What to Know About Cherry Eye in Dogs

Medically Reviewed by Amy Flowers, DVM on December 06, 2021
4 min read

Cherry eye is a common condition in some breeds. Your dog will likely need surgery to prevent lasting damage.

Dogs have a third eyelid called a nictitating membrane, which protects the eye. Inside the membrane is a gland called the nictitans gland that produces tears, which lubricate the eye. Normally, you can’t see this gland, as it’s located deep inside the eye, surrounded by cartilage.

Cherry eye happens when this gland thickens, slips out of place, and then sticks out of the membrane. This causes a swollen, red or pink lump in the lower eyelid, which looks a bit like a cherry. The medical term for cherry eye is prolapsed nictitating gland. 

It’s not exactly clear what causes a cherry eye in dogs, but it’s thought to be from weak fibers. The gland is held in place by connective tissue. If these fibers are weak, the gland easily slips out of place and sticks out. Some breeds tend to develop cherry eye more often than others, which is likely caused by genetically weak eye structures. It’s also more common in puppies and young dogs.

Cherry eye is most common in:

Brachycephalic breeds, which have short limbs and "squashed" faces are more likely to get cherry eye. 

In some cases, cherry eye in dogs might also be caused by environmental allergies. This is because allergens can cause an immune system reaction that leads to an increase of cells in the gland. The gland swells, which causes it to slip and bulge out from the eye. 

The main symptom of cherry eye is a pink or red lump of tissue in your dog’s eye near the lower eyelid. Other symptoms of cherry eye in dogs can include:

When the gland is moved out of place, blood doesn’t circulate properly, which leads to swelling in the gland itself and a lack of tear production. The gland can also become infected

The cherry eye can be large and cover most of your dog’s eye, or it might be small and only appear once in a while. It doesn’t usually hurt, but your dog might rub the area, irritate it, and make it bleed.

Cherry eye requires surgery to reposition the gland. In the past, vets simply removed it, but studies show the eye doesn’t make enough tears without the gland. Without tears, your dog will get dry eye, called keratoconjunctivitis sicca, which can lead to serious vision problems

Your vet will try to correct the gland’s position using different surgical techniques. These include:

Tacking. This is where the gland is repositioned and stitched to the connective tissue around the eye to hold it in place. 

Imbrication. Also called an envelope or pocket technique, this is a case where tissue above the gland is removed. The gland is then covered with the mucous membrane and stitched closed like a pocket to push the gland back into place.  

Depending on the severity of the cherry eye, your vet might use both of these techniques together for the best results. 

While complications of cherry eye surgery are uncommon, there are always possible risks. These include:

  • Eye injury and damage
  • Loose stitches that come undone
  • Inflammation
  • Swelling 

Some swelling, inflammation, and pain is normal after surgery and should go away within a week. 

In some cases, though, the cherry eye can come back again and might need another surgery. It’s common to have a cherry eye treated in one eye and then eventually observe it in the other eye, too. 

If your dog has a severe case of cherry eye - the mass returns or the gland stops working - the gland might need to be removed. In this case, your dog will get dry eye and will need daily medication to help with lubrication. Without medication, the eye will become irritated and uncomfortable, which can lead to blindness.

Since cherry eye is caused by genetically weak tissue, there’s no way to prevent it. With treatment, though, the gland usually goes back to normal function within a couple weeks of surgery. 

If the cherry eye is left untreated, the mass and eyelid will become irritated, inflamed, and possibly infected, which could lead to lasting damage. If you observe cherry eye in a dog, it needs treatment right away. Talk to your vet.