With their distinctive white coat, puppy-like stature, and scrappy demeanor, West Highland White Terriers are not only one of the most popular Terriers, but they are also hands-down one of the most in-demand breeds, period. But like any dog, westies, as they are more commonly known, may not be the ideal pet for everyone. And the most common question is whether they are high-maintenance dogs.
Westies are among the least demanding dogs to own as they:
- Are intelligent and trainable
- Are active but not too rambunctious
- Require moderate grooming care
No dog is maintenance-free, but westies are a great choice for first-time and unsure dog owners, provided that a few things are kept in mind.
Being familiar with the attributes of a particular breed is a vital step toward becoming a responsible owner. In the case of westies, their diminutive size and adorableness belie their natural tenacity. To know the West Highland White Terrier is to understand that this breed is pound for pound as tough and rugged as they come, but still a great choice for anyone looking for a low-maintenance dog. Read on to learn why.
What Makes a Westie (or any Dog) High Maintenance?
There are several hundred recognized dog breeds around the world, but when it comes to owning and caring for one, there are but a few major categories to keep in mind when distinguishing between those considered high maintenance and those that are not. In regards to westies, in particular, these are the four most important aspects of ownership to evaluate:
- Temperament and intelligence – these are the factors relating to keeping a westie engaged and stimulated (so as to avoid boredom)
- Exercise needs – the amount of daily activity that a westie requires for her health and well-being
- Grooming needs – the amount of regular grooming needed by a westie
- Health care – potential health issues unique to the westie breed that every owner should be aware of
Naturally, certain facets of dog ownership are more relevant to particular dog breeds than others, so let’s look at each of these categories one by one as they relate to westies, starting with perhaps the most important one: their personality and temperament.
Westies are Affectionate and Intelligent
Perhaps the one attribute of westies that makes them an ideal breed for pet owners of all experience levels is their temperament. While their breed standard describes their outward personality as “piercing, inquisitive, pert,” it is their deep, affectionate loyalty to their human family members and their natural perkiness that makes them so endearing. Tying all of these characteristics together is their intelligence.
As people who are familiar with westies can attest, these dogs are smart, and they know it, which can be both a plus and a minus. Because they are intelligent, westies are highly trainable, and even natural behaviors like chasing after small animals and digging can be suppressed to an extent.
It is important that dog training take place while they are still young and receptive to it; otherwise, their headstrong and independent nature could result in a battle of wills. But with the right approach and a firm hand, there may be no better furry addition to the family, especially one with children.
Westies Need Moderate Amounts of Exercise
Westies are natural hunters and foragers and therefore do need daily activity for their physical health and mental well-being. However, unlike some larger dogs, which are best suited for households with large yards or access to wide-open areas, this breed does well in homes of all types, including apartments, as long as the elements of regular exercise and human interaction are present.
As far as recommended daily activities for westies, here are a few suggestions:
- A long walk or a short run, but on a leash (remember, westies are natural hunters, so if they see a small animal like a squirrel or mouse, they will go chasing after it)
- A vigorous game of catch or fetch (but in an enclosed area for the same reason as above)
- A visit to a dog park
- Any safe place where they can satisfy their natural curiosity by sniffing and exploring their surroundings
Make no mistake about it. Westies are energetic animals. But a daily regimen consisting of moderate amounts of activity and exercise will keep this breed healthy and engaged.
Westies Require Regular (but not Frequent) Grooming
One of the most recognizable attributes of westies is their signature white coat. Although it may appear to be soft and fluffy from a distance, the fur of westies is characterized in dog-speak as ¨harsh,¨ meaning that it is coarse and tough.
Westies were originally bred to hunt for vermin like rats and mice and to rid farms of foxes and other pests, so their rough fur allowed them to dash fearlessly into thick and scraggly brush chasing after their prey. This breed actually has two coats of fur:
- An outer coat consisting of thick, coarse hair that sits straight and is roughly 2 inches long
- An undercoat that is more fur-like and is shorter and softer
Although their hunting days may be past them, a moderate level of care is needed to keep this breed’s signature white coat healthy and to prevent harmful skin conditions. Periodic visits to a dog groomer (every 4 to 6 weeks) are recommended, but grooming can be done at home as well.
Here are a few pointers for maintaining a westie’s coat:
- Daily brushing for five to 10 minutes will remove dead hairs
- Washing a westie’s face with a wet cloth can keep staining in check
- A stripping comb, used every four to six weeks, will remove loose undercoat hair
- Periodic trimming around the ears will prevent infections
- Trim and shape the hair around the face and on the legs to maintain a westie’s appearance
- Bathing should only be done infrequently (every six weeks or so) as westies have sensitive skin
While this may seem like a lot of work, compared to other breeds whose grooming needs are far more demanding (and expensive), caring for a westie’s coat is a relative walk in the park.
Westies are a Hardy Breed
No dog is impervious to health issues but relatively speaking, westies are considered to be a very hardy and resilient breed. With an average life expectancy of 13 years (compared to an average of 11 years for dogs under 20 pounds), a healthy, well-kept westie can provide years of loyal companionship.
Here are the most common ailments and health conditions that can affect westies:
- Cataracts (eye disorder impairing vision)
- Craniomandibular Osteopathy (a disorder of the skull bones that can affect the ability to chew)
- Legg-Calve-Perthes Disease (a disorder of the rear leg bones)
- Patellar Luxation (dislocation of the knee joint)
- Pulmonary Fibrosis aka Westie lung disease (lung disease)
Many medical conditions affecting westies can be treated surgically, but this would likely be costly, and full recovery is not always assured. The most important things to maintaining a healthy westie are knowing what to look for, recognizing the signs of a possible health issue, and taking prompt action.
Putting it all Together
I have always felt that a good general measure of whether a dog is high maintenance is if it is a good breed for first-time dog owners. There are certain dogs that require so much attention, care, and perhaps most of all, an endless supply of patience that for novice dog owners, having one in the home can be flat-out overwhelming.
Such is not the case with our little, white-coated friends. Particularly as far as small dogs are concerned, westies are among the most popular choices for people who have never owned a dog before and are venturing into dog ownership for the first time. This factor alone is reason enough to give owning a westie some serious consideration.
Regardless of the breed, dog ownership is a commitment not to be taken lightly. There are certain responsibilities that come with owning any dog, whether she has an impeccable pedigree and comes from a reputable breeder or is a rescue dog of unknown ancestry picked up from a local shelter.
Owning a westie does not relieve anyone of the obligations of having a dog. But, given their high intelligence, fierce independence, and loving nature, westies have a natural tendency to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety that often accompany bringing canines into the home. As far as the perfect dog for first-timers or those seeking to avoid an overly challenging experience, westies have my vote.