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Cairn Terrier Or Westie, What's The Difference Between The Two Breeds?

Anyone looking to share their home with a wonderful, small canine companion would not go far wrong in choosing to do so either with a Cairn Terrier or a West Highland otherwise affectionately known as a Westie. Both these little dogs have for many years been among the most popular breeds for older and younger people because they are known to be so entertaining and loyal. This article compares the Cairn Terrier and the Westie and might help you make up your mind which of the breeds would best suit your lifestyle.

Cairn Terrier origins

Cairn Terriers were bred to hunt vermin, a task for which they have always been highly prized. The breed's actual origins remain a bit of a mystery although Cairn Terriers have been used in the Scottish Highlands and the Islands for centuries. It is thought the breed could date back to the 16th Century with a reference of Earth Dogges having been sent to the King of France by King James I of England. With this said, Scottish crofters and shepherds as well as hunters used them to keep the number of vermin under control.

Back in ancient times, the breed did not resemble the Cairn Terriers we see today because they could be many different colours, sizes and shapes depending on the region of the country they were found in and the type of prey they were trained to hunt. The breed remained less well known than many other Scottish terriers, but in more recent times and thanks to many enthusiasts, Cairn Terriers started to find a fan base as both a companion and family pet not only in the UK, but elsewhere in the world too.

Westie origins

West Highland White Terriers are one of the UKs oldest breeds with records of the breed dating back to the 15th Century. They too were originally bred to hunt vermin and they share a common ancestry with other breeds namely the Cairn Terrier, the Dandy Dinmont and the charming Scottie. The breed was developed by crossing white puppies with other white puppies and the result of this mating were to become the foundation stock of the lovely little Westies we see today. Throughout the ages, Westies have remained a popular choice not only as working dogs, but also as companions and family pets thanks to their kind and fun-loving personalities.

Cairn Terrier appearance

Cairn Terriers are charming small dogs that can stand at anything from 23 to 33 cm at the withers and they weigh around 4.5 to 6.8 kg. They are compact, sturdy dogs that boast a unique look of their own having adorable shaggy coats and kind, alert expressions in their eyes.

They have extremely weather resistant double coats with topcoats being harsher than their softer undercoats. Some dogs have a little waviness in their coats which is permitted under the KC breed standard and they come in a variety of colours which are as follows:

  • Cream
  • Wheaten
  • Red
  • Grey
  • Nearly black

Westie appearance

Small, compact and always cheerful looking, the Westie stands at anything from 25 to 28 cm at the withers which means they are slightly shorter than their Cairn Terrier counterparts. They can weigh around 6.8 to 9.1 kg which means they are that much heavier than Cairn Terriers too. A Westie has a double coat with the top coat being harsher outer coat while their undercoat is more like fur being short, soft and close.

  • The accepted colour for a Westie is a pure white.

Cairn Terrier Temperament

Clever, happy, fearless and outgoing, the Cairn is a terrier at heart through and through. They are confident, social and loyal to their families and owners although Cairns would rarely show any sort of aggression towards people they don't know. Being so intelligent, they learn new things quickly, but this includes the good and the bad. They are known to be quite mischievous when the mood takes them which is why their education and socialisation should start early so that dogs understand what is expected of them right from the word go.

They are a good choice for novice dog owners because Cairn Terriers love to please. However, they can be quite demanding which means they are better suited to people who like to lead active outdoor lives and who spend a lot of time at home so their canine companions are not left on their own for too long. The reason being that they are known to suffer from a condition known as separation anxiety which can see dogs developing some unwanted and destructive behavioural issues around the home.

Westie temperament

Intelligent, outgoing, affectionate and mischievous, the Westie has for a long time been a firm favourite with people the world over thanks to their charming looks and wonderful personalities. Westies love to please and thrive on being around people which in short means they are easy to train, but hate it when they are left to their own devices for any length of time.

Westies form very strong ties with their owners and families and love to be involved in everything that goes on in their environment. They are also very good watch dogs being quick to let an owner know when someone or something is upsetting them. They are totally unaware of their actual size which means that a Westie would happily take on a much bigger dog even if they were well socialised from a young age.

They are known to have a bit of a stubborn streak when the mood takes them and will happily turn a deaf ear to a command if they spot something more interesting in the distance. With this said, a Westie's education and socialisation must begin early and it should be consistent so that these small dogs understand the rules, boundaries and their places in the pack so they mature into well-balanced, happy adult dogs.

Cairn Terrier shedding

Cairn Terriers shed steadily throughout the year only more so in the spring and the autumn when their summer and winter coats grow through. As such the breed is rated as being a moderate shedder.

Westie shedding

Westies too are considered moderate shedders and they too shed steadily all year round, shedding the most in the spring and the autumn.

Cairn Terrier training

Cairn Terriers are intelligent, but they can be stubborn when the mood takes them which is why their education must start early and it should be consistent throughout a dog's life so they understand what an owner expects of them. They enjoy learning all sorts of things and particularly like taking part in all sorts of activities that keep them occupied both physically and mentally.

Westie training

Intelligent and eager to please, the Westie is easy to train, but they too can have a bit of stubborn streak in them which needs to be factored into their training. They are also known to be quite mischievous which is part of their endearing personalities. With this said, their education must start early and it should be consistent so that Westies understand the rules and boundaries that have been set for them.

Cairn Terrier exercise

Cairn Terriers are quite high-energy, small dogs which means they are happiest when they are busy doing things. As such they should be given a minimum of 1 hours’ exercise a day with lots of time in a secure garden so they can really let off steam.


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Westie exercise

Westies too are energetic small dogs and being intelligent, they not only need lots of daily exercise, but lots of mental stimulation too. Like their Cairn Terrier cousins, Westies need at least 1 hours’ daily exercise with as much off the lead time as possible so they can really express themselves as terriers can only do.

Cairn Terrier children and pets

Cairn Terriers are known to make wonderful family pets and have a real affinity with children of all ages. They are usually good around other pets and smaller animals too when they have grown up together. However, care should be taken when Cairns are around smaller animals and pets they don't already know thanks to their high prey drive.

Westie children and pets

Westies are usually good around children although they are better suited to households with older children rather than toddlers. They do get on well with other dogs providing they have been well socialised from a young enough age. They will tolerate having a family cat in the home, although a Westie might just not be able to resist chasing them whenever they get the chance. With this said, care should be taken when a Westie is around other smaller animals and pets because of the terrier in them.

Cairn Terrier Coat

Cairn Terriers have extremely weather-resistant double coats with the outer coat being harsher while the undercoat is softer, short and close-lying. A Cairn Terrier can have a slight wave in their coat which is permissible under the KC breed standard.

Cairn Terrier coat colours

Cairn Terriers come in a variety of colours which are as follows:

  • Cream
  • Wheaten
  • Red
  • Grey
  • Nearly black

Westie coat

Westies have harsher outer, straight coats while their undercoats are shorter, softer and close-lying.

Westie coat colours

  • The accepted colour for a Westie is a pure white

Cairn Terrier health

Cairn Terriers are prone to suffer from the following health disorders:

  • Eye Problems – Tests available
  • Hip Dysplasia
  • Luxating Patella
  • Von Willebrand Disease

Westie health

Westies are known to suffer from a few hereditary health issues which are as follows:

  • Skin allergies - epidermic dysplasia
  • Craniomandibular osteopathy - Westie Jaw
  • Deafness
  • Inherited metabolic liver issues
  • Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO)

Cairn Terrier life expectancy

The average life span of a Cairn Terrier is between 12 and 17 years when properly cared for and fed an appropriate good quality diet to suit their ages.

Westie life expectancy

The average life span of a Westie is between 12 and 16 years when properly cared for and fed an appropriate good quality diet to suit their ages.


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