Published: 03 Sep 2019 | Last Updated: 04 Jul 2023 14:26:53

Ownership of West Highland White Terriers has dramatically fallen to just a quarter of the numbers owned a decade ago, according to new research carried out by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC).

The discovery is surprising given that the breed, which is well-known for its dense white coat and cheeky face, has been a multiple Crufts winner and featured in various long-running advertising campaigns.

West Highland Terrier (photo credit: Dan O'Neill)

Academics on the RVC’s VetCompass programme have carried out the world’s largest study of Westies and found that the breed comprised only 0.43% of puppies born in 2015 compared to 1.69% of puppies born in 2004. The average age of the Westies studied was a relatively elderly 7.8 years, suggesting an ageing population with fewer new puppies entering the population compared to other breed studies carried out by VetCompass.

The researchers also identified the most common ailments suffered by Westies as well as most common causes of death. The most common disorders are dental disease (which affects 15.7% of Westies), ear disease (10.6%), overgrown nails (7.2%), allergic skin disorder (6.5%) and obesity (6.1%). Lower respiratory tract disease and cancer were the most common cause of death, with each accounting for 10.2% of deaths in the breed. Spinal cord disorders were the next biggest killer at 7.8%.

The study was based on the records of over 900,000 Westies who were under the care of first opinion practice veterinary clinics in the UK in 2016.

Other key findings include:

  • Male Westies are more likely to be diagnosed with ear disease and aggression than female Westies.
  • Female Westies are more likely, however, to develop dental disease.
  • The average bodyweight of the Westie is 9.6kg, with males tending to be heavier with an average weight of 10.1kg compared to the 9.0kg average of females.
  • The average lifespan of the breed is 13.4 years with males outliving females at 13.8 years compared to the latter’s 12.9 years.

The VetCompass programme shares and analyses veterinary clinical information to improve the welfare of companion animals.

Dr Dan O’Neill, Senior Lecturer and VetCompass researcher at the RVC, who was the main author of the paper, said:

“With the ascent of social media as a dominant influencer of public opinion, ownership preferences for dog breeds are becoming increasingly polarised and susceptible to the whims of internet celebrity endorsement and advertising. Previously, preferences for dog breeds used to wax and wane gently over time. But VetCompass breed data now show rapid changes in preferences among breeds that create bubbles and troughs of demand that can have far-reaching implications for these breeds. Flat-faced (brachycephalic) breeds are currently the darling of the nation but this has created huge welfare problems for breeds such as the Pug and French Bulldog. And breeds such as the West Highland White Terrier and Cavalier King Charles have fallen sharply out of favour.”

Camilla Pegram, Veterinary Epidemiologist and VetCompass researcher at the RVC, who co- authored the paper, said:

“The most common disorders of Westies shown in this study are also common in the wider UK dog population. However, the breed does seem predisposed to lower respiratory tract disease which was a common cause of death in the Westie. Owners should be aware of this as their Westie ages. What is particularly interesting is the level of skin disorders, which although relatively high, are still lower than might have been predicted a decade ago. It is possible that the reduction in Westie ownership has relieved the pressure on breeders to breed from less healthy individuals to meet demand and therefore contributed to improved skin health within the breed. Paradoxically, reducing popularity may have led to better health in the Westies that are now being born.”

Bill Lambert, Senior Health and Welfare Manager at the Kennel Club commented:

“The Kennel Club has certainly seen fewer West Highland White Terrier puppies being registered each year as this historic breed seems to continue to fall out of favour. However, we’re pleased this study indicates that Westies don’t appear to suffer from a high prevalence of specific diseases, other than those which appear to be fairly common for all dogs. Sadly this contrasts with many of the increasingly popular breeds, like French Bulldogs, Bulldogs and Pugs, which are often being bred indiscriminately to match the soaring demand leading to some serious health and welfare issues. This underlines just how important it is for puppy buyers to do thorough research and go to a responsible breeder.”

Research Reference

O'NEILL, D. G., BALLANTYNE, Z. F., HENDRICKS, A., CHURCH, D. B., BRODBELT, D. C. & PEGRAM, C. 2019. West Highland White Terriers under primary veterinary care in the UK in 2016: demography, mortality and disorders. Canine Genetics and Epidemiology.

The full paper is open access and will be available from September 3rd 2019 at: or

Notes to Editors

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About the RVC

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London.
  • The RVC is ranked as the world’s number one veterinary school in the QS World University Rankings 2019.
  • The RVC offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences.
  • The RVC was the first veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC, and currently holds full accreditation from RCVS, AVBC and AVMA and conditional from EAEVE.
  • In 2017, the RVC received a Gold award from the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) – the highest rating a university can receive.
  • A research-led institution, the RVC maintained its position as the top veterinary institution in the Research Excellence Framework (2014), with 79% of its submission being rated as world-class or internationally excellent.
  • The RVC also provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals: the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital, in central London, and the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals (Europe's largest small animal referral centre) and Equine Referral Hospital, both located at the Hertfordshire campus.

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