Health-Related Concerns of the Cairn Terrier


The Cairn Terrier is, by definition, an “active, game, and hardy” small terrier. They are long-lived dogs, with a life span averaging 13 - 14 years of age. The cairn terrier is basically a healthy breed; however, since pure-bred dogs on the average have 3 - 5 genetic faults, the Cairn is not without its health issues.

The CTCA has conducted several health surveys; the most recent was conducted in 2010. The results of these surveys have allowed breeders to concentrate on eliminating genetic problems in the breed. The CTCA has formed the Health Related Concerns Committee and established the Foundation, both committed to improving the health of the Cairn. To date, much work has been done - an award-winning manual for breeders has been developed - Genetic Anomalies of the Cairn Terrier - published in September 1994 and winner of the Dog Writers Association of America Maxwell Medallion in February 1995. The Genetic Manual is in the process of being electronically formatted in order to update it easily. The CTCA Foundation funds research to improve the health of the breed. Many health education programs have been developed and health clinics have been supported all over the country.

Due to advances in canine medicine, health problems are being treated, prevented, and/or avoided by careful breeding. The following problems do occur occasionally in the Cairn Terrier. The CTCA and conscientious breeders, however, are working towards the elimination of these problems.

Quick Links

Health Conditions

AllergiesLuxated Patellae
CataractsOcular melanosis
Craniomandibular OsteopathyOFA Eye Certification Registry
CryptorchidismLiver Portosystemic Vascular Anomaly and Microvascular Dysplasia (update added 10/14/2014)
Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (GCL)Progressive Retinal Atrophy
Heart defectsRenal Dysplasia
HypothyroidismSeizures and Epilepsy
Joint HealthTick-Borne Infectious Diseases
Kidney Ultrasonographyvon Willebrands
Legg-PerthesScottie Cramp

Suggested Minimal Health Testing Guidelines

Click here for Suggested Minimal Health Testing Guidelines.

Update on Canine Influenza

The American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation recently published this update on canine influenza.

Committee Links

Click here for committee links.

Health Related Concerns Committee Reports

[4/2002] [10/2002] [4/2003] [10/2004] [10/2007] [06/2008] [10/2008] [03/2009]

Health-Related Presentations

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Health-Related Articles

AKC Health Tips



Allergies can be broken down into inhalant, contact, or food allergy origins. Flea allergies, grass allergies, and environmental toxin induced allergies are the most common causes of skin conditions in Cairns. Allergies can be chronic or seasonal. They can be minor or severe in occurrence. They tend to become worse with age. Treatment is much better than in bygone days. Environmental controls, antihistamine treatment, and desensitization injections have made huge strides in the last few years.

Glucocorticoids should be used only as a last resort due to serious side effects. Diagnosis and treatment of chronic or severe cases by a Board Licensed Veterinary Dermatologist is recommended.


The lens of the eye is clear and is located behind the pupil. The job of the lens is to focus light into the retina. When the lens becomes unhealthy, it turns white or opaque. Cataracts are generally considered a common old age change, but a juvenile form also occurs. Juvenile cataracts are inherited and are not usually present at birth, although this condition can present itself at any age- months to years. Juvenile cataracts affect different areas of the lens depending upon the breed of dog. They do not always result in the lens becoming completely opaque. Complete cataracts result in blindness that can only be corrected by cataract surgery. Yearly CERF examinations are an important tool in diagnosing this condition. Proper treatment can be hastened by early diagnosis.

Craniomandibular Osteopathy

2016 Further Update on CMO Research and Test Information: DNA testing for CMO is now available at OptiGen in Ithaca NY. OptiGen is a commercial health testing and research laboratory founded by veterinarians from Cornell University. Dr. Venta at Michigan State University is no longer offering this test. A causal mutation gene has been identified based on research conducted in Europe and the cost of the test is currently (9/2016) $100. CMO has been observed in Cairn Terriers, Scotties and Westies although the disease did not appear in the top ten identified diseases in the CTCA Health Survey 2011-2015. Information about CMO, the test and OptiGen can be found at the following link:

Test applications can be ordered online with a 5% cost reduction at:

Also known as lion jaw, CMO is a non-cancerous bone proliferation occurring mainly on the lower jaw, maxilla and, on occasion, the long bones of the legs. It is generally a self-resolving problem that corrects as the bone remodels during the growth stage. Diagnosis is by X-ray. Onset of symptoms generally occurs at about 4 months and resolves at about 1 year of age. Symptoms tend to occur in episodes that can be mild (off food for a day or two), or more serious (unable to open mouth and very painful). Treatment to reduce these symptoms include the use of aspirin or steroids. This disease is inherited by a single autosomal recessively passed gene. The GDC maintains an open registry on Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO) in Cairn Terriers. Research to develop a DNA marker test to identify carrier, clear and affected CMO animals has been funded cooperatively by the Cairn, Scottish and West Highland White Terrier Clubs in conjunction with the American Kennel Club Health Foundation. The research work began in 1998.

Research Reports: [4/2002] [4/2003] [8/2003] [5/2004] [9/2004] [8/2006] [1/2007a] [1/2007b]

2013 Update: Dr. Venta at Michigan State will be offering a CMO DNA test. Although the research is still ongoing, the HRCC recommends that breeders with questions about CMO contact Dr. Venta. The validity of the test is still being researched.

2016 Update: OptiGen in Ithaca NY is offering a CMO DNA test. As reported to the Board at the August 2016 meeting, the HRCC is investigating the test and will report back.


Cryptorchidism is the failure of one or both of the testicles to descend into the   scrotum. Normal descent is often complete by 6 to 8 weeks of age but may be delayed   to as late as 6 months of age. The undescended testicle may be found within the   abdominal cavity, in the inguinal canal or under the skin next to the penis. The   condition is considered hereditary in most breeds. There is not complete agreement on   the mode of inheritance. Because of the increased incidence of cancer in retained   testicles, cryptorchid dogs should always be neutered. A neutered cryptorchid dog   should have no other expected health risks due to this condition.

Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy (GCL)

Also known as Krabbe’s disease. It is a degenerative disease of the white matter   of the brain and spinal cord. Affected puppies die at a very early age or have to be   euthanized. Mode of inheritance is by a single autosomal recessively passed gene.   There is now a test available that can identify carriers of this disease. Breeders   can use this test to eliminate GCL in Cairns. Animals to be bred should be tested and   the results registered with the OFA.

Downloads: HeathGene GCL testing via   cheekswabs or Dr. Wenger GCL Test   Application
More Info: Cheek Swab Testing

Heart defects

A variety of heart defects can occur in every breed of pure-bred dogs. A careful   examination of puppies by a veterinarian at 6 weeks of age is recommended since most   congenital heart problems can be detected this way. There is no predominant heart   disease identified with Cairns, though various murmurs do occur.


It is characterized as an underproduction of hormone by the thyroid gland. It   occurs in many breeds, including Cairns. Diagnosis is done by a blood test for   complete thyroid activity. Symptoms include poor haircoat, infertility, lethargy, and   cold intolerance. Treatment with synthetic hormones is very successful in controlling   this condition. Blood tests to evaluate dosage is important on a yearly basis.

Joint Health

For more information, we invite you to attend the archived webinar “Joint Health in Dogs”, hosted by the AKC Canine Health Foundation and VetVine, and featuring James L. Cook, DVM, PhD, the director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri School of Medicine. View the webinar here.


Legg-Perthes is an aseptic necrosis of the femoral head (meaning bone death, not   due to infection). This disease occurs in many small breeds of dogs, including Cairn   Terriers. It may necessitate corrective surgery. Diagnosis is by X-ray. This   condition can be registered with the GDC in Cairns.

Dr. Allison Starr of the Clemson University Canine Genetic Laboratory is conducting research on Legg-Perthes and would like samples from normal and affected cairn terriers.  If you would like more information on this disease and/or would like to participate in this program, go to the following site:

Kidney Ultrasonography

Year round availability for kidney ultrasound screenings ($100 or under):

Contact Dr Ilene Kaplan, HRCC Chair, for help in finding board certified ultrasonographers near you.

Luxated Patellae

This is a problem in many small breeds of dogs, including Cairns. In this   disorder, the knee cap slips out of the trochlear groove. Testing, funded by the CTCA   Foundation, has proven it to be an inherited disorder in Cairns. Diagnosis is by   X-ray and palpation exam. The condition is also on the GDC Registry for Cairns. The   severity of the condition is quite variable. It can occur in one back leg, or both.   Grade 1 cases can be very mild, with minor gaiting anomalies. Mild cases will do such   things as: pick up a leg for a few steps when moving over irregular ground (gravel or   long grass), lope or gallop rather than trot. They are often straight in the stifle   and have no “drive” to their rear movement. Grade 3 and 4 cases, are less common and   do require surgical correction. This condition does weaken the integrity of the   joint, predisposing to arthritis and traumatic injury. The GDC does have a Registry   for Luxating Patellae in Cairns.

Ocular Melanosis/Secondary Glaucoma

(Formerly referred to as Pigmentary Glaucoma.)

Awareness of this condition in the United States is a fairly recent thing, as the   first known cases were diagnosed in 1984. It is an inherited condition that occurs   predominantly in Cairns, although there are some unconfirmed reports of a similar   condition in other breeds. The condition generally affects both eyes. Onset of the   more obvious changes is between 7 to 12 years of age, which make this a vital time to   closely watch each eye for small spots or patches of very dark pigmentation within   the sclera (white part of the eye). Visits to the veterinarian when Cairns are this   age should include an examination of the anterior chambers of the eyes for pigment   deposits as well. The pigment deposits accumulate and decrease the eyes’ ability to   drain fluid out of the anterior chamber. This fluid accumulation leads to an increase   in pressure in the eye which is known as a secondary glaucoma. If the elevated   pressure goes undiagnosed and/or untreated, the dog will not only go blind but also   suffer from pain, because an increased pressure in the eye can be very painful.   Because of this, it is often required to remove the eye due to pain caused by   pressure build up.If caught early, the damage that glaucoma causes can be slowed, and   vision maintained longer by use of medications. It is important that all Cairns be   checked regularly for the early signs of Ocular Melanosis (pigmented scleral patches   and thickened iris roots) especially those dogs who are related to dogs who have or,   who are suspected to have, Ocular Melanosis. This is also a condition that is part of   the GDC Registry.

If your Cairn is 7-12 years old, or has been diagnosed with Ocular Melanosis and   you would like more information on this disease, please contact Dr. Simon   Petersen-Jones at Michigan State University in East Lansing. He is collecting blood   samples and pedigrees of normal and affected dogs as well as organ donated eyes from   all Cairns. Please e-mail Dr. Petersen-Jones at He can also be contacted   through the Comparative Ophthalmology laboratory at MSU by telephone at (517)   353-3278.

OM update 2014

2013 OM Update and DNA Request

Research Reports: [4/2002] [4/2003] [10/2004] [05/2005a] [05/2005b] [08/2005] [11/2005] [1/2006] [1/2007] [Grant 903a] [Grant 1137]
Articles: Ocular melanosis in the Cairn Terrier: clinical description and investigation of mode of inheritance - Veterinary Ophthalmology (2007)
Downloadable Forms:
[Cairn Terrier Ocular Melanosis (OM) Eye Donation Registry]
[Ocular Melanosis (Pigmentary Glaucoma)]
[Blood Samples for Ocular Melanosis Research]
[Protocol For Sending Enucleated Eyes For Culture]
[Request For Reimbursement For Shipping Cost]

OFA Eye Certification Registry

EYE REGISTRY UPDATE—As of November 1, 2012 the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) will be endorsing the OFA Eye Certification Registry (OFA ECR) as its recommended canine eye registry.  Diplomates of the Veterinary College may submit eye registrations for either the OFA ECR or the CERF programs. Exam protocols will be exactly the same for both registries.  Diplomates are in the process of receiving the new OFA ECR forms. It is hoped that the new OFA ECR registry will contribute to making OFA an even more complete resource of canine health screening results.
More details can be found at and

Liver Portosytemic Vascular Anomaly

Liver Portosytemic Vascular Anomaly (PSVA) and Microvascular Dysplasia (MVD) commonly referred to as “Portal Shunt” or “Liver Shunt”


Liver shunt and bile acid testing: Dr. Center is now recommending, based on several years of tests and results, that bile acid tests still need to be paired, but it is not necessary to fast a dog before first test. Protocol is blood draw (no need to fast), food, wait two hours and second blood draw. We will post more information on her research shortly.

PSVA and MVD occur in many small dog breeds and they are related abnormalities.   They both are an abnormal flow of blood between the liver and the body.  In PSVA   the portal vein that carries blood from the intestines to the liver is   affected.  In MVD abnormally miniaturized portal veins can be found in the liver   itself.  MVD causes microscopic shunting in the liver but affected dogs may not   have any symptoms, be ill or require medical or dietary treatment.  Rarely, some   MVD dogs have a problem with drug metabolism (e.g. antihistamines, certain   anesthetics). 
  Since the liver is responsible for detoxifying the body, metabolizing nutrients and   eliminating drugs, blood bypassing the liver can cause many symptoms.    Indications of possible PSVA include, but are not limited to, excessive thirst and   urination, head pressing, lethargy, diarrhea or vomiting, seizures, eating abnormal   substances, elevated (paired) bile acid results, low cholesterol, small red blood   cells, behavioral changes such as confusion, circling and head pressing, anorexia,   hypoglycemia, drug and anesthesia intolerance, unthriftiness and poor growth.    Most dogs with PSVA will also have ammonia biurate crystals in their urine.  It   is important to note that not all dogs with PSVA or MVD have symptoms or are   ill.  Protein C analysis can help differentiate between PSVA and MVD.    Signs of PSVA usually appear before two years of age, but later onset has been   recorded.
  Pursuing a dog without symptoms that has high bile acids (greater than 25) and a   normal Protein C can result in costly and invasive testing and thus some MVD dogs are   subjected to rigorous evaluations that may not be needed or useful.   If an   animal has a confirmed PSVA, corrective surgery can be helpful in the long-term   management of these animals. Best outcomes are realized in hospitals with an   experienced surgical, medical and nursing staff team.  Dietary manipulation is   also important in maintaining dogs with PSVA. 
  Mode of inheritance has not been established but a research project is being   conducted at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine by Sharon Center,   D.V.M, DACVIM, professor of Internal Medicine.  This is funded in part by the   CTCA Foundation, other breed clubs and the AKC Canine Health Foundation.

More Info: Center Summary

Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Also known as PRA. Sometimes referred to as “night blindness”, which is a misnomer   because the blindness caused by this disease is eventually total. In the early   stages, the dog’s vision is impaired at night and eventually becomes worse in   daylight and dim light conditions. Ultimately, the dog becomes completely blind as   both eyes are affected. This condition is an inherited one with both parents being   carriers. Diagnosis of PRA can be detected by a CERF exam. This condition exists in   quite a number of breeds, including Cairns. PRA is a condition that can be registered   with the GDC.

Renal Dysplasia

RENAL DYSPLASIA IN THE CAIRN TERRIER submitted by Dr. Margret Casal, DMV,PhD,Dipl.   ECAR.

Renal dysplasia is an inherited disease characterized by abnormal development of   the kidney, which takes place before the puppies are born. This results in incomplete   or unorganized development of the kidney tissues, which can lead to a decrease in   kidney function with associated clinical diseases and possibly death at an early age.   Clinical signs may include polyuria (increased urination) and polydypsia (increased   drinking) as well as vomiting, lethargy, loss of appetite, and weight loss.   (Editor’s Note: Dr. Casal has recently published her research   findings on imaging and renal dysplasia indicating that ultrasound imaging correlated   with histopathologic changes in the disease. Also note that longevity and symptoms   can vary in individual dogs. Renal aplasia is a condition in which there is only one   kidney present.)

Tick-Borne Infectious Diseases

For more information, we invite you to attend the webinar “Tick-Borne Infectious Diseases in North America: Clinical and Zoonotic Implications”, hosted by the AKC Canine Health Foundation and VetVine, and featuring Edward B. Breitschwerdt, DVM, DACVIM, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases, College of Veterinary Medicine, NCSU. View the webinar here.

Seizures and Epilepsy

Seizures can be the result of the disease Epilepsy, or can be a sign of many   different problems. Epilepsy can usually be controlled by medication. Specific   diagnosis of the cause of seizure symptoms is critical to successful treatment.   Seizures can start early in life or be sudden onset in adult dogs of varying age.   There are a myriad of reasons for a dog to suffer seizures. Seizure episodes that   occur over an extended period of time are likely to be genetic in origin.

von Willebrand’s

This is a bleeding disease characterized by excessive bleeding time due to delayed   clotting. There is a rather low occurrence of this disorder in Cairns. There is a   blood test available, which identifies carriers, affected and clear animals, though   the test is sensitive to a number of criteria and hormone levels that affect scores.   Research is underway to develop a DNA test that will be much more effective in giving   absolute information so this disease can also be eliminated from the Cairn gene   pool.

Scottie Cramp

Scottie Cramp Affects Cairns: New Research into Scottie Cramp
  Most Scottish Terrier owners and breeders are very aware of the common disorder in   Scottish Terriers called ‘Scottie Cramp’. This is an episodic genetic   disorder that causes dramatic spasticity of the muscles (‘cramping’) with   excitement and exercise, as described by the STCA in their web page on genetic health   issues (   SCOTTIE CRAMP ALSO AFFECTS CAIRNS. We are starting the first phase of trying to   identify the genetic cause of this disease. The AKC Canine Health Foundation,   together with the STCA Health Committee has funded a project to collect DNA from   affected and normal Scottish terriers and we plan to submit a grant to perform the   genetic analysis once we have enough samples in hand. CAIRN TERRIERS WILL ALSO BE   STUDIED. We have attached detailed instructions on how to contact us, how to   videotape an episode and the protocol for obtaining a blood sample for us.
  The research team includes Dr. Natasha Olby, a veterinary neurologist and Associate   Professor at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr.   Ganokon Urkasemsin, a veterinarian who is now completing her PhD in Dr. Olby’s   laboratory, working exclusively of genetic diseases of Scottish Terriers, and Tonya   Harris, a technician who works in Dr. Olby’s laboratory. The laboratory   telephone number is 919 513 7235.  More information on how to include cairns is   attached in the “complete package” link below:

More Info: Scottie Cramp Complete   Package


The Cairn Terrier Club of America has been a leader within the pure-bred dog community in working to improve their breed and eliminate genetic diseases. Many other breed clubs have looked to the CTCA for help and direction on this subject. Our   efforts will continue. Health Surveys are planned and conducted every several years.

It is recommended that when obtaining a Cairn, the breeder be scrutinized, not just the dog. An ethical producer of a breed of dog will be one who educates him/herself as to what the current health issues are in the breed and how they can improve their quality of animals. A “good” breeder cares about their dogs and the breed and will work to produce the best that can be. Health and temperament should be their most important goal. They will be assessing your ability to be a responsible owner and trying to pair you with a dog that will suit your particular home environment.

Cairns are hardy, active, and loving dogs that can be a great joy to those who are “owned by them”. An old adage says, “the only thing better than having a Cairn, is to have two Cairns.”


Cancer, LVT
Craniomandibular Osteopathy (CMO); Globoid Cell Leukodystrophy; Heart & Gastro-Intestinal and Orthopedic Disease Coordinator; Portosystemic Vascular Anomaly (PSVA) and Microvascular Dysplasia (MVD) and Liver Shunt
Eye Diseases
Genetics Library
Liaison to OFA, GDC, & CHIC and Alternative Medicine
Luxated Patellae
Renal Aplasia/Dysplasia
Skin and Aging Disease Coordinator
Veterinarian Outreach and Clinic Coordinator