The West Highland White Terrier or “Westie” as he is often called affectionately, is a spunky, faithful and happy little dog. They were originally bred for hunting rodents on farms, so they have a high prey drive.
Male adults reach a height of 11 inches, and females a height of 10 inches. They weigh between 15 and 20 pounds at maturity.
White terriers were recorded in Scotland as early as the 1500s. They were used for hunting game such as fox, badger and otter. Farmers and landlords also needed them to keep down the rat population on their land. The rats would invade their food stores and carry diseases. Terriers have a good sense of smell so they can sniff out where they are hiding. They also have small bodies which helps them crawl into the tight spaces where rats are hiding and drag them out. They are fast, so can outrun them, and can dig holes to chase after them.
In the 1700s the West Highland White Terrier was bred at the Poltalloch estate by the Malcolm clan. It was also sometimes known as the Poltalloch Terrier or the Roseneath Terrier. The West Highlands are in the North West part of Scotland, where the breeding was done. They are very popular both in the UK and America, due to their cute appearance, friendliness, size, and independent spirit.
West Highland White Terriers are energetic and curious little creatures. They like to see everything that’s going on, and investigate all the corners of the house. They like to hunt, so you may sometimes be presented with dead mice or rats. Friendly and affectionate, they make charming family companions, and get on well with other children. Westies do have quite an independent spirit though, and may be stubborn at times.
As their name suggests, West Highland White Terriers have white coats, with a black button nose. They have a rough outer coat which is either removed by hand-stripping, for show, or by clipping. Their undercoat is soft and thick and they have a tail that is 5 or 6 inches long. Hair fills out their face, contributing to their soft and sweet appearance.
With their portable size and moderate activity needs, West Highland White Terriers do well in apartments. They can manage without a yard so long as they are given enough exercise every day. There is a tendency to bark a lot though, so you might need to put some time into training them out of that. Even though they have a double coat, they should be kept inside unless the weather is very mild. They do tolerate being alone for some time, so can generally be left there during the day while you’re at work.
West Highland White Terriers get on well with children, but it is best for them to be in a family with children that are older than 7 years old. They can get irritated and snap at them, so should be supervised, and children should be taught how to treat them properly. They usually get on well with other dogs, although males might have a problem with other male dogs. Cats might get chased because of their prey drive, and mice and small pets are probably not going to be safe around them. Westies make good watchdogs because they will bark at the slightest noise. They don’t usually get aggressive with strangers.
This Terrier’s coat should be combed through every week, and bathed as needed. A wipe down with a damp cloth can be given in between baths to keep their coats looking white. They don’t tend to shed much, so their hair has to be either hand plucked for show, or clipped, to keep it trimmed and in shape. Ears should be checked and cleaned regularly, and their teeth should be brushed once a week. Nails should also be trimmed once a month if they are not worn down naturally.
Training can be a challenge with this breed, due to their stubborn independence. However if you are firm, patient and consistent, you can usually get somewhere because they are smart dogs. Treats will help motivate them, and short training sessions will help keep it interesting. Harsh training is not recommended, because Westies can snap or bite if they feel you’re a threat. Socialization is important as they can become aggressive towards other dogs if they haven’t been exposed to them enough. Barking is a common occurrence, so you might want to train them to stop barking on command.
West Highland White Terriers should be given a walk every day and ideally some time to play around. They should always be walked on a leash, and exercised in an area that is fenced in. Their high prey drive means that they will probably ignore you if they smell a squirrel or small animal which they want to chase. If you want to enrol your Terrier in some activities, a good choice would be Earthdog tests. There he can be true to his nature and dig to his heart’s content, hunting for rodents underground.
West Highland Terriers should be fed a high quality diet that takes into account their nutritional needs, age and how active they are. Fresh water should be available at all times. Be careful with table scraps, as they can make your dog overweight, picky, or cause digestive issues. Treats should also not be given too much, as they usually don’t have the nutritional value that regular dog food contains.
Young Westie puppies should be fed three times a day. Once they are 5 or 6 months old this can be transitioned to two times a day. Their food can be left out for 15 to 20 minutes and then removed – this will make them less likely to overeat and become overweight when they are older.
Westies do tend to be prone to skin problems resulting from food allergies. Therefore some owners recommend avoiding certain ingredients, including beef, corn, wheat, soy, garlic, and artificial colors, flavours or preservatives. Lamb, Chicken, Fish, Potato and Rice seem to be better choices and recommended by many. However dogs are very individual, and a diet that works for one might not work so well for another.
If you suspect a food allergy then most veterinarians will generally recommend that you limit your dog’s diet to a couple of ingredients that are new to him for a few weeks. If the symptoms clear up then you can gradually reintroduce other ingredients to try and diagnose which one was causing the problem.
Recommended daily feeding amount: ½ to 1.5 cups of high quality dry food every day, divided into two meals.
Growing puppies and very active dogs will need more calories than others. Older dogs, and those that have been spayed or neutered, will generally need fewer calories.
Common Health Concerns
A condition called Craniomandibular Osteopathy can affect West Highland White Terrier puppies. This is also sometimes known by the names “Westie Jaw” or “Lion Jaw”. Although it is hereditary, it can only affect a puppy if both its parents carry the gene, because it is autosomal recessive. It makes the skull bones of a puppy become enlarged while it is growing and can make his jaw swollen so that he can’t open his mouth. Symptoms include drooling and fever. There is no cure for it, but anti-inflammatory and pain medication can help manage it. If the condition affects the puppy severely he may need a feeding tube to be able to eat. Typically the irregular growth stops by the time puppies are a year old, although permanent jaw problems may result.
Other conditions that affect Westies include Pulmonary Fibrosis, Cataracts, Patellar Luxation, and Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease. Legg-Calve-Perthes causes a decreased blood supply to the femur, which then causes limping and atrophy of leg muscle. It can be corrected by surgery. Symptoms of Pulmonary Fibrosis include a dry cough, rapid breathing, and shortness of breath. The tissue in the lungs is scarred, which makes the lungs loose their elasticity, and breathing is more difficult. There is no cure for this so prevention is best – by keeping your dog at a healthy weight, trying to prevent respiratory infections, and limiting exercise.
West Highland White Terriers are often purchased without any clear understanding of what goes into owning one. There are many West Highland White Terriers in need of adoption and or fostering. There are a number of rescues that we have not listed. If you don’t see a rescue listed for your area, contact the national breed club or a local breed club and they can point you toward a West Highland White Terrier rescue.