Have you experienced the irritation of hot, itchy eyes, perhaps after a long flight in airplane air conditioning?
Well, this is just a fraction of the discomfort that some dogs suffer with a condition known as dry eye.
Dry eye, technically known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, or KCS, results from an absence of tears moisturizing the surface of the eye. Veterinary ophthalmologists estimate that around 13 percent of dogs suffer from KCS to some degree, which is far from rare.
I first met Molly when her family brought her in for a checkup. They had gone with a friend to view a litter of puppies. The breeder offered to sell them the mother, Molly, at a knock-down price.
Molly is a delightful, gentle soul, and I understand how they fell for her. However, I immediately had suspicions about why she was sold for such a low price: her eyes.
This poor, long-suffering dog had severe problems: in-turned eyelids rubbing on her cornea plus a bad case of dry eye. Her people thought the eyes “didn’t look right,” which is why they’d come to me.
With more than 1 in 10 dogs suffering from KCS, could your dog be like Molly? How would you know?
Look carefully at the eyes:
- A healthy eye is shiny, and the reflections are sharp and clear. However, a dry eye is dull and lacks luster, and reflections are broken and fuzzy.
- Again, a healthy eye may water, and it’s normal to have a blob of eye “gloop” in the inner corner. However, a dry eye has a glue-like discharge that gums up the eyelids and is difficult to wipe away.
- The white of a healthy eye is just that — white. Whereas in a dry eye, the whites look angry with a pink or red glow to them.
If your dog has these signs, speak with your veterinarian.
- Congenital Problems: Some dogs are born without the glands to produce tear fluid. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are especially prone to this.
- Large, Bulbous Eyes: These are those cute, baby-faced breeds such as pekingese and pugs. The eyes are so large that the eyelids can’t fully close, meaning the center of the eye is prone to drying out.
- Nerve Damage: Sometimes the nerve fails to tell the glands to produce tears, so they don’t. To check, look at the dog’s nose. It’s often dry on the affected side.
- Autoimmune Disease: This is the number 1 cause of dry eye, especially in German Shepherds and Cocker Spaniels. Here, the body’s immune system attacks the tear glands as something alien and shuts down tear production.
In the video below, Dr. Karen Becker, DVM, discusses dry eye:
Thankfully, dry eye is simple to diagnose.
With Molly, I ran a Schirmer tear test, a special piece of blotting paper hooked over her eyelid to soak up the tears. This is left in the eye for 1 minute and gives a reading of how much tear fluid is produced in that time.
Molly needed artificial tears to moisturize the eye and make it comfortable, and also an ointment to switch off the immune attack on her tear glands. (She also had an operation to correct her in-turned eyelids.)
At this point, I have to rave about how incredible tear fluid is. It’s so much more than weak salt water and contains antibacterial agents to fight bacteria, mucus to stick it to the surface of the eye and lipids (a type of fat) to reduce evaporation.
Until recently, artificial tears could not match this level of sophistication, which meant giving drops every hour or so. But a new tear replacement (Remend) is available that you put in twice a day — it’s much easier and better for your pet.
The good news is that veterinarians are ahead of human medics on this one. The treatments for dry eye in a dog are more advanced and sophisticated than those for this condition in people. It is an interesting quirk that, for this condition at least, your dog gets better treatment than you.
- “Obvious Ophthalmology: Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca.” Dr. David Williams. VetCPD. July 2014. 36.
- “Spontaneous Keratoconjunctivitis in Dogs: A Useful Model for Human KCCS.” Kaswan, Salisbury & Ward. Arch Ophthalamology, 107(8). 1210–1216.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Dec. 17, 2018.