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What is Cherry Eye in Dogs, and is it Serious?

Dog with pink red cherry eye in inner eye corner

We all know how much our dogs rely on all their basic senses to explore, navigate, and enjoy their family and their world. There’s no greater feeling than seeing those tails wagging as soon as they see us come into their view. When it comes to our dogs’ vision, it’s especially important to take steps when needed to ensure the continued health of their eyes. What is cherry eye and is it serious?

As the name implies, cherry eye looks like a cherry pit in the corner of your dog’s eye. While the appearance of the condition in your canine baby can be disturbing, the good news is that it’s a treatable condition that occurs most commonly in young dogs.

Let’s explain what cherry eye is, discuss its level of severity, and review what treatments are available if your pup develops this condition.

Table of contents 

Understanding your dog’s eyes 

Our beloved canine friends have many unique traits. One of the lesser-known traits is that all dog breeds have nictitating membranes, or an extra third eyelid located inside the lower eyelid. 

The third eyelid serves as a protective layer for the eye, especially during hunting and fighting, which dogs would naturally be doing in the wild. Since our dogs like to crash around and play when they’re younger (and maybe even when they’re older!), they rely on these third eyelids to provide valuable extra protection for their eyes. 

The third eyelid also contains a special tear gland, which supplies much-needed moisture to the eye by producing a significant portion of the eye’s protective tear film. Ligaments are present to keep this tear gland attached under the eyelid. 

How cherry eye develops 

Cherry eye develops when the ligaments that hold the tear gland in place under the eyelid become stretched or torn. When the strength of these ligaments is compromised, the gland prolapses or pops out from under the lower eyelid.    

Signs and symptoms of cherry eye 

A prolapsed third eyelid gland produces a noticeable pink to red bulge or swollen mass in the inner corner of the eye on the lower eyelid, taking the appearance of a cherry. Cherry eye can impact one or both eyes simultaneously, and may vary in size. The mass may be large and cover a significant portion of the cornea, or be small and appear only occasionally. The node doesn’t bleed and is not believed to be painful despite its pronounced appearance. 

In addition to the bulge in the corner of the eye, dogs can experience the following symptoms: 

  • Irritated or dry eyes 
  • Corneal inflammation or ulcers 
  • Thick discharge 
  • Repeated attempts to paw the eye 
  • Inability to close the eye 

The bulge can disappear on its own, or it can remain present until a veterinarian intervenes. It is also possible for the condition to reoccur.  

Is my dog predisposed to cherry eye? 

Cherry eye is more common in dogs two years of age or younger, but it can develop at any age. While veterinarians don’t know the exact cause, some dog breeds are more prone to it than others. 

These breeds include: 

  • American Cocker Spaniels 
  • Shih Tzus 
  • Beagles 
  • Lhasa Apsos 
  • Pekingese 
  • Maltese 
  • Bassett Hounds 
  • Rottweilers 
  • Neapolitan Mastiffs 
  • Shar-Peis 
  • Boston Terriers 
  • St. Bernards 
  • English Bulldogs and other brachycephalic breeds with smooshed faces and short limbs 
  • Newfoundlands 

If your pup is one of these breeds, it’s helpful to be aware of their cherry eye predisposition so that you are prepared to seek appropriate treatment from your veterinarian if the need arises. 

Is cherry eye serious? 

Cherry eye can lead to serious vision issues if left untreated for very long. The third eyelid gland produces as much as half of the watery portion of the tear film in your dog’s eyes. With a prolapsed tear gland, your dog’s eye is not moisturized adequately. When the eye becomes dry for an extended period of time, corneal ulcers can develop, resulting in infection and even loss of vision. 

A prolapsed third eyelid gland also obstructs the normal movement of the eyelid across the cornea and tends to become inflamed and irritated. This can lead to irritation of the eye and secondary infections. 

Treating cherry eye 

Some canine parents try at-home remedies to get the tear gland back below the eyelid. Usually, this is attempted using warm compresses and gentle massage. Unfortunately, even if these at-home remedies keep the tear gland back down under the eyelid for a few weeks or months, the tear gland is likely to pop back out again. 

The only curative treatment for cherry eye is surgery to replace the third eyelid gland. It is important to schedule surgery as soon as possible to minimize permanent damage to the eye or the third eyelid. 

In severe cases where surgically replacing the gland wasn’t successful, your veterinarian may recommend surgical removal of the gland. Unfortunately, removing the tear gland results in a permanent deficit of moisture in the affected eye. In these cases, the dog will require supplemental eye drops for the rest of its life to keep the eye moist and prevent infection. With this, tear gland replacement surgery is often the preferred treatment method for the condition as opposed to gland removal. 

If you notice cherry eye in your pup, immediately make an appointment with your veterinarian. Getting early treatment for the condition can increase the chances of positive long-term eye health for your dog. In some cases, you may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist. These eye specialists treat many patients with cherry eye and have a higher level of expertise in this area. A veterinary ophthalmologist will also treat any other eye diseases that may develop as a result. 

Will my dog be okay? 

According to experts at VCA Animal Hospitals, the replaced tear gland typically returns to normal function within a few weeks of surgery. A relatively small number of dogs who have experienced cherry eye and replacement surgery will also experience a re-prolapse and require additional surgery. Additionally, many pups who have experienced cherry eye in one eye are likely to develop the condition in the opposite eye eventually.  

While no pet parent wants their furry friend to have to undergo a surgical procedure, the good news is that cherry is not life-threatening. The prognosis for a pup with this condition is optimistic! 

Can I prevent my dog from developing cherry eye? 

Unfortunately, no. All dogs can get cherry eye. As previously mentioned, some breeds are more prone to developing cherry eye than others. While you can consult breeders about the prevalence of cherry eye in a puppy’s lineage to attempt to limit you pup’s chances of any genetic predisposition, this isn’t a guarantee. 

The best thing pet parents can do to help their dogs with cherry eye is to be able to recognize the issue and understand the dangers and importance of seeking veterinary care. 

Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an education resource only and is not a substitute for expert professional care.