They also have a deep chest, muscular limbs, a black nose, and a short, closely fitted jaw with “scissors” bite (lower canines locked in front of upper canines, upper incisors locked over lower incisors). The Westie’s paws are slightly turned out to give it better grip than flat-footed breeds when it climbs on rocky surfaces. In young puppies, the nose and footpads have pink markings, which slowly turn black as they age. Westies also have short and sturdy tails. Some sources suggest that due to their history as rodent catchers, their tails were bred to be thick so that a Westie trapped in a hole could be easily pulled out by the tail.
They have a soft, dense, thick undercoat and a rough outer coat, which can grow to about 2 inches (5.1 cm) long. The fur fills out the face to give a rounded appearance. As puppies develop into adults, their coarse outer coat is normally removed by either “hand-stripping”, especially for dog-showing, or otherwise clipping.
The temperament of the West Highland White Terrier can vary greatly, with some being friendly towards children, while others prefer solitude. It will not typically tolerate rough handling, such as a child pulling on its ears or fur, and can frequently be both food- and toy-possessive. This makes regular training from a young age of particular importance. It is normally independent, assured, and self-confident, and can make a good watchdog. It is a loyal breed that bonds with its owner but is often on the move, requiring daily exercise (15–30 min). The Westie is highly social and is the most friendly and jolly of all the Scottish breeds of terriers.
It is a hardy breed, and can be stubborn, leading to issues with training. A Westie may need to have its training refreshed on occasion during its lifetime. Having a typical terrier prey drive, it tends to be highly interested in toys, especially chasing balls. It does retain the instincts of an earth-dog, including inquisitive and investigative traits, as well as natural instincts to bark and dig holes. It is ranked in the average range as 88th in Stanley Coren’s The Intelligence of Dogs.
The American breed club puts the lifespan of the Westie at 12 to 16 years. A club survey puts the average lifespan at 11.4 years. Veterinary clinic data from the UK show a typical lifespan of 10.5 to 15 years. The French Kennel Club database gives 8 to 16 years, with a median of 13 years. The typical litter size is between three and five puppies.
The breed is predisposed to conditions found in many breeds, such as abdominal hernias. Westie puppies may be affected by craniomandibular osteopathy, a disease also known as “lion jaw”, and is sometimes also referred to as “westie jaw”. The disease is an autosomal recessive condition, so a puppy can only be affected by it if both its parents are carriers of the faulty gene. The condition appears across many breeds, including several different types of terriers, as well as other unrelated breeds such as the Great Dane. It typically appears in dogs under a year old, and can cause problems for the dog to chew or swallow food. Radiographic testing can be conducted to diagnose the condition, in which the bones around the jaw thicken; additionally, the blood may show increased calcium levels and enzyme levels. The condition often stops progressing by the time the dog is a year old, and in some cases can recede. It is normally treated with anti-inflammatory medications, and the feeding of soft foods. In some cases, tube feeding may be necessary. However, if the animal still cannot eat and is in uncontrolled pain, then euthanasia may be the only medical option remaining.
Scottish white terriers were recorded as early as during the reign of James VI of Scotland, who reigned between 1567 and 1625. The king ordered that a dozen terriers be procured from Argyll to be presented to the Kingdom of France as a gift. Sandy- and brindle-coloured dogs were seen as hardier than those of other colours, and white dogs were seen as being weak. At various times during the breed’s existence, it has been considered a white offshoot of both the Scottish Terrier and the Cairn Terrier breeds.