West Highland White Terrier
The West Highland White Terrier (WHWT) or Westie, as it’s affectionately known, shares similar ancestry to its distant cousins the Scottish, Dandy Dinmont and Cairn Terriers. As its name suggests, the breed originates from the Scottish Highlands; there’s not a huge amount known about exactly how it came to be, although there are a few stories.
The Westie as we know it dates back to the 1700s, where these small, white bundles of energy were kept and bred for the purpose of catching rodents that otherwise pillaged food stores. Nimble and nippy, the little white terriers made apt opponents to vermin. They were also used for hunting, being less easily confused with foxes for their distinctive white colour. Over time, however, the WHWT has come to enjoy success in the show ring.
These days, Westies are part of the family. Their confident and inquisitive nature makes for an entertaining companion, whilst its size makes it as suitable for life in the city as in the sprawling highlands of its predecessors. Unfortunately, numbers are declining for this cheeky breed because of a recent shift away from popularity.
- Playful and happy characters
- Friendly, affectionate and love people
- Moderate exercise needs – Westies enjoy playtime as much as they do an hour-long walk, but some outdoor time is key for this inquisitive breed
- Content to be at home on its own in a comfy bed for a few hours (but always pleased to have company)
- Prone to skin problems
- Tend to bark
- Require a moderate degree of coat maintenance
- Mischievous – pro or con, depending on how you look at it!
The Westie is a flexible dog that can thrive in different types of homes. Although it loves having lots of outdoor space to explore, it’s just as content to live in an apartment. As with all dogs, they do need some outdoor activity each day, but, when they get home, they’re happy to lay curled-up on your lap. This breed can make as wonderful an addition to a family with children, as it can a companion for a retired individual, or a working couple in the city. As long as they get plenty of human interaction, playtime, some time outdoors and food, you’ll have a happy Westie!
- Apartment home or house with a garden
- Families with children
- Working individuals and couples
The breed could make a great pet for a family with older children looking for a cheeky and loving dog.
Breed care advice
Regardless of their environment, the West Highland White does need plenty of attention. They can be quite mischievous so it’s important that they’re properly educated from being puppies. This will help prevent any unwanted habits like stealing things, nipping, chewing things they shouldn’t, or scavenging in the bin. They can have voracious appetites, so keep any food out of paw and snout reach, unless you want it raided. Also, watch out with treats, your Westie will probably do anything to get one and will be more than happy to keep going. Treats should be rationed and low-calorie snacks (like appropriately chopped carrots) offered instead, otherwise you could end up with a little white barrel before too long!
The famous, pristine white coated Westie might certainly look attractive, but requires a lot of maintenance to avoid a yellow to brown coloured pooch! They are magnets for dirt and the coat is prone to matting up, meaning that weekly brushing and regular baths are needed to keep them looking tidy. They can benefit from a regular cut to keep the fur length under control and less likely to get dirty or knotted.
Known health problems
The WHWT is known to suffer from a number of health problems. Most commonly, the breed is at very high risk of skin disorders and dental disease. Many of these dogs have ear irritation (otitis) caused by infection or inflammation, and which can be chronic or recurrent. They often have skin problems such as pyoderma (infection in the skin), allergic skin disease and atopic dermatitis (involving an innate hypersensitivity of the skin). Skin and ear disease often occur simultaneously. For some individuals of the breed, these conditions can be quite difficult to manage, requiring time consuming (and often costly) diagnostic testing and treatment to get the dog comfortable.
Coughing, trouble breathing (dyspnoea) and exercise intolerance in an older Westie may mean chronic pulmonary disease or “Westie Lung”. They will often have crackles on breathing when listened to by the vet, and the condition is diagnosed with the help of X-rays and sometimes bronchoscopy (using a camera to look down the airways). It can eventually cause high pressures in the lungs and affect the heart. There is no effective treatment to reverse the condition so dogs are carefully managed with supportive care using anti-inflammatories until it affects their quality of life too severely.
The heart can also be affected by sick sinus syndrome. The sinus generates electrical impulses to induce contraction of the heart. It sets its own rhythm, normally resulting in a nice, regular heartbeat. In sick sinus syndrome, these impulses aren’t generated properly, causing too slow a heart rate and arrhythmias. Affected dogs can seem weak, but this can come and go, and they may faint. Treatment with medication can be provided, but some dogs need a pacemaker to keep the rhythm in check.
- Skin and ear disease, especially allergies and chronic infections, which can often be traced back to underlying Atopic Dermatitis
- Dental disease
- Chronic pulmonary disease/Westie Lung
- Sick sinus syndrome
- Obesity – Westies often have very keen appetites!
Lead author: Yvette Bell MRCVS