Cherry eye is by definition a prolapse of the gland of the 3rd eyelid, which is also referred to as the Nictitans or Lacrimal (tear) gland. Some refer to this gland as the “Haws.” When the gland of the third eyelid pops out of position, it protrudes from the inner corner of the eye and looks like a pinkish-red colored mass. This prolapsed tear gland, also called the Lacrimal or Nictitans Gland is commonly called “cherry eye”. This condition can affect one or both eyes and is usually seen in young dogs, including Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apso’s, Shih-Tzu’s, Poodles, Beagles, and Bulldogs. Occasionally certain cat breeds including Burmese, may be affected.
Despite its appearance, cherry eye itself is not painful. However, the longer the tear gland is exposed, the more likely it is that it can become irritated and inflamed. If your dog rubs at his or her eye(s), the gland can bleed or become infected. Furthermore, the function of the tear gland, which is to produce tears, can become compromised if it is exposed for long periods of time.
The gland of the third eyelid plays an important role in maintaining normal tear production, and makes nearly half of the eyes tears. Dogs that have had the tear gland removed are predisposed to developing Dry Eye, referred to by vets as Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca later in life. Dry Eye is uncomfortable for pets, and requires the owner to give pricey topical eye medications several times a day for the remainder of the dogs life. Dry eye often leads to corneal ulcers, which are very painful for pets and costly for owners to treat.
Personally as a veterinarian, I have had better luck using a home remedy made of Norwegian Virgin Cod Liver Oil drops, a product called Clear Eyes, to keep the eyes moist, as opposed to other more expensive, traditional eye medications. I also teach pet owners how to gently massage the gland back into place. To avoid this condition, it is better to reposition the gland so it can continue to function normally, and not remove it.
The surgical procedures use to correct cherry eye by board certified veterinary ophthalmologists vary but a common procedure is called a “pocket technique”. Although the gland cannot be put back into its original position in the third eyelid, a new pocket is made near the original position. The tear gland is tucked inside the pocket and the pocket is sutured shut. Another commonly used procedure tacks the gland down to the orbital rim. Unfortunately, no surgical procedure is 100% effective, and occasionally additional surgery is needed. After surgery, the redness and inflammation can take up to 2 weeks to resolve.
Caution: Many vets simply remove or excise the gland because it is technically simpler, because they are uncomfortable with replacement procedures, and because they feel that they do not see Dry Eye as a result. I strongly recommend getting a 2nd opinion from a veterinary eye specialist, referred to as a Board Certified Veterinary Ophthalmologist. For a list of veterinary ophthalmologists in your area visit the visit the America Academy of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. Removing this gland is a mistake! Dry Eye (KCS) really does develop in nearly half of these dogs following surgical excision, anywhere from 6 months to 3 years later and life-long medication is a lot more complicated than the replacement procedures.
In dogs that have the gland tacked down and not removed up to 20% still develop Dry Eye, after surgery. A small percent of dogs affected with Cherry Eye, about 5% eventually develop Dry Eye in their “normal” eye and research indicates that dogs with a tendency for “cherry eye” are at a higher risk for Dry Eye than others.