Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Understanding why dogs scratch their eyes is important so as to recognize early signs of trouble that require prompt veterinary attention.
Something of primary importance is recognizing that eye problems in dogs are something not to take lightly. There are certain cases where dogs can lose their eyesight in as little as under 24 hours.
In this article, veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec, a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia, will discuss:
- why eye problems in dogs are difficult to spot
- ten common reasons for dogs scratching their eyes
- the importance of seeing the vet promptly when dogs develop eye problems
10 Reasons Your Dog Is Scratching Their Eyes
Here's the thing: Eye problems in companion dogs are hard to spot. Plus, dogs are very good at hiding pain.
Therefore, as a pet owner, you need to be on the lookout for some telltale signs of trouble, like repeatedly scratching the eyes.
So, why do dogs scratch their eyes? Well, there are several reasons, and in this article, we will cover each possible scenario. We will therefore go into detail on the most common causes, symptoms, and treatments. Let’s start.
1. Eye Gunk
The first scenario on our list is eye gunks, and as you might have guessed, they are a perfectly normal issue (we all have eye gunks from time to time).
Same as people, dogs are more likely to have eye gunk after waking up.
Since we do not consider eye gunks a medical issue, there is no need for treatment. All you need to do is remove them as their presence can be uncomfortable (and impair the dog's vision if the gunks are large).
When removing eye gunks, you can use a sterile gauze dabbed in saline (warming up the saline beforehand is helpful if the gunks are large and sticky).
Blepharitis is the fancy medical term for eyelid inflammation which may be due to a primary bacterial infection or may be secondary to an underlying condition.
Blepharitis manifests with visual changes in the eyelids, including intense swelling, redness, and scabbing.
Blepharitis can stem from bacterial infections, parasites (external or insect bites), or systemic conditions such as hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid gland).
Although there are many potential culprits, the most common cause of blepharitis in dogs is demodectic mange.
Demodectic mange is a skin condition caused by the Demodex parasite, which causes skin lesions in different parts of the body, but almost always affects the area around the eyes.
Demodex mites are normal inhabitants of the hair follicles and are not usually problematic, but their population can overgrow in young puppies and sick or elderly dogs.
In such cases, the treatment has two goals: management and tackling the mange.
Managing the eyelid inflammation, which includes topical antibiotics, anti-inflammatory agents, eye solutions, and regular cleaning of the eyes with saline-dabbed gauzes.
Resolving the invading Demodex following specific protocols involving anti-parasitic medications in the forms of spot-on treatments, chews, injections, or combinations).
Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the conjunctiva membrane (the membrane that lines the inside of the eyelids and the surface of the eyeball).
Conjunctivitis manifests in dogs with excessive eye scratching, reddening of the eye, and discharge.
Symptoms include redness, discharge which, in some cases, can be clear or yellowish-green and crusting on the eyelids. Affected dogs may blink, squint slightly or paw at and rub their eyes.
Dogs with conjunctivitis need to be seen by a vet immediately because the inflammation can progress and, in severe cases, even cause permanent eye damage.
The treatment varies based on the exact underlying condition. Usually, conjunctivitis treatment involves eye drops and regular cleaning of the eye (with sterile eye solutions).
Keratitis is another inflammatory condition. In this case, we're talking about an inflammation of the cornea which results in the clouding of the eye, itching, increased tearing, photosensitivity, and protrusion of the third eyelid.
This condition can have several causes such as the presence of bacteria and fungi which contaminate the eyes, the presence of a corneal ulcer that is left untreated, a result of the eye’s blood vessels and connective tissues growing into its deeper interior layers.
Keratitis is a serious condition that requires immediate veterinary attention. If left untreated, the eye changes will progress, eventually causing blindness.
5. Corneal Ulcers
Corneal ulcers are defined as wounds (when the uppermost layer of the cornea is damaged, causing a defect). Corneal ulcers can be the result of mechanical trauma and systemic diseases (like diabetes, hypothyroidism, or Addison's disease).
Corneal ulcers are extremely painful and manifest with excessive itching and scratching of the affected eye, light intolerance (photophobia), and increased tearing. A dog with a corneal ulcer will keep its eye closed most of the time.
Dogs with these signs and symptoms need to see a vet as soon as possible. Corneal ulcers are a severe issue and tend to progress really quickly. Unless managed in a timely manner, they can cause permanent damage and result in eye loss.
After confirming the diagnosis (based on a fluorescein test), the veterinarian will suggest the right treatment strategy. The treatment may rely on topical antibiotics or surgery, depending on the severity of the corneal wound.
Glaucoma is a serious eye disease in which there is an abnormal increase in the pressure inside the eye (intraocular pressure). Glaucoma can develop due to increased water production inside the eye or inadequate drainage.
There are two types of glaucoma in dogs:
- Primary glaucoma occurs in otherwise healthy eyes and is more common among certain breeds such as Akitas, Dalmatians, Beagles, Samoyeds, Schnauzers, Basset Hounds, Italian Greyhounds, Spaniels, Retrievers, etc.
- Secondary glaucoma is the result of eye diseases or injuries like lens damage, lens dislocation, uveitis, tumors, and intraocular bleeding.
Glaucoma is an excruciating condition and almost always causes scratching of the eyes. The treatment can be medical (lifelong use of topical solutions) or surgical.
Sometimes, the two approaches can be combined. Untreated glaucoma will progress and eventually result in eye loss.
Entropion is a congenital disorder in which the eyelid is abnormally rolled inward. It can affect one (unilateral) or both (bilateral) eyes and the lower eyelid, upper eyelid, or both.
As a result, the eyelashes rub the eye causing constant irritation (redness and weeping). A dog with entropion will scratch its eyes, squint a lot, or even keep its eye closed.
Entropion is a particularly common issue among certain dog breeds such as Bernese Mountain Dog, Bloodhound, Bulldog, Cocker Spaniel, Chow Chow, Golden Retriever, Great Dane, Labrador Retriever, Great Pyrenees, Saint Bernard and Chinese Shar Pei.
Considering the nature of the problem, entropion needs surgical correction. The procedure is relatively straightforward and with high success rates. As with all surgical procedures, appropriate care is necessary afterward.
Allergies are just as common in dogs as they are among people. Dogs are sensitive to a number of irritants (airborne, contact, inhaled, and ingested). Eye irritation is generally associated with environmental allergies.
The list of common allergens includes pollen, dust, grasses, molds, dust mites, human dander, perfumes, cigarette smoke, shampoos, grooming products, detergents, and other household chemicals.
A dog with allergy-related eye irritation will scratch its eyes (sometimes even rub its face against floors and furniture).
If the scratching is persistent, it may result in hair loss patches around the dog's eyes or the muzzle. The eyes will be red and watery.
Managing the eye irritation is based on managing the allergy itself. Depending on the allergen causing the issue, this can be easier said than done.
Talk to your vet about the best allergy management (antihistamines, desensitization therapy, or holistic approaches like pet CBD oil).
9. Foreign Body
A foreign body in a dog's eye is a much more common scenario than you might think. The most common foreign bodies are seeds and other plant fragments and materials.
This is because plant parts can easily enter the dog's eye while car traveling (and sticking their heads through open windows) and walking through thick vegetation.
Such foreign bodies can attach themselves to the eye surfaces or behind the eyelids, causing redness, squinting, excess tearing, blinking, and an unusual presence of discharge.
If the inflammation affects the nictitating membrane, there will be a visible protrusion of the third eyelid at the corner of the eye.
The treatment is fairly straightforward and includes removing the foreign body (which sometimes requires sedation) and managing the local damage. If you suspect a foreign body, go to the emergency room immediately.
10. Insect Bites and Stings
Dogs are curious creatures fond of exploring. The combination often makes them victims of insect bites and stings. If a bug bites or stings the dog near the eyes, eye scratching is expected.
In most cases, the local reaction is transient and will subside after a couple of days. If your dog gets bitten or stung by an insect, the more pressing concern is the possibility of anaphylactic shock – a type of severe allergic reaction triggered by the insect.
If your dog got stung or bitten by an insect (identified or not), it is best to head to the nearest emergency clinic. Anaphylactic shock is a life-threatening scenario and requires immediate veterinary management.
All in all, dogs can scratch their eyes due to a variety of reasons. Some of them are minor and easily manageable (like eye gunks), while others are severe and require surgical correction (like entropion).
If you notice your dog scratching its eyes more than usual or showing any other eye-related worrisome signs, you need to call the vet and schedule an appointment.
Eye issues can worsen quickly, and the sooner you seek help, the better the outcome.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli