Common health problems with Cairn Terriers

May 30, 2024 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Image of two Cairn Terriers looking into the camera. One is brown, the other is black.

Cheerful, chirpy and full of energy, Cairn Terriers are small dogs that have fans worldwide. They're curious dogs who love exploring, digging and exercising. They're active for small dogs and respond well to training and socialization.

But like most pedigrees, they have common health problems.

Below, we discuss the most common Cairn Terrier health issues, how they're diagnosed and how to care for one.

Most common Cairn Terrier health problems

Image of a black Cairn Terrier looking to the side

Craniomandibular osteopathy (CMO)

CMO is an inherited disease that causes excessive jaw bone and joint growth. It's also known as Lion Jaw. When dogs are as young as four, they develop jaw pain and swelling. Eventually, this leads to difficulty chewing, loss of appetite and excessive drooling.

While there isn’t currently a known way to prevent or slow abnormal bone growth in dogs with CMO, it usually resolves on its own. In the meantime, pain relief drugs and dietary modifications can significantly help reduce discomfort. Some dogs will continue to have jaw issues and may need surgery to improve their quality of life.

Patellar luxation

This occurs when the patella (kneecap) slips out of place during knee extension. It's due to the groove resting too shallow or the bones around the knee growing abnormally. Affected dogs will often skip for several steps while walking or running and may appear to have a stiffer gait if both legs are affected.

A lot of dogs will improve with exercise management, weight control and physiotherapy. But severely affected dogs may need surgery to realign the joint and deepen the groove. Anti-inflammatory drugs are often also used to manage pain.

Liver shunts

Affected dogs are born with extra blood vessels that divert (shunt) blood around the liver, preventing normal organ function. One consequence is the accumulation of toxins, which a healthy liver filters out, in the blood. This causes neurological symptoms like disorientation, stunted growth, walking in circles and staring into space.

Treatment relies on reducing the amount of toxins in the blood, which a protein-restricted diet, lactose supplementation and antibiotics can achieve. However, many dogs will not recover without surgery to close the shunt.

Ocular melanosis (OM)

This genetic condition affects both eyes by causing an over-production of abnormal brown pigments, which can block the normal drainage of fluid. This often causes the pressure inside the eyes to increase, resulting in pain and inflammation.

Symptoms include:

  • Excessive eye scratching

  • Red eyes

  • Cloudy eyes

  • Tear staining

A vet can diagnose the condition using a scope to look inside the eye. There isn't a cure, but various medical and surgical options can help manage the condition.


Often developing in middle or older age, this hormonal disease results from an inability of the body to utilize glucose (sugar) effectively, leading to rising blood sugar levels. This causes symptoms like:  

Treatment relies on daily insulin injections that must be timed carefully around a controlled diet and exercise routine. Although treatment can be a large commitment, the majority of well-controlled diabetic dogs lead normal lives.

Treatment is also essential to prevent a more serious condition called diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), which can be life-threatening and often requires hospitalisation.

How to care for a Cairn Terrier

Image of a black Cairn Terrier looking into the camera

Genetic screening and picking a responsible breeder

Inherited conditions like CMO, liver shunts and OM can be prevented by screening and withdrawing any affected animals from breeding programmes.

That's why choosing a responsible breeder is important.

Trust your vet

Having a good relationship with your vet is essential for your pet's health. For most diseases, recognizing signs early by regularly monitoring your dog and attending routine vet health checks helps minimise complications. Additionally, Cairn Terrier health conditions usually require medication and regular vet check-ups. For example, topical medications and regular eye pressure checks are needed with glaucoma.

For diabetes, insulin dosage and timing are essential. Finding the right dose usually involves several trips to the vet for blood glucose measurements before injecting it at home according to a strict daily schedule. This is done not only to prevent blood sugar levels from becoming too high again but also to prevent them from becoming too low (hypoglycemia), as this can quite quickly cause weakness, collapse and sometimes seizures.

Serious conditions will need more regular vet visits. Dogs born with conditions like liver shunts will not get better on their own. Recognizing symptoms early and seeking veterinary advice as soon as possible will greatly improve the chance of treatment success.


Diet and exercise are cornerstones for most Cairn Terrier treatments. For example, in liver shunts, for dogs managed without surgery, consistently feeding a protein-restricted diet and giving any medications prescribed by a vet is crucial for long-term health.

Similarly, good diabetes management depends largely on its early recognition and treatment, both for long-term health and to reduce the risk of developing secondary complications, which can be severe and life-threatening. Therefore, maintaining stable blood sugar levels throughout the day is critical.

Our article on pet nutrition can help.

Exercise and weight management

Like diet, well-managed exercise is recommended to keep your Cairn Terrier fit and healthy. Regular exercise helps prevent obesity and keeps your dog stress-free.

But with conditions like luxating patella, you'll need to follow a careful exercise plan. These aim to protect the knee joint from wear and tear over time with planned exercise. With weight management, exercise restriction, medications, and physiotherapy, dogs with patellar luxation can build muscular strength and prevent future injury.

How dog insurance can help

Wondering how dog insurance works and whether it might be a good idea to buy a policy for your Cairn Terrier? Learn more about ManyPets:

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A close-up of a concerned yellow Labrador Retriever with a gentle expression, receiving an examination by a veterinarian whose hands are shown holding a clipboard, in a clinical setting.