is soft, short, and profuse, and insulates the dog’s body from the sun as well as freezing weather. The outer coat is harsh and repels dirt, leaves, and rain or snow. One good shake and he’s dry at the skin and mostly free of dirt and debris. Once the hair is cut, however, the hard end of the hair is gone, and the softer part of the individual hair is exposed. It will continue to grow but will not have the protective properties that it had. The outer portion of the coat is the most colorful part, as well, so a coat that is clipped or scissored will look washed out and pale. 


Ideally, to keep the hard texture of your Cairn’s coat, it should be hand-stripped. In addition to the grooming booklet mentioned above, there are “how to” videos available online. 


If you decide to hand-strip your Cairn, a grooming table with an “arm” (a device that is used to restrain the dog’s head, leaving both your hands free to groom) is essential. Approach the process slowly, offering breaks and treats for standing quietly, and soon your Cairn will come to enjoy the special time with you. And, it feels good, too: brushing and combing, aside from improving the Cairn’s appearance, are important for your Cairn’s comfort. 

Keep the long hair trimmed back around the dog’s anus so that stool doesn’t get stuck there. This can be a serious problem if overlooked, preventing the dog from emptying his bowels and causing misery. It’s a good idea to trim excess hair from around the end of the penis and vulva as well, not too short, but enough to prevent dirt from accumulating in the long hair.

Skin Care. While grooming your Cairn, take the opportunity to examine his skin. The body skin should be smooth and normal in color.

Do not bathe your Cairn any more frequently than is necessary. It’s usually sufficient to wash your Cairn’s feet, private areas, and beard (places that can collect dirt) – but not body. In the winter, rinse any road salt off the feet.

A Cairn doesn’t tolerate fleas well, so take precautions either by avoiding wooded areas or asking your veterinarian for a safe topic product.


Eyes and Ears. While grooming, check your Cairn’s eyes and ears for any signs of trouble. Ears should be clean and free of odor. Eyes should be clear and eye corners free of matter. If there is any accumulation at the corner of the eyes, a cotton pad moistened with warm water should be used to gently wipe the matter away.


Dental Care. Your dog will live longer, be healthier and happier with clean teeth. And, you will save on vet bills and dental cleanings. If you take the proper care of his teeth, he may never need to have general anesthesia to have a costly dental cleaning and extraction done. If teeth are not kept clean, tartar collects under the gum line, and leads to infected pockets, receding gums and lost teeth. But even worse is the damage that is done to the internal organs by the circulation throughout the system of the bacteria from the infected gums. One veterinarian describes it as comparable to never changing the filter on your furnace; the furnace will fail from the dirt in the filter clogging it. The heart, liver and kidneys are affected by these bacteria as they attempt to filter it out.

Dental care of Cairn Terriers

Image Above: Courtesy of the AKC Family Dog magazine

Daily brushing is ideal to keep teeth clean. If you start early, as soon as teething is complete and the gums are no longer painful to touch, most dogs will accept teeth cleaning as a daily ritual, and you will be rewarded with clean teeth and fresh breath. It will become a routine the dog tolerates or even enjoys if you make it pleasant with kindness and praise.  For a “brush,” use a gauze pad wrapped around a finger, a toothbrush or a “finger brush.” A toothpaste made for dogs is recommended. Avoid toothpaste designed for humans; dogs don’t like the taste, and many of them are sweetened with xylitol, which is extremely toxic to dogs.

In addition to brushing, use of a pleasant tasting product designed to dissolve plaque and tartar helps, such as TropiClean or PetzLife Oral Gel.  It helps to discourage the formation of plaque, as well as cleaning and freshening the breath.

There are also additives available to include in the dogs’ drinking water or sprinkle on food (such as from which promote dental health and seems to work well.


Nail Care. Trim nails using a Dremel grinding tool. Keep nails short so the dog walks “up,” on the front pads of his feet. Long nails cause the dog to shift weight to the back of the foot which can damage tendons and ligaments.

Nails should be done weekly or bi-weekly depending on how much exercise the dog gets on sidewalks or roads, to wear down his nails. The hair around and between his pads needs to be kept short so he has traction on smooth flooring.


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Feeding Cairn Terriers

Food. Discuss your Cairn’s diet with the breeder and with your veterinarian, as there are many different points of view. Some breeders are trending toward a raw diet, whether a prepackaged raw frozen food, freeze dried or dehydrated raw, or a home prepared raw diet. Many veterinarians recommend a dry kibble from companies that invest in extensive research and testing.
If you are considering a home prepared diet, invest some time in research and purchase a good book or two to guide you to ensure that the diet is balanced. Lack of essential nutrients can cause trouble, from poor coats and itching to digestive problems and temperament issues.


If you’re feeding kibble, don’t hesitate to mix in healthy additions to vary the taste: canned pumpkin, yogurt, scrambled egg and/or raw veggies. Low-glycemic vegetables (such as carrots, dark leafy greens, summer squash, including zucchini and yellow crook neck, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, green beans, cucumber, and celery) are great – and most dogs view them as a great treat.


Please note that the following vegetables and fruits are considered toxic to dogs: onions, garlic, mushrooms, grapes, raisins, and avocados. Chocolate and alcohol are also extremely toxic and should be carefully kept away from your dog. Other things to avoid include coffee, apple seeds, apricot pits, cherry pits, peach pits, Macadamia nuts, walnuts, leaves and stems of plants in the nightshade family (tomatoes, potatoes), rhubarb, and the artificial sweetener Xylitol. Xylitol is often described as sugar alcohol, wood sugar, birch sugar, or birch bark extract on labels; please read them carefully.

You’ll need to determine the appropriate amount of food going forward based on your dog’s activity level and metabolism. To determine whether you are feeding the correct amount, run your hand along your Cairn’s side.  You should always be able to feel your dog’s ribs. The “Knuckle Test” is a useful comparison. Put your hand out with your palm down and fingers straight. Gently run your other hand over your knuckles – this is how padded your pet’s ribcage should feel. Now, turn your hand over so your palm is up (with fingers still straight). Run your other hand over your knuckles through your palm. If your pet’s ribs feel more like this, he or she is overweight. Carrying extra weight is particularly harmful to a dog’s health. On the other hand, the ribs should not be overly prominent; if they are, increase the amount you are feeding. Always measure the amount of food provided so you can adjust it easily to maintain optimum weight.


Treats and Chews. For treats, in addition to crunchy vegetables, consider “Bully Sticks” or commercial treats made in the United States. Please do not use rawhide chews (which tend to get caught in their throats), Greenies (which break up in small pieces), or dehydrated chicken strips imported from China (which have been found to contain toxic impurities). And don’t feed cooked bones of any kind.

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Exercise and Training for Cairn Terriers

Exercise. An important aspect of living with a Cairn Terrier is providing adequate exercise for his body and mind. Both are important, and equally so. A tired dog is a happy dog, and one who is most likely not getting into trouble. And a bored dog is trouble in the making! 

Physical exercise is important. Cairns may be small, but they are not toy dogs, which were bred to sit in laps and snuggle. The Cairn Terrier was bred to hunt small vermin. His days were spent patrolling the croft, in constant motion and while he would have mostly trotted, there would be spurts of speed and periods of digging as well. His mind was active all the time, too. He would cover miles in a day, just cruising around, using his nose to find the creatures that were a threat to the crofter.
We can’t necessarily duplicate that in today’s world, but we can have it in mind. Cairns need regular, daily exercise – ideally walks on a leash. (Because Cairns were bred to hunt, training them to stay with you off lead can be difficult). From your Cairn’s point of view, the longer the walk the better – several miles a day are ideal for adults; limit puppies to about a half-mile at a time until 9 months of age.
Cairns should be walked on a leash, ideally six feet long, and attached to a collar that they cannot get out of. Walking a dog on his regular collar, which should always have an ID on it, is risky, as this collar should not be tight around his neck. A slip collar or harness is safer for walking. Leave his regular collar on and attach the leash to the slip collar or harness.
In inclement weather, it’s invaluable to have an activity that your Cairn enjoys doing that will help him burn off energy in an acceptable way. So, early in his life, every Cairn should be encouraged to play ball or to fetch whatever you toss for him to retrieve. Most Cairns love balls, so it’s easy with them. If you have one of the exceptions, take the time to teach him to bring back what you throw…and reward him with lots of praise when he does. Then, when the weather is cold, icy, snowy, or just plain pouring rain, use the ball to give him a workout, down a long hallway, or wherever you have the room. Play a few games that require mental activity too, to enrich his day and make up for the lack of outdoor activity.


Training. A Cairn thrives on attention and training and suffers from lack of it. Without training, he will be bored and destructive, barking to help relieve the tedium. There is very little a Cairn cannot learn. Because Cairns are highly intelligent, training sessions should be fun and challenging, not overly repetitious. Cairns excel at a wide range of performance sports:  agility, lure coursing, earthdog (“go to ground”), tracking, scent work, rally, obedience – and even dock diving!

One of the most important things you can teach your dog is a reliable recall. Teach it at home, inside and out and practice it when out walking. Always use a happy tone and reward him for quickly coming to you. This will help ensure that if he ever does slip his lead, or if danger threatens, he will come when he’s called. If he hesitates, clap your hands and call him in the happiest, most excited tone of voice you can muster, and RUN away from him. His natural curiosity and desire to see what you’re so excited about will almost always cause him to run to you. Don’t grab him; just reach for his collar while offering a treat…an imaginary one if that’s all you’ve got. Saying “cookies!” even if you don’t have one is okay in an emergency! Praise him to the skies though, (and make it a point to carry cookies as a rule.)

The most important thing to always keep in mind when working with a Cairn is not to bore him. Repetition is boring, so avoid “drilling” at all costs. Make it FUN…if it’s not fun, a Cairn loses interest, and if he feels you are not happy he will not continue the game. Remember Cairns are very, very smart, and learn quickly…your job is just to show him what you want and make it fun.

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preventative health care
Preventative Health Care for Cairn Terriers

Vaccinations. Consult with your veterinarian regarding the appropriate vaccinations and schedule of titers or boosters for your Cairn.  For the American Kennel Club’s overview of the recommended vaccinations, click here >

Worm- and Inset-born Disease Prevention.

In most areas, Cairns need regular treatment to prevent various worms and insect-born diseases. Consult with your veterinarian to understand what is prevalent in your area and the recommended preventative measures. These may include:

  • Preventatives for heartworm disease and to control ascarid and hookworm infections

  • Products to repel or kill fleas and ticks, which carry diseases such as Lyme disease, rickettsia (which causes Rocky Mountain spotted fever in humans), ehrlichia, and anaplasma

  • Treatment for roundworms and hookworm


Spaying or Neutering. The hormones associated with the reproductive organs play an important role in your puppy’s development. Spaying or neutering too soon can lead to joint problems and an increased risk of cancer. Many veterinarians recommend that you spay or neuter “as late as possible, preferably never.” While this is an impractical suggestion for many, holding off until the puppy is at least 18 months old, if possible, is encouraged.

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bringing a puppy home
Bringing a Puppy Home

Here is a quick check list to guide you as you prepare to welcome a new Cairn into your home.

Supplies to Have on Hand:

[   ] Kennel for nights, naps and when left unattended
[   ] Car containment: kennel or harness
[   ] Food as desired 
[   ] Grooming tools: brush; Dremel for nails; tooth brush
[   ] Rolled collar and ID tags
[   ] Slip-on lead or harness and leash for walks
[   ] Toys: chew sticks (see below), balls, stuffed toys


Optional Supplies:

[   ] Litter box and litter, if desired
[   ] X-pen, if desired, to create an outdoor play space or to block off areas of the house
[   ] Grooming table and arm
[   ] Sherpa bag for travel on airplanes


[   ] Make an appointment with your own vet for a time within the first 10 days after your puppy’s arrival
[   ] Consider signing up for a puppy obedience class in your local area

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caring for senior cairn terriers
Caring for Senior Cairn Terriers
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