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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.

daily care
Daily Care of Cairn Terriers
Grooming Cairn Terriers

From puppyhood on, Cairns need regular grooming. The Cairn Terrier Club of America has printed an excellent guide to grooming for pet owners as well as an introduction to Show Grooming. This is available from the CTCA’s website at It is important for new owners to be educated on the care of the Cairn’s coat. 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. The solution is stripping the coat. This process is a lot easier than it might seem and can be learned by anyone who wants to learn it. The grooming booklet, as mentioned, explains this process in detail.


While grooming your Cairn, take the opportunity to examine his skin and ears for any signs of trouble. Ears should be clean and free of odor, and the body skin should be smooth and normal in color. A Cairn doesn’t tolerate fleas well…they will itch and chew and scratch themselves bloody over just one flea, so take precautions against fleas. Avoid toxic sprays and collars…ask your veterinarian for the safest topical product if it is absolutely necessary, but many people are able to avoid flea problems without such measures, simply by avoiding wooded areas and places where other dogs visit. However, fleas are a serious problem in the warmer areas of the US, and steps should be taken to avoid them.


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.


Brushing and combing, aside from improving the Cairn’s appearance, are important for his comfort as well. Most Cairns can get by with a weekly thorough brushing out and combing through the coat to the skin. 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. Keep the long hairs 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.

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Dental Care of Cairn Terriers
Dental care of Cairn Terriers

Image Above: Courtesy of the AKC Family Dog magazine

Teeth should be kept clean by brushing, whether the “brush” is a gauze pad wrapped around a finger, a tooth brush or a “finger brush”. 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. 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.


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. Since these procedures tend to start at $300 or more, it’s in everyone’s best interests to avoid the need for them.

Daily brushing is ideal and the easiest routine to stick with. It will become a routine the dog tolerates or even appears to enjoy if you make it pleasant with kindness and praise. In addition to brushing, use of a pleasant tasting product designed to dissolve plaque and tartar helps, too...most dogs seem to like TropiClean or PetzLife Oral Gel, which you may be able to get from your vet, neighborhood pet supply store, or online. It helps to discourage the formation of plaque, as well as cleaning and freshening the breath. 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.

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Feeding Cairn Terriers

Discuss your puppy’s diet with the breeder, as he or she may have developed a preference for one or another method of feeding that has worked well for their dogs. Many breeders are trending toward a raw diet, whether a prepackaged raw frozen food, freeze dried or dehydrated raw, or a home prepared raw diet. It can be as complicated or as simple as you prefer. Be assured that those breeders who feed raw food swear by the benefits. Keep an open mind…and don’t settle for kibble just because it’s the “easiest” way to go. If you do decide to feed a dry kibble, choose a top quality one with actual meat listed as two of the first three ingredients, preferably the first two. Avoid soy products in dog food. And then, consider enriching the food with raw additions, in the form of yogurt and raw vegetables. Your dog is very recently (in evolutionary terms) descended from wild carnivores that never ate a cooked bite of food, and the digestive tract has not changed in that short time…and it is very different from that of a human being. His well being is greatly dependent on the food he is fed.


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 all kinds of trouble, from poor coats and itching to digestive problems and temperament issues. Puppies should be fed three times a day up until about 6 months, and twice a day thereafter. Fresh water must always be available, and it is doubly important if the dog is fed kibble. As a general rule, don’t feed high carbohydrate table scraps, or highly seasoned foods. Very fatty or greasy food (for instance, fat off a steak or pork chop, or fried chicken skin) may cause digestive upset as well. Don’t give dogs onions (or raisins…some science indicates that grapes and raisins can be toxic to some breeds, although there is dissension over this.) And don’t feed cooked bones of any kind. Raw bones are fine…but be sure he doesn’t pig out on them. Too much at one time is not digestible, and may lead to an emergency vet visit.


One especially important note: Cairn Terriers were intended to be “easy keepers” which meant that those Scottish crofters didn’t have much to eat and a dog was given what they had left over…and he had to get by on very little. If you are too generous with his daily rations, he will get FAT. Fat dogs are not healthy dogs. You should always be able to feel his ribs…they shouldn’t protrude, but you must be able to feel them easily. Dogs vary in their metabolism somewhat, and some are more active than others, but by and large, the actual amount a Cairn Terrier needs to eat daily will surprise you…it doesn’t look like much. But remember, his stomach is roughly the size of a tennis ball! Don’t overfeed your dog…it’s very hard to put a dog on a diet after he’s gotten too fat. Keep treats to a minimum and make them small! Frozen green beans (or fresh) make great treats, low in calories. Romaine ribs are relished by Cairns. Your dog will make every effort to convince you that he is starving (and they are very manipulative,) unless he is FAT, in which case he may be picky. A healthy Cairn who is in proper weight is NEVER picky! Don’t fall for that!

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Physical and Mental Exercise for Cairn Terriers

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. A daily walk that lasts 30-45 minutes or so is probably sufficient to keep the dog fit. Brisk walking is great, good for you and the dog, but leave time to allow him to stop and sniff the neighborhood sniffing spots…it’s his walk, too. Dogs learn all kinds of things by sniffing around the area where they live…it’s like reading a newspaper for us. Think of it as mental stimulation, and make time for it. Adjust the length and speed of your dog’s walk to suit his age, from puppyhood on through to his senior years. A puppy should not be required to walk or run too far, it’s not good for their developing bones, and may lead him to dislike walks, as well. If he’s tired, carry him home, don’t drag him. Slow your pace and shorten your route for an aging dog…let him set the pace.


You may live somewhere that is remote and safe to let your dog off leash…but most of us do not. Your 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. One other thing, regarding collars and tags: it is essential that your dog wear a collar with an identifying tag at all times. You should certainly have your dog micro-chipped, but the collar with the tag is your dog’s express ticket home. A well meaning person who sees him can recognize instantly that this dog is carrying information that will help them get him back to you. One phone call, and your dog is located and you are on your way to pick him up. Without it, the person may decide the dog has no owner, and keep him! Or, the dog may be taken to a shelter or animal control facility because the finder can’t keep him for various reasons. There, they may read his micro chip and notify you…or the chip may have migrated and they may not find it. Or you may have moved or changed phone number since registering the chip. Just keep a tag with your current phone number on the dog…it’s the best and safest way to protect your dog. A slip collar, or harness, is safer for walking, as he can’t back out of it, if he is startled.  Leave his regular collar on, and attach the leash to the slip collar or harness.


One of the most important things you can teach your dog is a reliable recall…do 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 insure 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.)


Two subjects that are somewhat controversial are Flexi-leads and dog parks. Flexi-leads come in two varieties, and the “tape” type is the preferred style. The “cord” style is prone to snap, and can be dangerous if it wraps around a limb…yours or the dogs. Keep the Flexi lead shortened up when in areas that are popular with dog walkers. Dog parks are risky, as not everyone uses discretion in bringing dogs that might be aggressive or ill. Owners may get involved in visiting with other owners and not supervise their dogs, as well.


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.


Mental exercise is often overlooked in a busy family, but it needn’t take a long time or be difficult to provide. Remember, your Cairn is always learning something, and if it isn’t something you want him to know, it’s likely to be something you don’t want him to know! So, take a few minutes every day to teach him something helpful. For example, hide a small treat somewhere in the room when he’s out of the room. Bring him in, let him sniff your hands and then tell him to “Find it!” Move around the room and encourage him to use his nose.  When he gets close, act excited and let him “point” it out to you, then give him the treat and make a big deal out of it. Make the hiding places different every day, and increasingly difficult to locate.  After you’ve done this awhile, you can have him find things in other rooms and outside…he’ll get the idea, and you can teach him to find family members, too. There are books on training dog tricks, etc. but chances are you can think of many useful tricks, too…bringing your slippers, for instance!


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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