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West Highland Terrier vs. Cairn Terrier: Breed Differences & Similarities


Last Updated: August 31, 2022 | 11 min read | 6 Comments

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There are many Scottish terrier breeds out there, and two favorites are the West Highland White Terrier and the Cairn Terrier. There are many similarities between these two breeds, but there are also some significant differences. Whether you’re here because you are stuck choosing between the two. Or you’ve come across this guide for a bit of Scottish canine education, you’ve definitely come to the right place!

Both of these dog breeds may be small and lovable, but they have some different personality traits that may make one breed or the other a little bit better for your lifestyle. Not all breeds are suited for every home, and different breeds of smaller dogs can have very distinct personality differences.

Here in this breed comparison, you’ll learn everything you need to know about both the Westie, and the Cairn Terrier. We’ll then walk you through everything you need to know about their exercise, training, health, grooming requirements, and more.

Breed Comparison


  • Height 10 – 11 inches
  • Weight 15 – 20 pounds
  • Temperament Happy, loyal, entertaining
  • Energy Energetic
  • Health Average
  • Lifespan 13 – 15 years
  • Puppy Prices $1,000 and up

Carin Terrier

  • Height 9 ½ - 10 inches
  • Weight 13 – 14 pounds
  • Temperament Cheerful, alert, busy
  • Energy Energetic
  • Health Average
  • Lifespan 13 – 15 years
  • Puppy Prices $1,000 and up

Breed History

The breed history of a pup can tell you a lot about what they might be like as a canine companion. The Westie and the Cairn are both earth dogs from Scotland. It is believed that all Scottish terriers come from the same canine ancestors. So let’s see how their histories are linked and how popular they are now.

West Highland White Terrier

White Terrier Standing in Grass
The Westie was bred in Scotland by farmers to combat rodent problems on their farm.

Rodent infestation was a huge problem many centuries ago. It threatened the livelihoods and food stocks of farmers and annoyed noblemen living in large, sprawling estates. As a result, Scottish farmers rallied together to create small earth dogs to prevent rodent infestations.

There are many Scottish terriers who hail from different parts of the country but are all linked by blood. Although it is not officially known who their ancestors were. Scottish Terriers themselves are often confused with the Westie, because of how similar they look. Given they were bred to ward off rats, the West Highland likely shares some DNA with the Scottie and the Cairn Terrier.

For this reason, the detailed history of the West Highland White Terrier is unknown, but they hail from northwest Scotland. The Malcolm clan of Scotland from the Poltalloch estate documented breeding small white terriers. This is why they are sometimes called Poltalloch Terriers.

The first Westies to be shown in Scottish dog shows happened in the late 19th century. And they were first shown in the AKC ring in 1906. They are now the 42nd most popular breed in America.

Cairn Terrier

Brown Terrier Standing in Forest
The Cairn Terrier was bred to exterminate rats that burrow into graves-without disturbing the graves.

The word ‘cairn’ in Scottish terminology stands for a pile of stones that marks a grave. Rats and other rodents often nested here. The Scots needed a tiny terrier to dig into the cairns without disturbing the grave to exterminate the rats. So they created this pup, appropriately named the Cairn Terrier. He was commonly found in the Island of Skye, which is why he is sometimes called the Shorthaired Skye Terrier. Since they share the common innate work ethic to leave no rat free to roam, there is a good change that the Westie and the Cairn are related somewhere along the line.

It is believed that the Cairn came over to America in the early 20th century. He was first recognized by the AKC in 1913, just after the Westie. Cairns are a little bit more rare than the Westie, and they are currently ranked as the 69th most popular breed in America. The most famous Cairn Terrier starred as Toto in MGM’s hit film, The Wizard of Oz. Toto’s outstanding Hollywood success was down to her trainability and friendliness on set.


Two Small Dogs Sitting in Grass
These two breeds differ in both size and color.

Both of these breeds are very similar-looking dogs. They are both small, hairy, and downright gorgeous. The Westie is the bigger of the two breeds. Westies measure between 10 and 11 inches tall, from paw to shoulders, and weigh between 15 to 20 pounds. Cairns are one of the smallest Scottish Terriers. They measure between 9.5 to 10 inches, and they weigh between 13 and 14 pounds.

They are both alert and cheeky-looking small terriers. Although the Cairn is smaller, he has a slightly wider head in comparison to their body. Their ears are small, erect, and triangular, giving them both a foxy look. They both have carrot-shaped tails that stand tall and proud without any feathering. They are low-standing doggos who are strong yet compact.

Both dogs are double-coated breeds with similarly textured coats. The outer coat is hard, wiry, and weather resistant. And their undercoats are soft and dense to keep them warm and insulated. Westies are almost always white, hence their name. Their white coats are also one of the reasons people commonly mistake them for Poodles. Any other color is penalized in the show ring. And Cairns can be any color other than white. Their coloring is the easiest way to determine whether a passing pooch is a Westie or a Cairn.


Two Small Dogs Laying in Grass
These two dogs are both very loyal loving pets and love spending time with their humans.

The personalities both breeds are also very similar. Still, thankfully there are a few differences that help set them apart. Let’s begin with the similarities. They are both terriers, which means they are both full of life and spunky energy. Families looking for a fun small pooch to join their family fold will do very well with either of these two breeds.

They are both loyal and very loving dogs. They love nothing more than to spend the evening in the arms of their favorite humans after a busy day. They’ll follow their humans around, no matter what they are doing. So, forget going to the bathroom alone again! Their craving for human companionship can make both of them prone to separation anxiety. They would both prefer a family who can spend most of their day with them.

Unfortunately, many families assume that they enjoy the all-day lap lifestyle because they are small, but this is far from the case. They are both very energetic and need to lead an active, busy lifestyle. Without the right stimulation, they can both become troublesome and destructive dogs. They love to chase toys (and squirrels!), so spend some time playing with them every day, and you’ll have a friend for life.

They are both friendly and pleasant, and both do well with children and adults alike. The Cairn has an aloof side to his personality. But with treats and kind praise, he’ll be quickly won over by strangers. The Westie is super sociable and will happily roll over for belly rubs and play with anyone who’ll fuss him. They both make great watchdogs as they bark at visitors, so you might want to learn the quiet command.

The Cairn Terrier is the more serious of the breeds, and the Westie is the silliest. The Westie likes to be the center of attention and will entertain everyone with his clown antics. Although Carin Terriers can be just as fun, they aren’t as clumsy or silly. This guy has got a grownup reputation to uphold, don’t you know! This can make the Cairn more chilled in the home compared to the mad Westie.


Two Small Dogs Running Outdoors
These two breeds are both very active and require around 30-45 minutes of exercise each day.

Both dog breeds are very similar when it comes to their exercise needs. They need to be homed with an active family who can keep up with their working terrier energy. They both need at least 30 to 45 minutes of intense exercise every day. But they would be much happier with an hour if you can. A tired pup is a happy pup, which is very true when it comes to earth dogs.

They have lots of mental energy too, and they are very curious and spunky. This means they also need lots of playtime at home. Don’t expect them to sit pretty in their crates for the rest of the day! Invest in toys that you can throw for fun and breed-directed play. And solo chew toys, those that resemble furry creatures, and squeaky toys will also drive them both mad. If you expect them to laze around all day, you’ll find your yard dug up in no time.

Remembering their seriously high prey drive means that they should not be let off the leash. Even with the best recall training (which doesn’t really exist for ratting dogs), it’s not recommended. Not only will you struggle to get them back, but it is very dangerous for them as they’ll chase creatures across the road without a second thought. The only places to let them loose are at home, secured doggy parks, or enclosed fields.


Small White Dog Laying Down and Small Tan Dog Sitting in Grass
Westies and Cairns are very eager to please and love learning new tricks.

The training needs of both breeds are very similar. They are both eager to please and keen to learn new tricks. They are both good choices for first-time owners. If we had to pick one breed that is easier to train, as a general rule, it is the Westie. Only because the Cairn can sometimes be a headstrong pooch when he’s having an off-day. But that’s not always true because Toto was a seriously clever and obedient canine.

Like all things in life, you’ll get out what you put in. Their training needs to start as early as possible and ensure that you are consistent with the training. You need to be able to resist their equally gorgeous puppy dog eyes if you want an obedient pup. Positive reinforcement training is the best dog training method to use for both of these guys. Toys and treats will work wonders.

Socialization is super important because it teaches them the ways of the world. Not only how to interact with other dogs and humans politely, but also to feel confident in their surroundings. A confident and happy dog is a friendly one. Mix them with as many new people, dogs, experiences, and sounds as you can, and they will surely become well-trained and rounded dogs.

Both dogs will benefit from crate training. They are both sensitive dogs who become anxious when left alone for too long. Providing them with a crate and the proper training will help to soothe their worries when you leave. It’ll also give you peace of mind knowing that they cannot get up to any naughty terrier antics when you are gone.


Two Small White Dogs Up Close
These two breeds are very healthy and will live between 13-15 years, on average.

Both dog breeds are healthier, with longer than expected lifespans of between 13 to 15 years. As a dog mom or dad, it’s your responsibility to take care of their health. Working with a reputable breeder and keeping up with regular health visits are some of the best ways to ensure their best health. Like all purebred dogs, they are both prone to certain health conditions, so let’s take a look.

Hip dysplasia is a common concern found in the Westie, so a reputable breeder should test their parent’s hip scores. Additionally, Westie armadillo syndrome is found in only the Westie bloodline. It is a painful skin condition that causes yeast infections across the entire body. Finally, another condition to research is white shaker dog syndrome. It is an inherited nervous system disorder that can be managed with medication.

Both the Westie and the Cairn are prone to patella luxation, which is essentially a dislocated knee cap. They also suffer from a variety of eye concerns, and so breeding dogs should undergo yearly ophthalmologist evaluations. Globoid cell leukodystrophy is a rare but serious condition that affects both breeds. It causes the rapid degeneration of nerve impulses and cognitive function. A DNA test that focuses on health can determine the carriers of the gene.

In addition to the shared concerns above, the Cairn is also prone to various cardiac concerns that responsible breeders should screen for. Mitral valve disease is the most common condition, and it is caused by a faulty heart valve. If undiagnosed, it can lead to serious and sometimes fatal consequences. Cairns are prone to liver shunt as well as liver and kidney aplasia and dysplasia. These are serious conditions but can be managed once diagnosed.


Small White Dog and Small Black Dog With Tongues Out
Both breeds need a proper dog food to meet the nutritional needs of a small, active dog.

The Westie will eat slightly more of the two because they are bigger. Cairn Terriers will usually eat around 1 cup of kibble a day, compared to 1 and 1.5 cups for the Westie. Either way, the food bill is low compared to larger dogs. How much you feed them is down to their age, size, and lifestyle, so be sure to follow the feeding instructions on the package.

They both need a kibble that is specifically designed for the nutritional needs of small dogs. Smaller dogs need slightly more energy per pound than larger dogs, so general food will not do. Plus, their tiny mouths need smaller kibble pieces. It’s important to feed them both the best quality nutrition you can afford. And always pick an age-appropriate kibble to suit their life stage needs.


Small White Dog and Small Tan Dog Posing in Grass
The Westie and Cairn are both shedders who require weekly brushings.

Both dog breeds have almost identical grooming regimes, so this might not be a helpful indicator if you’re trying to choose between them. They have similarly textured double coats that shed moderately throughout the year and a little heavier during the spring and fall. You shouldn’t expect hair hurricanes, but you can’t expect your home to be hair-free either.

Because they both have a medium-length shaggy coat, you will need to brush them weekly. A pin brush is ideal for getting through that hard and wiry topcoat of theirs. If your dog is just a pet and not a show dog, their grooming regime is relatively easy. If you have a show dog of either breed, you may want to send them to a professional groomer for a professional strip and shape.

They both need bathing once every two to three months, as long as they don’t get too muddy on their walks. Try not to bathe them too much because you will eventually change their wiry hair structure to a softer one. They need their teeth brushing several times a week to keep periodontal disease at bay. This is super important for small dogs and their tightly compacted mouths.

Puppy Prices

White and Brown Puppy
Expect to pay around $1,000 and up for these small dogs.

The price of a Westie puppy is usually a little lower than the less popular Cairn, but not significantly so. The price of a Westie from a reputable breeder usually starts from $1,000, which is the same as the Cairn. If buying a new puppy is not the best choice for you, be sure to consider adopting one. Because these guys are so similar, it’s likely that their lifetime costs will be comparable.

Do not be tempted to buy a Westie or a Cairn priced much lower than the average starting prices. This indicates that they are likely from an irresponsible breeder, or worse, a puppy mill. It’s not common knowledge that pet stores also buy pups from irresponsible breeders, so avoid these too. Spend a little extra, and you can heighten your chances of finding a happy and healthy pup.

Final Thoughts

The West Highland White Terrier and the Cairn Terrier are both spunky Scottish dogs who are very similar to one another. And this is why families have such a hard time choosing between the two. They are small, fun, energetic, loving, and sweet pups who will happily slot themselves into most family homes. They need lots of love, companionship, and exercise to thrive.

But hopefully, after reading our breed comparison guide, we have highlighted the differences that might make one stand out to you. The Westie is the easier going and sillier of the two breeds who gets along with everyone. The Cairn is the more well-balanced of the two in the home, and he can also have an aloof streak. Whichever small breed you choose, know that everyone will be very happy with your choice. Except for the rats and other visiting creatures in your yard, of course!

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