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Dog Pawing at Its Eye? 5 Common Eye Problems in Dogs

By Kristonn Colborn, DVM and medically reviewed by JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
published: March 13, 2017 - updated: January 18, 2023 • 4 min. read
dog suffering from a common eye problem

Key Takeaways

  • Corneal ulcers are surface erosions and often occur from trauma.
  • Dry eye syndrome affects a dog’s tear production.
  • Many dogs get glaucoma due to poor fluid drainage in the eyes.
  • A prolapse of the third eyelid is called cherry eye.
  • Inward and outward rolling of eyelids in dogs is called entropion and ectropion.

Problems involving our furry friends’ eyes can progress quickly, and eye pain is one of the more unnoticed conditions. It can be so severe that, for the sake of your pet’s quality of life, you’ll want to get it treated as soon as possible. Eye conditions in dogs include cataracts, cherry eye, coloboma (hole in a part of the eye), corneal ulcers, glaucoma, progressive retinal atrophy, and dry eye. One common sign that your dog is having eye problems is frequent pawing at the eye.

Eye Problem Symptoms

Noticeable vision problems include blindness (running into things, not being able to see toys), redness (specifically “cherry eye”), squinting and acting uncomfortable in bright lights, and bumps or foreign matter on the eye. Not as easy to pinpoint, keratoconjunctivitis sicca (aka, dry eye) in dogs leads to excessive blinking, swollen blood vessels or eyelids, and discharge.

Here are the five most common eye conditions we see at the vet’s office:

1. Corneal ulcers

Corneal ulcers are surface erosions within the eye. Ulcers not only occur from trauma, but can also develop from hair or eyelashes scratching the eye, poor tear production, and high intra-ocular pressure.

Signs and symptoms include:

  • Visible surface damage
  • Your dog holding the eye partially closed due to pain
  • Excessive discharge or tearing from the eye

Many ulcers are not visible and will require fluorescent staining (also known as fluorescein eye stain) to be identified. The stain, which is green, will stick to ulcerated areas of the cornea, making the ulcers easy to identify.

2. Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS) “Dry Eye”

Tears lubricate the cornea and help to remove debris. KCS, however, impairs the amount of tear production, making eyes more prone to ulcers and ocular damage. Cocker spaniels, Boston Terriers, and Shih-Tzus are commonly affected by this condition.

Signs often include:

  • Painful, reddened eyes
  • Corneal ulceration
  • Excessive blinking or squinting
  • Possible discharge due to the lack of tears

Primary KCS, which is genetic, can be diagnosed with the Schirmer tear test, which measures tear production. To perform this test, the vet will place a test strip in the inner corner of the lower eyelid, close the dog’s eye, and hold the strip in place for one minute. A below-normal test result indicates KCS.

Significant improvements have been made in the treatment of dry eye. Instead of treating the symptoms with daily eye drops for your dog or cat, surgical options now exist to correct underlying issues for a permanent solution.


New Treatments for Eye Problems in Dogs

Parotid Duct Transposition (PDT) for Dry Eye: $3,000 to $5,000

(Learn more about how the Healthy Paws dog insurance plan pays on your actual veterinary bill and covers injuries, illnesses, emergencies, genetic conditions and much more!)

3. Glaucoma

Glaucoma is often a serious and challenging disease; about 40% of dogs will become blind in the affected eye within one year, and 50% are prone to developing the condition in the opposite eye. This is why intraocular pressure testing regularly with your vet is crucial!

Glaucoma is due to inappropriate fluid drainage, so pet parents usually don’t notice it until it’s become serious. When it is noticeable, signs of glaucoma include:

  • Eye pain
  • Redness
  • Cloudiness of the eye
  • Signs of vision loss

To learn more about glaucoma in dogs, read about Buddy Lee, in Happy Tails with Buddy, a Basset Hound’s story from glaucoma diagnosis to recovery.

4. Cherry Eye

Cherry eye is prolapse of the third eyelid, which appears as a swollen mass near the lower eyelid in the corner of the eye, closest to the nose. Treatment often involves surgery. If you suspect this in your pup, do not delay assessment by a veterinarian, as permanent damage to the tear gland can occur, which will lead to further eye problems for your dog.

5. Entropion and Ectropion

Entropion and ectropion are inward and outward rolling of eyelids in relation to the eye, respectively. Entropion often causes abrasions to the eye’s surface and typically requires surgery. Ectropion is well tolerated in many cases yet may need surgery in more complex cases. Saint Bernards with droopy lower eyelids are a good example of ectropion.

What should you do if you suspect eye problems in your pet?

  • Know your pet’s eyes. Take a good look at your pup’s eyes often, especially if their eyes are hiding behind hair! Also, have your vet take a peek at their eye health during regular visits.
  • On that note, keep hair on the face trimmed! Long strands can hide problems, or even be the cause of them.
  • Keep eyes clean. Note any discharge that occurs and clean tearing or buildup with water regularly.
  • Prevent eye injuries for blind dogs. If your pup has difficulty seeing, vision-proof your home at a dog’s level to prevent unexpected run-ins with sharp objects. Also, refrain from purchasing new furniture or rearranging your current furniture.
  • Don’t medicate without a veterinarian’s advice. “Can I treat or clean my pet’s eyes prior to seeing the vet?” The answer is no. Refrain from applying ointments or contact solutions to eyes because they can be damaging.
  • Watch for signs of pain. Always consider any obvious eye pain (squinting/holding eye shut) to be an emergency.

Throughout the year 2016 (the time of writing this article), Healthy Paws found that eye condition claims were the fourth most common problem seen at vet visits, and that they can range from $50 all the way to $5,000 for specialty surgeries and treatments. Luckily, many of these conditions are easily treatable if diagnosed early. Communicate well with your vet about concerns and follow through with recommendations to keep your pup’s eyes in good health!

How to Prevent Eye Problems

Not all eye conditions can be prevented, as they can be gestational or hereditary. Overall, though, good health can keep dogs’ eyes in working order longer. Follow your veterinarian’s recommendations on cleaning the area around your dog’s eyes. Last but certainly not least, schedule regular annual or biannual veterinary visits that can help your vet catch dog eye problems early on.

The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinarian advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical diagnosis, condition, or treatment options.

Kristonn Colborn, DVM, is a small animal and equine veterinarian in Bend, Oregon focusing in primary and emergency care. She graduated from the University of Florida with doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

kristonn colborn
By Kristonn Colborn, DVM

Kristonn Colborn, DVM, is a small animal and equine veterinarian in Bend, Oregon focusing in primary and emergency care. She graduated from the University of Florida with doctor of veterinary medicine degree. She has contributed to the Healthy Paws blog as a freelance and currently works as an emergency veterinarian.

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joanna pendergrass
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM

JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM, is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer in Atlanta, GA. After graduating from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine with her veterinary degree, JoAnna completed a 2-year research fellowship in neuroscience at Emory University. During this fellowship, she learned that she could make a career out of combining her loves of science and writing. As a medical writer, JoAnna is passionate about providing pet parents at Healthy Paws with clear, concise, and engaging information about pet care. Through her writing, she strives not only to educate pet parents, but also empower them to make good health decisions for their pets. JoAnna is a member of the American Medical Writers Association and Dog Writers Association of America.

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