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My Dog’s Eyes are Red and Swollen: Cherry Eye in Dogs

What is cherry eye?

Cherry eye (prolapse of the third eyelid) is an eye condition which is commonly seen in dogs, but can also occur in cats. Unlike humans, dogs and cats have three eyelids. The third eyelid is located in the inner corner of the eyes and is normally not visible. In animals with cherry eyes, the third eyelid “pops out” of its normal position – like little pink cherries, hence the name.

Approximately 33% of the tear is produced from the tear gland located inside the third eyelid which is normally held in place with strong fibrous tissue. But pets with cherry eyes are born with weaker fibrous tissue to hold down the tear glands and it’s unable to stay in the normal position. When this fibrous tissue loosens, the gland will “pop” out protruding through the third eyelid. Cherry eye is more common in some breeds such as Boston terrier, Cocker Spaniels, Bulldogs, Maltese and Beagles. There is a hereditary component to this disorder.

Cherry eye is not a life-threatening condition. However, when the sensitive tear gland tissue is no longer protected and is instead exposed to the outside environment of wind and dust, it causes secondary inflammation and discomfort to your pets. Pets with untreated cherry eyes are more likely to develop additional ophthalmic conditions such as dry eye, chronic conjunctivitis and ocular discharge.

How is cherry eye managed and treated?

When a cherry eye is first diagnosed, your veterinarian may offer a medical or surgical treatment option. In some young animals, mild cherry eye may be managed medically with a warm compress, gentle massage, an anti-inflammatory and an eye ointment. However, if the condition persists or recurs, then surgical intervention is indicated.

Surgical correction is usually the best treatment for a persistent or recurrent cherry eye. Cherry eye is not only an aesthetic problem but the prolapsed tear gland, with time, gets inflamed and irritated, creating a very uncomfortable and painful condition for your furbabies.

There are a few different surgical techniques to correct cherry eye and the type of procedure is often dependent on whether there are concurrent abnormalities (e.g. scrolling of the third eyelid cartilage that would otherwise make a particular technique less effective). In most simple cherry eye cases, surgery involves removal of a small portion of the conjunctiva. The conjunctiva is a thin layer covering the third eyelid. The incision is then sutured to push the gland back in an ideal position. It is pretty much like tucking the gland back into its original place – like zipping the gland back within a pocket. Complete surgical removal of the third eyelid gland is NOT often recommended as the gland is vital for normal tear production,

After the surgery, your pet will be sent home with pain medication which also controls the inflammation and an antibiotic eye ointment. It is crucial that they cannot scratch the eyes for the best prognosis, so they will also go home with an Elizabethan collar. It’s important to adhere to the post operative recheck to make sure that the operation site is healing well. Initially, the eye may appear more swollen than before the surgery! But the inflammation should reduce with time given proper post-operative care.

What are some possible complications?

When adequate aftercare is provided, the chance of recurrence is less than 10%. Breeds that are predisposed to this condition are more likely to relapse than other breeds, and may have concurrent underlying anatomical abnormalities such as a kink in the third eyelid cartilage. Depending on each individual patient’s needs, we may consider recommending referral to a veterinary eye specialist.