'Cherry eye' or canine nictitans gland prolapse, leads to a rather unpleasant looking but rarely painful condition which affects a small number of dogs at some point of their lives. It is generally considered to be a congenital defect, which causes the dog's third eyelid, or nictitans gland, to prolapse from its correct place out of sight in the corner of the eye, and protrude over the visible portion of the eyeball. It is thought that the condition is caused due to inherited genetic traits that lead to weakness in the connective tissue which should hold the gland in place, and causes the gland to shift position and appear in the inside corner of the eye of affected dogs.
The visible appearance of cherry eye involves a red mass showing in the inner corner of the eye near the nose, in the area of the tear duct. Often this protrusion signifies the full extent of the condition, but it can potentially lead to the gland becoming inflamed and irritated, leading to the risk of infection. Cherry eye problems can sometimes produce a mucky discharge as well.
Theoretically, any breed or type of dog can get cherry eye, although it is thought to have hereditary causes and so usually involves a genetic predisposition to the problem. Some breeds are considered to be more susceptible to its development than others, including the Bulldog, Boston Terrier, Bull Terrier, Lhasa Apso, Cocker Spaniel, St. Bernard, Shar-pei, Shih Tzu and Poodle.
Generally, dogs that are prone to contracting cherry eye will do so while still young. Cherry eye can occur in one or both eyes simultaneously, and a dog which has contracted cherry eye in one eye will often go on to have the condition repeated in the other eye too. Cherry eye is not contagious to other dogs or people.
Cherry eye is usually fairly straightforward to identify and diagnose, and is confirmed by means of a simple physical examination of the dog by your vet. Cherry eye can often develop very quickly, sometimes literally overnight, and can look very alarming to the owner when discovered. While the bright red protrusion of the gland is often mistaken for a tumour, it is simply an inflamed gland and is not cancerous or malignant.
While cherry eye in and of itself is not dangerous, it can lead to secondary problems and complications if left untreated, and so the issue should be addressed as quickly as possible. When the glandular tissue is on the outside of the eye and not protected, it is more susceptible to irritation, infection and damage.
Depending on the extent of the protrusion, the dog's previous history with cherry eye and their age and general health, your vet may attempt to correct the problem with anti inflammatory medications, topical antibiotics and manual massage to encourage the gland to return to its correct location. This non invasive form of treatment is not always effective for all dogs, however, and there is a relatively high level of recurrence in dogs that are treated in this way.
Some owners of dogs prone to cherry eye report success with treating the problem at home, by means of carefully massaging the closed eye gently while lightly pushing the 'cherry' inwards towards the dog's nose, in an attempt to cause the gland to pop back into its rightful place. It is thought that regular gentle massage of the affected eye can lead to a strengthening of the connective muscle tissue that holds the gland into place and reduce the likelihood of future recurrences, hence its popularity with some owners. Several massage sessions may be needed in order to reposition the tear gland correctly, and the recurrence rate of cherry eye treated in this manner is relatively high. Remember that dogs' eyes are delicate, and you could easily cause damage to the eye ball or exacerbate the existing problem by interfering with a cherry eye protrusion, so home treatment is not a solution that is suitable or recommended for everyone.
The other option for correction and generally the most widely recommended long term treatment method is surgery.
Total removal of the affected tear gland can solve the problem, but can lead to the development of a condition called 'dry eye' in the dog, as the nictitans gland is responsible for about a third of the dog's total tear duct production. Dogs which have their tear gland removed will generally need to be treated with eye drops or lubricating gels on a daily basis for the rest of their lives. Removal of the tear gland can also lead to a condition known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, an eye disease associated with dry eyes and insufficient lubrication, which can be painful for your pet.
Surgical repositioning of the tear gland is currently the preferred method of fixing cherry eye and preventing recurrence. Several different surgical techniques and positioning options are available, depending on the age and breed of the dog, their facial structure, cosmetic concerns and the perceived likelihood of recurrence. This method of surgical intervention aims to leave the tear gland intact and secure it in such a way that a secondary prolapse will not occur, as well as maintaining full usage of the tear production function of the gland and negating the need for ongoing external lubrication of the eye and any associated secondary problems.
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