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Dry Eye (Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca) in Dogs

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca is a disorder of the tear glands that results in insufficient aqueous tear production and a correspondingly dry cornea. The tear film contains less of the aqueous layer and more of the mucus layer. In consequence, the classic sign of dry eye is a thick, stringy, mucoid to mucopurulent discharge.Since this type of discharge can also be seen with conjunctivitis, dogs with dry eye may be mistakenly treated for chronic conjunctivitis for long periods with little or no improvement.

In a dog with dry eye, the bright, glistening sheen normally seen in the eye is replaced by a lackluster appearance in which the cornea is dry, dull, and opaque. Recurrent bouts of conjunctivitis are typical. Eventually the cornea becomes ulcerated or develops keratitis. Blindness may ensue.

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Dry eye can have several causes. Immune-mediated diseases appear to play a major role. Other cases are idiopathic-that is, the cause is not known. Breeds predisposed to dry eye include Bulldogs, Cocker Spaniels, Lhasa Apsos, West Highland White Terriers, and others.

Some specific conditions that predispose a dog to dry eye include:

  • Injury to the nerves that innervate the lacrimal  glands. A branch of the facial nerve that activates the tear glands passes through the middle ear. Infections in the middle ear can damage this branch, affecting the tear glands as well as the muscles on that side of the face. In this case, the opposite eye is not affected.
  • Injury to the tear glands themselves. Partial or complete destruction of tear glands can follow systemic diseases such as canine distemper, Addison’s disease, and immune-mediated diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Bacterial blepharitis or conjunctivitis can destroy the tear glands or occlude the small ducts that carry the tears into the eye. A number of sulfonamide drugs are toxic to tear glands. Tear gland injuries may be partially reversible if the underlying cause is eliminated.
  • Congenital absence of the tear glands is rare, but may occur in the smaller breeds.
  • Removal of the third eyelid or the lacrimal gland attached to it.

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