Dogs, cats, and many other mammals have a third eyelid inside their lower eyelids, also called the nictitating membrane. This third eyelid protects your dog’s eye, and it also holds tear ducts that are responsible for about 35% of your dog’s tear production.
When this third eyelid prolapses, this is commonly referred to as cherry eye because of the bright pink bulge it produces in the corner of your dog’s eye.
While cherry eye is not life-threatening, it can lead to further health complications if not treated right away. In this article, we’ll provide possible causes, what signs to look for, and what treatment options for cherry eye are available.
What Causes Cherry Eye?
Cherry eye is believed to happen when the fibrous tissue that holds the third eyelid gland in place stretches or breaks completely. It typically occurs in young dogs, usually under 1-2 years old. Unfortunately, veterinarians are still unsure what exactly causes this phenomenon. Here are some of the suspected causes of cherry eye:
- Inflammation in the mucous membrane of the eye
- Bacterial infections
- Compromised immune system
- Fungal infections
- Sun damage
While it can happen to any dog breed, cherry eye appears to be more common in dogs with shorter muzzles, as well as toy and teacup breeds. A few dog breeds predisposed for cherry eye include American Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Basset Hounds, English Bulldogs, and Boston Terriers.
Signs and Symptoms of Cherry Eye in Dogs
The earliest and tell-tale sign of cherry eye developing in your dog is a small, round pink mass in the corner of your dog’s eye, usually near their nose. This small swelling mass is similar to the shape and color of a cherry, which is how the condition got its name.
Because cherry eye progresses quickly, many common signs are closely related to the stage of the condition.
In the early stages, a few common signs are:
- Impaired vision
- Thick discharge
- Pawing at eyes and nose
- Eye redness
- Swelling in the eye area
Luckily, these beginning stages of cherry eye aren’t painful for your dog, and if found and treated early, there will be minimal damage to your dog’s eye glands.
If left untreated, cherry eye can make your dog more susceptible to dry eye and infections, corneal ulcers, and eye conditions that can potentially cause blindness.
A dog’s tear glands are inside the third eyelid, so when the ligament breaks and the third eyelid prolapses, your dog’s tear glands won’t function correctly. This can lead to insufficient tear production or, at times, too much tear production and eye drainage.
Treatment Options for Cherry Eye
If you think your dog is developing cherry eye, take them to the vet right away. The condition develops quickly, and the sooner it’s treated, the less likely your dog will develop other related health complications. If you’re unsure about your dog’s symptoms, you can also set up a same-day appointment to speak with an online vet right away.
At the initial vet appointment, your vet will need to examine your dog’s eyes to make a diagnosis. Cherry eye is a very visual condition, which makes it straightforward to diagnose. From there, your vet is likely to prescribe anti-inflammatory eye drops and/or a topical antibiotic ointment as a first step.
These treatments will not cure your dog’s cherry eye, but they will help reduce the inflammation in the third eyelid and provide moisture to your dog’s eye, which will make them more comfortable.
From there, your vet will likely recommend surgery to reposition the third eyelid gland. A few different operations are available, and your vet will recommend which one is right for your dog’s situation.
The Traditional Tucking Method
This method is the most commonly used treatment method. A single stitch is used to tack the gland to the orbital rim of your dog’s eye, drawing the gland back into its proper position.
Complications with this method are rare, but no treatment method is perfect. For example, the stitch may not be strong enough to hold the gland in place, or your dog could scratch at the stitch, causing it to untie. If the stitch fails, your dog may require additional surgery to reposition the gland again.
The Pocketing Method
Pocketing is a newer surgical method that involves removing a small portion of the tissue directly over the gland, creating a pocket for the gland. The gland is moved into the pocket, and small stitches close the gap.
When the incision margins are tightened, the gland is pushed back into its proper place. Over time, these stitches dissolve.
This method can be more complex because the surgeon needs to determine how much of the initial tissue to remove.
Again, complications are rare, but they can happen. With this surgery method, complications can include:
- Swelling or inflammation of the stitches as they dissolve
- The stitches may fail to hold the gland in place
- The cherry eye may return if the surgeon was not able to pull the tissue gap tight enough
Removal of the Third Eyelid Gland
Removal used to be the most common method for treating cherry eye, but it’s now more typically used as a last resort. If other surgical techniques fail, your vet may recommend removing your dog’s third eyelid gland completely.
If your dog’s third eyelid gland is removed, it can have long-term effects on their tear production. Without enough moisture, your dog’s eye could develop keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or dry eye, which will require lifelong medication.
Recovery from Cherry Eye Surgery
After surgery, you can expect mild swelling of your dog’s eye, which will gradually go down in the following week.
Your dog is also likely to be in an Elizabethan collar to prevent damage to the stitches, and they’ll likely need a few follow- appointments with your vet to make sure the eye is healing nicely.
In most cases, your dog’s gland will be back to normal a few weeks after surgery. The vast majority of cases resolve after surgery, but there is a slight chance that the cherry eye can return, so you’ll need to keep an eye out for signs of a re-prolapse.
Can You Prevent Cherry Eye?
Because so little is known about what causes cherry eye, there is also no sure way to prevent it from happening. However, knowing the signs and treatment options is important, especially for dog owners with predisposed breeds:
- Cocker spaniels
- Boston Terriers
- Lhasa Apsos
- Shih Tzus
- Other brachycephalic breeds (dogs with shorter, flatter faces)
Knowing the signs of cherry eye will help you catch it early, making treatment and recovery that much easier for your pup. If you have questions about cherry eye and how to spot it early, Hello Ralphie can connect you with an online vet today.