How to Treat Cherry Eye in Dogs

Cherry eye in dogs
Joel Mills / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Cherry eye can affect any dog but some are more likely than others to develop it. This condition can appear in just one or both eyes of a dog and it's helpful for a dog owner to know what breeds may be predisposed to it as well as how it is recognized.

What is Cherry Eye?

Many animals, including dogs, have a 'third eyelid', technically called a nictitating membrane. This membrane serves not only as an additional protective layer for your dog's eye but it also contains a tear gland vital in tear production. Ligaments keep the tear gland tacked securely under the eyelid but when those ligaments break down the gland can prolapse, or 'pop out'. When this happens it will look like your dog has a tiny little cherry in the inner corner of their eye. This condition, as you may have deduced, is called 'cherry eye'. Cherry eye can be transient, meaning it comes and goes, or constant. It can also be in one or both eyes, although just under half of dogs with a cherry eye in one eye will develop in the other eye.

Signs of Cherry Eye in Dogs

Signs of Cherry Eye

  • Pink bulge in the corner of the eye
  • Pawing or rubbing at the eye
  • Unable to close eye

A dog with a cherry eye will have a pink or red bulge that appears to be coming out of the inner corner of the eye. This bulge won't be bleeding and is not painful but is usually pretty obvious to an owner. Sometimes the bulge will come and go but other times the cherry eye will be out permanently until veterinary care is received. Aside from this obvious pink bulge in the eye though, other problems and symptoms that your veterinarian may see in a dog with a cherry eye include dry eye, corneal ulcers, irritation, and inflammation of the cornea. These conditions then cause a dog to paw at or rub its eyes.

Dry eye develops due to a lack of tear production and since the third eyelid is responsible for making tears, if it is inflamed and not providing enough tears, the eye will not be properly lubricated. This can then also cause irritation, inflammation, and even ulcers on the eye, especially if a dog paws at it or rubs it on the ground. If a cherry eye is large enough, it may also make it difficult or impossible for a dog to completely close its eyes. This can also be a contributing factor for dry eye if the eye is kept partially open at all times.

Causes of Cherry Eye in Dogs

Professionals don't fully understand what causes the ligaments to break down and cause a dog to develop cherry eye but there are certain breeds that are more prone to it than others. These breeds include American Cocker Spaniels, Shih Tzus, Beagles, Lhasa Apsos, Pekingese, Maltese, Bassett Hounds, Rottweilers, Neapolitan Mastiffs, Shar-Peis, Boston Terriers, St. Bernards, and English Bulldogs. The condition is more commonly seen in dogs that are 2 years of age or younger but can develop at any age.

Treatment of Cherry Eye in Dogs

There are some at-home remedies you can try to temporarily get the tear gland to go back below your dog's eyelid. Usually these involve warm compresses and gentle massage. Unfortunately, even if this keeps the tear gland down for weeks to months, the only curative therapy is surgical. In previous years a veterinarian would simply excise, or cut out the offending prolapsed tear gland, but it was quickly realized that by doing this the dog would not be able to make adequate tears in that eye. Dogs that have the tear gland removed completely are put on artificial tears for life to prevent dry eye and ocular irritation. A more modern surgical approach is to tack the gland back down below the eyelid. The downside of this method is that there is still a risk of re-prolapse but it still remains the more popular of the two surgical methods since the risk of re-prolapse is less than the risk of chronic dry eye from completely removing the gland. If your dog does have surgery to replace the tear gland and it re-prolapses, your vet may recommend the gland removal method versus trying to replace it again.

Unfortunately, surgery can only be pursued if the the tear gland is actively prolapsed. If your dog's cherry eye is transient your vet may opt to wait until it's more consistently out.

Various medications, both oral and ocular, may be prescribed to help manage pain and inflammation as well as prevent infection but an E-collar should also be worn until the eye has completely healed. This will help prevent damage to the surgical site. Tear production may also be monitored when your dog's eye is rechecked after surgery to ensure the replaced gland is still adequately producing enough tears and your dog doesn't have dry eye.

How to Prevent Cherry Eye in Dogs

Since we don't quite know what causes the breakdown of the ligaments securing your dog's nictitating membrane down, we don't quite know how to prevent it. The higher incidence in certain breeds, though, suggests a genetic component. If you're looking at purchasing a puppy that is a susceptible breed, you can contact breeders and ask them about the frequency of cherry eye in the breeding lines. This may diminish the likelihood that you will pick a puppy that develops cherry eye. However, it's always possible for a dog to have cherry eye with no incidence in their parentage. Despite not having a definite way to prevent cherry eye in your dog, if they do develop it, rest assured that it is not a life threatening condition and can be managed with surgery and medications.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
Originally written by
Adrienne Kruzer
Adrienne Kruzer, RVT, LVT
Adrienne Kruzer is a veterinary technician with over 15 years of experience caring for domestic and exotic animals. She is a frequent contributor to The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America Journal and is trained as a Fear Free Certified Professional to prevent and alleviate fear, anxiety, and stress in pets.
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