Do you find yourself looking over to gaze into the windows of your dog’s soul, only to find your view interrupted by a claggy film of eye bogies? Do you find the view into your pooch’s eyes is less crystal-clear glass but instead more closely resembles that of a frosted window that’s been targeted by malicious seagulls? Have you made more visits to your vet in the past 12 months for eye problems than you have had good nights out with friends? Could your specialist subject on Mastermind be the types of eye ointments and drops available for animals?

If this is ringing a church sized bell then things could be pointing towards your 4-legged friend having a condition known as ‘dry eye’. However, even if you are only hearing the faintest distant doorbell of similarities from the questions above, don’t ignore it as it could still be ‘dry eye’.

But what is this condition that your dog could have and what can you do about it?

What is dry eye?

Dry eye (also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca) is a painful condition which occurs when dogs stop producing tears or produce less tears than normal in one or both eyes. 

But why is this such a problem for the dogs that develop this condition? The answer is that tears are so much more than the by-product of stubbing your toe on the coffee table or reaching the end of a feel-good-movie. Tears actually play a vital role in protecting the surface of the eye. 

Without this protection, most dogs with dry eye will develop periodic eye infections (conjunctivitis). With time, the surface of the eye becomes cloudy, thicker and less transparent, which will reduce your dog’s vision. Dry eye also predisposes dogs to corneal ulcers (these are craters in the surface of the eye) which if left untreated can result in the eye rupturing. Diagnosis and treatment are essential as if left untreated, dry eye will result in blindness and possibly loss of the eye itself. 

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Dry eye can affect any breed of dog, but certain breeds are more commonly affected:

  • Shih Tzu
  • West Highland White Terrier
  • Pug
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Bulldog

What causes it?

There are known to be multiple causes of dry eye. The most common is caused by the immune system inappropriately attacking the dog’s tear glands. 

Other less common causes include: 

  • Issues with the nerves controlling the tear glands
  • Side effects of certain medications
  • Certain hormonal conditions including hypothyroidism
  • Trauma

The end result of all these causes is the same – no tears or fewer tears are produced by the tear glands. Left untreated, dry eye typically gets worse over time.  

What are the symptoms?

Possible symptoms include:

  • Sticky eyes
  • Thick yellow/green discharge associated with the eyes
  • Red eyes
  • Cloudy eyes
  • Frequent eye ulcers or eye infections
  • Pawing/rubbing at the eyes

How is it diagnosed?

Your vet will perform a Schirmer Tear Test to measure the tear production from each eye. A paper strip is inserted under the eyelid, which changes colour as the tears are absorbed into the paper. The amount of tears produced over 60 seconds is measured. Dogs with dry eye will produce fewer than normal or no tears over 60 seconds. 

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If your dog has an eye infection or ulcer, this can artificially increase tear production. In these situations, it may be necessary to measure tear production once any infections/ulceration has been treated to ensure an accurate result. 

How is it treated?

Unfortunately, there is no quick one-off medical cure for dry eye. Lifelong treatment is needed in all cases. Treatment options may include:

  1. Medications to stimulate your dog to produce more tears

Medications are available which help increase tear production. Unfortunately, they do not work in all dogs, particularly if the tear gland has been severely damaged. 

Cyclosporin eye drops/ointment is effective in approximately 75-85% of dogs affected by dry eye. It helps increase tear production and reduce inflammation. It is typically given twice daily and can take several weeks for a full response to be seen.

If cyclosporin is not effective, an alternative medication (for example Tacrolimus) may be considered to stimulate tear production. 

  1. Artificial tears

Artificial tears are often used to lubricate the surface of the eyes and help replace the tears your dog does not make themselves. They are applied multiple times daily to keep the eyes as moist as possible. They are often used alongside tear stimulation medications.

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  1. Treatment for infections or eye ulcers

Tears play an essential role in prevention of eye ulcers and infections, meaning that dogs suffering from dry eye may be more at risk of these conditions even with treatments for dry eye in place. Specific treatments including antibiotic eye drops may be needed if ulcers or infections develop. 

  1. Surgery

In a small number of cases medical treatment is not effective in managing the condition and surgical intervention is sometimes considered. “Parotid duct transposition” involves redirecting the tube from the parotid salivary gland under the eye from the mouth to the eye. This allows saliva to lubricate the eye instead of tears. This isn’t a standard approach and isn’t needed in the majority of dry eye cases, but can be useful as a last resort where other treatments have failed. The most common “side effect” is that your dog “cries” at dinner time!

Don’t let your dog go on suffering with dry eyes. Speak to your vet today and see if a quick test should be the first step to getting those eyes watering again.

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