West Highland Terrier vs. Cairn Terrier (What’s the Difference?)

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Deciding on the perfect canine companion isn’t always an easy task. It can feel like a complex puzzle, trying to match a breed’s specific traits with your lifestyle, environment, and personal preferences.

For those leaning towards the terrier group, the choice can be particularly challenging. Many of these breeds share similar traits, yet each one brings its own unique personality and quirks to the table.

Two breeds that often top the list for potential terrier owners are the West Highland White Terrier, or ‘Westie’, and the Cairn Terrier.

At a glance, these Scottish breeds seem quite alike – and they are. But, do they merely share a common heritage and distinctive ‘terrier-ness’, or are they more similar than we think?

In this article, we get into the similarities and differences of Westies and Cairn Terriers. By the end, we aim to provide an in-depth understanding of what sets these breeds apart, helping you to make a well-informed decision for your next four-legged family member.

West Highland Terrier vs. Cairn Terrier (What's the Difference?)
  1. History and Origins
  2. Size and Appearance
  3. Lifespan
  4. Hypoallergenic Qualities
  5. Health Issues
  6. Personality and Temperament
  7. Training
  8. Exercise Needs
  9. Grooming
  10. Which is Right for You?

History and Origins

The story of both the West Highland and Cairn Terrier begins with a shared ancestor: the now extinct Roseneath Terrier. This hearty breed laid the foundation for several different terriers, each selectively bred for specific traits.

Over time, distinct breeds began to form, including the Westie and the Cairn Terrier. The Westie was bred to possess a stark white coat, a practical trait that prevented them from being mistaken for the pests they hunted on farmland. Their size and agility made them excellent at navigating narrow burrows and corners, traits highly valued in a terrier.

The Cairn Terrier, while having similar beginnings, was bred for its ability to handle the rugged terrain of the cairns, the piles of stones that dotted the Scottish farmlands. They were masters at squeezing into these rocky hideouts to catch their prey, making them invaluable to farmers.

Both the Westie and Cairn Terrier are part of the larger family known as the Scottish Highland Terriers. This family also includes the Scottish Terrier, Skye Terrier, and Dandie Dinmont Terrier, all breeds that originated from selective breeding of the Roseneath Terrier.

While they share a common ancestry and a similar history of hard work on the Scottish farmlands, the Westie and the Cairn Terrier developed into distinct breeds. These differences, rooted in their breed history, contribute to the unique traits they exhibit today.

As we delve further into this comparison, we’ll uncover more of these unique characteristics and how they set the Westie and Cairn Terrier apart.

Size and Appearance

When it comes to size and appearance, there are clear markers that distinguish the Westie from the Cairn Terrier.

West Highland White Terriers, true to their name, are known for their striking white coats. They generally grow to be between 9 and 12 inches tall at the shoulder. In terms of weight, they can range between 13 and 22 pounds, with males typically being larger than females.

The Westie’s appearance is characterized by a compact and sturdy body, deep-set, almond-shaped eyes, and a medium-length tail carried cheerfully upright. Their double coat has a rough outer layer and a soft, dense undercoat, providing them an extra layer of warmth in colder climates.

On the other hand, Cairn Terriers are more diverse in their color palette. Their coats can range from cream to black, and everything in between, including shades of red, brindle, and gray.

Size-wise, they are quite similar to the Westie, standing about 9 to 10 inches tall at the shoulder and weighing in the range of 13 to 18 pounds.

Like the Westie, Cairn Terriers have a dense double coat, but it is somewhat more shaggy and less formal. Their expressive eyes and pointed ears give them an alert and intelligent expression.

Whether it’s the Westie’s pure white coat or the varied colors of the Cairn Terrier, both breeds have an appeal that endears them to dog owners worldwide.


When you bring a dog into your home, you want them to be part of the family for as long as possible. Here’s what to expect with Westies and Cairn Terriers.

Typically, both breeds live between 13 to 16 years. That’s a good chunk of time for lots of walks, fetch, and cuddles. But don’t think of it as a limit.

With optimal care, you can influence your pet’s lifespan. A balanced diet, regular vet check-ups, plenty of exercise, and lots of love can boost your dog’s overall health.

And sometimes, a bit of luck is involved. Some Westies and Cairn Terriers have been known to surpass 20 years of age.

These lifespan ranges are estimates. Each dog is unique, so it’s important to focus on their individual health and happiness.

Hypoallergenic Qualities

Westies have a double coat that sheds moderately. It’s not excessive, but you’ll find some white hairs around your home.

Westies are considered hypoallergenic. This means they’re a good choice for people with allergies. They produce fewer allergens, so allergic reactions are less likely.

Cairn Terriers also have a double coat, and like Westies, they also shed moderately.

Cairn Terriers are also considered a hypoallergenic terrier. This means that they, too, are a suitable option for those with allergies.

Regular grooming is essential for both breeds. Brushing their coat a couple of times a week can help manage shedding, keeping both their coat healthy and your home cleaner.

But remember, no breed is 100% hypoallergenic. People can be allergic to different things, so it’s always a good idea to spend time with a breed before bringing one home. This can help ensure that they’re the right fit for you and your household.

Health Issues

Like all dog breeds, Westies and Cairn Terriers can have certain health issues.

Westie health issues include skin conditions, and some may have issues with their hips or knees. Regular vet checks can help catch these issues early.

Cairn Terriers, on the other hand, can have eye issues and certain types of allergies. As always, regular vet visits are key for early detection.

It’s crucial to note that not all dogs will get any or all of these diseases. But being aware can help in prevention and early treatment.

Remember, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and routine vet checks contribute greatly to your pet’s overall health.

Personality and Temperament

Westies are known for their friendly and outgoing nature. They’re active and love to play, but also enjoy their relaxation time.

They’re independent, which can make training a challenge, but their intelligence and eagerness to please often balance this out.

Cairn Terriers are also active and playful. They’re known for their fearless and tenacious nature, true to their terrier roots.

They’re friendly and love being part of family activities. Cairn Terriers are intelligent and quick to learn, but they have an independent streak, which can sometimes show during training.

Both breeds are generally good with children and can get along well with other pets when properly socialized.

Keep in mind, every dog is unique. Their temperament can be influenced by a range of factors, including their upbringing, training, and socialization.


When it comes to training, it’s all about understanding your dog’s temperament.

Westies, while intelligent and eager to please, have an independent streak. This can pose a challenge during training.

They’re more likely to respond to positive reinforcement methods – think praise, play, and treats. Patience and consistency are key.

Cairn Terriers share that independent nature. They’re quick learners, but their tenacity means they can be stubborn.

Similar to Westies, positive reinforcement is the best approach. Short, engaging training sessions work well to keep their interest.

Socialization is important for both breeds. Exposure to different environments, people, and pets from a young age can help them grow into well-rounded dogs.

Remember, every dog is unique. What works for one might not work for another. It’s about finding the right balance that works for you and your pet.

Exercise Needs

Active and energetic – that’s both Westies and Cairn Terriers for you.

Westies require regular exercise. A couple of short walks a day, combined with some playtime, usually does the trick. They’re also fans of more strenuous activities like chasing a ball or agility training.

Cairn Terriers also have high energy levels. They need a good amount of daily exercise. Walks, playtime, and mental stimulation are key to keeping a Cairn Terrier happy and healthy.

Remember, exercise isn’t just about physical health. It also helps keep your dog mentally stimulated and reduces behaviors linked to boredom or anxiety. A well-exercised dog is generally a well-behaved dog.


Grooming is important for both health and appearance.

Westies have a double coat that requires regular brushing. This helps control shedding and keeps the coat healthy. They’re white, so they can look dirty easily. Regular baths are a must, but not too frequent to avoid drying out their skin.

Cairn Terriers also have a double coat, but it’s a bit more rugged. Regular brushing helps remove loose hair and prevents matting. Bathing can be less frequent compared to Westies, as their coat is more dirt-resistant.

Both breeds may need their nails trimmed regularly if they’re not worn down naturally. And don’t forget about dental care. Regular teeth brushing can help prevent dental issues.

Remember, grooming is not just about keeping your dog looking good. It’s a key part of their overall health and wellbeing.

Westie vs. Cairn Terrier: Which is Right for You?

Choosing between a Westie and a Cairn Terrier isn’t easy. They’re very similar dogs – both friendly, intelligent, and full of character.

Consider your lifestyle. Are you looking for a bright white companion like a Westie, or does the rugged Cairn Terrier appeal more? Can you meet their exercise needs? Are you ready for their independent streak during training?

It’s about finding a breed that matches your lifestyle. Both breeds can make wonderful companions with the right care and training.

Remember, every dog deserves a loving home. Whichever breed you choose, be ready to offer plenty of love, care, and patience.

Kevin William

Kevin grew up with a female West Highland White Terrier named Murphy who was always by his side. Kevin currently lives in New York state with his family including a Labrabull (Labrador Retriever Pit Bull) named Lily.

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