COLOR: Cairn terriers are never white. If you see a dog that looks like a cairn, but it’s white, it’s probably a westie or westie mix (dirty westies are often mistaken for cairns). Cairns can be cream-colored, but this color is not common. If you look closely, cream-colored cairns usually also have some black or darker-colored hairs in their coat. Cairns can, and often do, have a mixture of colors in their coat, but these colors are blended together throughout the coat; cairns are never bi-colored, patchy, or spotted. In rare instances, a cairn may have a small blaze of white on its chest. Cairns can have dark ears, muzzles, and tail tips.
EARS: Cairns always have prick ears/ears that come to a point. Cairns do not have floppy ears; the ears should stand erect, although there will be the occasional cairn where one or both ears are folded over. Long fur on the ears can sometimes make it hard to tell whether the ears are erect or not, and when dogs are being photographed, they will often hold their ears down or back, but the ear leather should come to a point.
EYES: Cairns generally have hazel or dark hazel eyes, and their eyes are generally outlined in what looks like dark eyeliner.
HEIGHT: Cairns are rarely more than 11-12 inches at the shoulder.
NAILS: Most cairns have black nails. White or light-colored nails are uncommon.
NOSE: Most cairns have a black nose. Mottled, spotted, or liver-colored noses are rare.
SIZE: If a dog is described as medium, it is probably not a cairn.
TAIL: While cairns will sometimes have a tail that comes up over the back (this is called a “gay tail”), cairns and mostly cairn mixes generally do not have curly tails or a tail that lays flat on the back. If a dog is described as having a short or cropped tail, the dog could be a Norfolk or Norwich terrier.
TOTO: Does the dog look like Toto in The Wizard of Oz? Toto was a purebred cairn terrier. Please note that Toto was a dark-colored cairn; cairns can come in any color but white.
WEIGHT: If a dog weighs more than 22-25 lbs., it is probably not a cairn, unless it is obese. A weight of 8-10 lbs. for an adult dog is also most likely an indication that the dog is not a cairn.
For more information, see the Cairn Terrier Breed Standard on the Cairn Terrier Club of America website. It may also be helpful to look at the pictures of the CAIRNS in NEED of HOMES on our website. But as we’ve said, when in doubt, please fill out an SOS! – Cairn Rescue Alert. Trying to definitively identify a cairn or mostly cairn mix based on the above criteria could be akin to the blind men trying to describe an elephant, so we’d rather be safe than sorry!