Cherry Eye in Dogs

Cherry eye in dogs, known scientifically as a prolapse of the third eyelid gland, is a treatable condition that occurs most commonly in young dogs. Read on to learn about the symptoms and causes of cherry eye and what you can do to help manage this common ophthalmic condition.

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What is Cherry Eye in dogs?

Cherry eye is the common name for the medical condition of the prolapsed third eyelid or nictitating membrane. The nictitating membrane is a tissue that secretes tears and is normally hidden in the corner of a dog’s eye. However, a dog with cherry eye has this membrane grow and protrude from the eye, which will look like a pink bulge that is easily visible in the corner of its eye. Cherry eye commonly causes dry eye and irritation, so it’s important to see a veterinarian to prevent more severe health issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Cherry Eye in Dogs

Signs and symptoms of cherry eye in dogs usually include the classic “cherry pit” appearance. Cherry eye is located in the corner of your dog’s eye nearest the nose, and it’s fairly unmistakable. This swelling may come and go, but often permanently prolapses, which can lead to complications if left untreated.

There are a few symptoms to look out for, including:

  • A smooth, round, red or pink mass (“cherry pit”) in the corner of the eye

  • Thick discharge

  • Attempts to paw at the eye

Other conditions can also cause these symptoms, and some are serious, like trauma to the eye or a foreign body, which can lead to loss of vision or even loss of the eye itself. It is always a good idea to contact your veterinarian if you notice anything unusual about your dog’s eyes. The sooner you get your dog in for a visit, the better the prognosis.

What Causes Cherry Eye in Dogs?

Cherry eye usually occurs in dogs under one year old. The condition arises when the small ligament that holds the third eyelid gland in place either stretches or breaks. Veterinarians are not entirely sure why this happens, treatment almost always requires surgery.

Common causes include:

  • Stretched or broken ligament

  • Breed predisposition

Cherry eye can affect one or both eyes. Some breeds of dogs are more predisposed to developing cherry eye, such as American Cocker Spaniels, Beagles, Basset Hounds, Lhasa Apsos, English Bulldogs, the Chinese Shar-pei, and Newfoundlands, as are Burmese cats. If you own a young dog from this list or plan to breed a predisposed breed, make sure you are familiar with the symptoms of cherry eye.

Diagnosing Cherry Eye in Dogs

Your veterinarian will diagnose cherry eye by examining your dog’s eyes. Diagnosis is based on the clinical appearance of cherry eye, especially in young dogs and certain breeds. Your veterinarian may also perform a series of diagnostics to establish the overall health of the eye.

An exposed third eyelid gland can lower your dog’s tear production. Your veterinarian may choose to perform a Schirmer tear test to measure your dog’s tear production to make sure your dog does not have dry eye. He or she may also recommend a fluorescein stain test to check for scratches on the cornea. Corneal scratches are not only painful, but can lead to ulceration, infection, and perforation if left untreated.

How to treat Cherry Eye in dogs

In most cases, surgery will treat cherry eye. There are several surgical techniques for replacing the third eyelid gland behind the third eyelid. Your veterinarian will discuss their plan for treatment with you at your visit. In some cases, you may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmology specialist. These specialists see various types of cherry eye and will also be able to treat any other ophthalmic conditions your dog may develop.

In severe cases where the replacement techniques fail or a gland has been prolapsed for a long time and is no longer functional, your veterinarian may advise surgical removal of the gland. This is considered a last resort, however, as it has lasting consequences for tear production.

Is there a cure for Cherry Eye in dogs?

The cure for cherry eye in dogs is surgery. Most glands remain in place after surgical replacement, but surgery doesn’t guarantee complete success. In some cases, a second revision surgery may be needed. Success rates are highest when surgery is performed shortly after the initial prolapse because the gland has not had a chance to grow inflamed and enlarged. That’s why it’s essential for your dog to see a veterinarian as soon as possible.

Is Cherry Eye Contagious for Humans or Other Pets?

Cherry eye is not contagious to humans or other pets. The condition is not caused by a contagion and cannot be passed from one animal to another. However, breeders may wish to consult with their veterinarians if a potential breeding dog has a history of cherry eye to avoid passing the condition on to offspring.

What Is the Cost of Treating Cherry Eye in dogs?

The cost of treating cherry eye in dogs depends on several factors. For instance, bilateral cherry eye repair (cherry eye in both eyes) will cost more to treat than a single prolapsed gland. If your dog needs repeat cherry eye replacement surgery, you will have to pay for both operations. The size of your dog also plays a role in determining the cost of surgery. Larger dogs typically require larger doses of medication, which can add up over the course of surgery and recovery.

Where you get your dog’s cherry eye surgery performed also plays a role. Board certified veterinary ophthalmologist specialists may charge more for surgery than a general practitioner, but you are also paying for their expertise.

Expect your dog’s cherry eye surgery to run anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Keep in mind that without treatment, your dog has an almost 50% chance of developing dry eye, which can lead to equally expensive—if not more so—treatments and complications.

Recovery and Management of Cherry Eye in dogs

As your dog recovers from cherry eye after surgery, you can expect taking your dog to several follow-up visits to the veterinarian to check on the incision and suture sites. In the meantime, your dog will have to wear an Elizabethan Collar, also known as E-collars, until healing is complete (usually 14 days). While this can be frustrating, especially for young dogs with high energy levels, these cone-shaped collars are extremely important to protect your dog from damaging or irritating the surgery site, reducing risk of infection and increasing the odds of a successful recovery.

Cherry eye surgery is minimally invasive, but your veterinarian will most likely prescribe pain medication to keep your dog comfortable. They will also discuss any warning signs to watch out for as your dog recovers and go over any potential medication contraindications or side effects.

The third eyelid gland produces about 35% of your dog’s watery tears. Prolapsed eyelid glands become less functional over time, which can lead to dry eye. Dry eye in dogs is a potentially dangerous condition that can cause ulcers, infection, and even perforation of the eye itself. Surgically treating your dog’s cherry eye lowers the risk of developing dry eye, but does not eliminate it. Dogs that have had prolapsed third eyelid glands should be monitored for the rest of their lives for dry eye, which can develop many years after treatment.

How to prevent Cherry Eye in dogs

Cherry eye in dogs is unpreventable. However, if you know that your dog’s breed is predisposed to developing cherry eye, get in the habit of regularly looking at your dog’s eyes for signs of irritation, redness, or unusual swelling. The breeds of dogs predisposed to cherry eye also tend to be predisposed to other ocular conditions like entropion, distichia, and dry eye. Regular observation of your dog’s eye could help you catch another condition even if your dog never develops cherry eye.

Is there a vaccine for cherry eye in dogs?

Since cherry eye is not an infectious disease, there is no vaccine.

Summary of Cherry Eye in dogs

Cherry eye in dogs is a prolapse of the third eyelid gland. It occurs most commonly in young dogs, and some breeds are predisposed to developing it. The swelling may come and go, but can lead to complications if left untreated. While Cherry Eye cannot be prevented, it’s treatable with surgery, and the prognosis is best when it’s caught early.

Our medical experts

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