Skip to main content

Our Story: The Causes of KCS or "Dry Eyes" in Dogs

My dog, Puppy Girl, was diagnosed with KCS. I share our experiences to help other owners learn about this disease and how to cope with it.

KCS or "Dry Eye" in Dogs

KCS or "Dry Eye" in Dogs

My Dog Had Dry Eyes

This is my personal experience of discovering that my beloved Miniature Schnauzer had a condition called keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS) or "dry eye." It has been a long journey, with many visits to the veterinarian and some difficult decisions about medical care.

Along the way, I learned volumes about this condition, including available treatments, and how to help keep a dog comfortable when she or he has the condition. I hope you'll find some support in reading this article.

Puppy Girl's eye—dry and inflamed with a discharge of thick "gunk."

Puppy Girl's eye—dry and inflamed with a discharge of thick "gunk."

An Unexpected Trip to the Veterinary Clinic

During the summer, I usually head for the Farmers' Market early on Saturday mornings. One summer morning, I realized that something was wrong with the Miniature Schnauzer who shares my life with me, Puppy Girl.

Schnauzers Tend to Have Eye Troubles

It was evident something was very wrong with Puppy Girl's eyes even before I looked closely at them. Schnauzers routinely wake up from a night’s sleep, or even from a brief nap, with a crusty substance in the corners of their eyes. (I always say I have to clean the “sleep” from her eyes.) That morning, however, the condition of both of her eyes was markedly different. They were filled with thick mucus.

She Seemed to Be in Pain

Even after I gently washed the mucus away with a soft cloth and warm water, Puppy Girl could barely open one eye at all and squinted with the other, which indicated to me that she was in pain. The eye she could open slightly appeared inflamed, so my first thought was conjunctivitis. I took a quick look in my much-used copy of Dog Owner's Home Veterinary Handbook to check out potential canine eye disorders.

Her Condition Was Challenging to Pinpoint

The book's authors stated that conjunctivitis is not painful, but my dog whimpered and shook, so she was obviously experiencing pain or discomfort. I'd read of numerous other possibilities for the symptoms she displayed, and some can permanently impair a dog's vision. My plans to buy fresh tomatoes abruptly changed. We would go to the veterinary clinic instead.

We Were Able to Book an Appointment

I called All Creatures Animal Care Clinic, in Madison, Mississippi, where the wonderful vets and staff care for my pet. I was told that they would “work her in” between scheduled appointments, and we were sitting in an exam room about 40 minutes later. This was, of course, met with crying, shaking, and panting. (I’m referring to Puppy Girl’s behavior—not mine!)

A Visit to the Vet Is Always Anxiety-Inducing

Puppy Girl is afraid of both the animal clinic and the grooming “salon,” undoubtedly due to unpleasant memories of discomfort she’s experienced at both places. She obviously has excellent recall of injections and rectal thermometers! I always take a few baby wipes and a zip-up plastic bag when we visit the clinic in case her nervous tension leads to an impromptu potty break. Fortunately, there’s a grassy area beside the building!

Puppy Girl Was Eager to Leave

A veterinary technician took Puppy Girl off to be weighed, checked her vital signs, and let the vet examine her eyes. She looked back at me as she followed the tech holding her leash through the door. I imagined Puppy Girl thinking, “Gee, Mom . . . why can’t you come with me?” Even with one of her eyes nearly shut, I thought my dog looked sad.

What Is KCS in Dogs?

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), or “dry eye,” is a disorder of the lacrimal glands that normally produce the liquid element of tears. Dogs with KCS don’t produce enough tear film to keep their eyes lubricated adequately. Sometimes, there are no tears at all.

Complications of KCS

The cornea is the transparent, outermost part of the eyeball, fitting much like the skin on a grape. The conjunctiva is a delicate membrane lining the eyelids and a small portion of the eyeballs. Lack of tear production causes the cornea and conjunctiva to become dry, painful, and inflamed. If the disorder goes untreated, there will also be thickening of the cornea and conjunctiva.

Diagnosis and Management

If not properly diagnosed and managed in the early stages, KCS can lead to excruciatingly painful corneal ulceration, eye infection, impaired vision, and even total blindness. A responsible dog parent will never ignore the symptoms of KCS.

There are various reasons for the lacrimal glands to cease making tears, but it is often difficult or impossible to determine the actual cause. For that reason, most KCS is diagnosed as "idiopathic," or of unknown cause.

Which Breeds Are Prone to It?

All breeds and all ages of dogs can have KCS; however, some breeds of companion dogs are predisposed to it. Dogs that are predisposed to the condition include the following:

  • Miniature Schnauzers
  • Miniature Poodles
  • American and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
  • Bulldogs
  • Shih Tzus
  • Lhasa Apsos
  • West Highland and Yorkshire Terriers

The Causes of KCS

Some instances of this painful condition are caused by an autoimmune disorder. In effect, the dog's immune system attacks its own tear glands and damages the tissue. Why this occurs is not known. Other causes of KCS can include:

  • Hereditary disposition in certain breeds
  • Trauma to the eye
  • Use of certain drugs, including topical anesthetics on the surface of a dog's eye, sulfonamides, and aspirin
  • General anesthesia
  • Bacterial or viral eye infections
  • Chronic conjunctivitis
  • Systemic diseases, including diabetes, Cushing's disease, or hypothyroidism
  • Damage to the facial nerve or even chronic middle ear infections (because the facial nerve innervates the tear glands after passing through the dog's middle ear from the brain)

How Is It Prevented?

There is very little that can be done to prevent KCS other than managing any systemic diseases the dog may have, protecting the dog from facial or eye trauma, keeping the ears clean to prevent infection, and not using the medications that may cause the condition. Because of the hereditary aspect, dogs affected by KCS should not be bred.

Schnauzers are predisposed to KCS.

Schnauzers are predisposed to KCS.

Puppy Girl was soon back in the exam room with me and, shortly afterward, the vet explained that her eyes were extremely dry. Since I have the same problem, which often leads to pain in the corneal area, my sympathy level went off the charts. Poor Puppy Girl!

The Schirmer Tear Test

A test strip similar to litmus paper with numbers (called a Schirmer test strip) was placed in her eyes to measure tear production. The strip showed a severe lack of tears. A secondary infection was causing the thick, light-colored discharge composed of debris, pollens, dust, and concentrated bacteria—all "foreign objects" normally eliminated by natural tears.

The KCS Diagnosis

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS) was the tentative diagnosis for Puppy Girl; I was told there were treatments, but it was possibly incurable. Depending on the cause of dry eye in dogs, the condition might be temporary, but it is most often permanent. The vet prescribed an antibacterial ophthalmic ointment to be placed in the affected eyes every 12 hours. A follow-up appointment was scheduled in 10 days. If further testing at that time showed there was still no tear production, a medication to stimulate tears would be in order.

Making Sure She Was Comfortable

I brought my unusually quiet girl home and moved her softest pillow bed to a cool, shadowy place away from any A/C vent or fan, either of which could worsen the dry condition of her eyes. She lay there lethargically, apparently in no mood to play or even look out the window at the neighborhood, which she usually enjoys. Dry eyes are very sensitive to sunlight or glare from indoor lighting. She was protecting her poor eyes. I understand, sweet girl.

My dog did not respond to the medication.

My dog did not respond to the medication.

My Dog's Eyes Worsened

Rather than improving, Puppy Girl's eye problems continued to worsen. She didn't act at all like her normal self. She wouldn't play with her toys, and she spent most of her time lying on a sofa with closed eyes in the den—a room that's relatively dark when the light is off and the window shutters are closed.

New Medications Were Prescribed

We returned to the vet clinic several times, and each time I became more anxious. A second round of the antibiotic ointment was prescribed, plus Cyclosporine, a medication specially compounded in a base of olive oil for twice-daily administration as drops to Puppy Girl's eyes. An over-the-counter eye ointment normally used for humans was also needed several times per day to keep her eyes moistened and (hopefully) to reduce pain.

Cyclosporine is used to stimulate the lacrimal glands to produce tears. (It's the active ingredient in Restasis®, a medication for humans with dry eye syndrome.) It works for many dogs but isn't 100% successful. It didn't seem to be working for Puppy Girl.

We Were on a Rigorous Schedule

The schedule of various meds that began at 8:30 a.m. and continued every hour or two until 11:30 p.m. was stressful for both of us, especially since Puppy Girl quickly grew resistant to the whole idea of treatment. I understood her reluctance. Her eyes were already hurting, and here I was dropping stuff into them throughout the day. I realized she was avoiding me.

Puppy Girl Avoided Treatment

When I went near Puppy Girl for her treatment, she would go into another room. One day I couldn't find her and began calling her name. When she didn't appear, I looked all over the house. I found her hiding under folds of the living room drapes. Ah, Puppy Girl! Mom's so sorry you're having a rough time!

Do You Have a Story to Share?

This article describes the early stages of standard KCS treatment. Puppy Girl, unfortunately, did not respond favorably to the treatment, and further intervention was required. You can read more about my experience managing her KCS. If you have success stories or just feel like offering moral support, please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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.

© 2012 Jaye Denman


Jaye Denman (author) from Deep South, USA on July 25, 2014:

Yes, Shyron, KCS is the culprit for Puppy Girl's blindness. I thought I could prevent her from having pain or scarred corneas by applying a thick eye lubricant every couple of hours (day and night). Although I did it faithfully since she was diagnosed in August 2013, it didn't prevent the scarring and blindness. Plus, the vet told me that she was undoubtedly feeling pain though dogs are stoic and try to hide pain.

She's one month on the other side of the enucleation surgery (removal of both eyes) recommended by the vet. It was a difficult decision, but I didn't want her to hurt (even if she kept it hidden), so there was really no choice.

She's recuperating well and getting around the house, even playing with her toys a bit...not sleeping as much (which I think, for dogs, is a way to escape pain).

I kept a diary of the pre-op, surgery day, post-op week (she stayed in the animal hospital) and after she came home, and I've started writing a hub about the experience--how I imagine it from her perspective and its effect on me.

She's still my sweet Puppy Girl. I talk to her a lot, give her massages, hold her in my lap (she puts her head on my shoulder like a baby) and play music for her. Blind dogs need sound and touch to help take the place of sight.

Thanks for reading, the votes/feedback/sharing and for your comment.

Have a great weekend....Jaye

Shyron E Shenko from Texas on July 25, 2014:

I thought I read this but evidently I did not. Is this the condition that caused Puppy Girl to go blind? My heart aches for her. This is so sad.

Maybe I read part two first.

Voted up, UAI and shared.

Jaye Denman (author) from Deep South, USA on March 09, 2014:

Mary - I'm so sorry about your dog having dry eyes. It's critical to keep the eyes lubricated to prevent corneal ulcers from forming. They are not only excruciatingly painful for the dog, but can destroy the eye. Since my dog didn't like having the drops administered but has never minded the ointment (I think it feels good to her), I've used GenTeal P.M. nighttime eye ointment since late summer, 2012. It takes a lot of it, so I have to periodically search the Internet to find the best price and buy 6-8 tubes at once for free shipping. GenTeal is made for humans, but my dog's vet recommended it for her. I am fortunately retired and home with her all the time because this ointment needs to be put in the eyes every couple of hours.

As for cleaning the "gunk" that collects in the eyes, I use a baby wipe that is moist with aloe, barely touching the mucus on the eyeball and pulling it to the corner of the eye and out. Then I wash her eyes and all around them with a very soft lint-free cloth. You can also wash the eyes out with eyewash, if your dog will tolerate having it poured into his eyes.

This disease requires a lot of care to protect your dog. As my article says, there is a surgery that can reroute the dog's salivary gland to the eyes, but I elected not to pursue it for my girl. It may be something you want to think about since your dog is so young and has his whole life ahead of him.

Chronic KCS, even when you keep the eyes lubricated, may lead to blindness. My dog went blind after a year with it. It's very important that you have a vet in whom you have a lot of confidence.

You may want to read Part 2 of my account of coping with my dog's KCS. Good luck with your fur-baby.


Mary on March 08, 2014:

Love the stories my havanise who is 15 month we were told the only thing we could do keep the eyes clean and teer drops In his eyes but he getting a lot of green stuff In both eyes I have seen vets and a doctor who deals with she said It the worse case she seen I need help

Jaye Denman (author) from Deep South, USA on November 20, 2012:

Thanks, DDE, for reading and for your comments. Both my dog and I are becoming accustomed to the medication routine, and she doesn't resist. However, the drops that are supposed to induce tear production haven't worked well for her. Her vet referred her to a veterinary ophthalmologist, and he prescribed a different formula. He will check her again in a few weeks and, if the new drops aren't working, will put her on oral prednisone. I really hope she doesn't have to take steroids because of the potential side effects, but extreme dry eye is painful and preventing pain is the main priority in her care. Thanks for your good wishes. Jaye

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 20, 2012:

It is sad when such conditions affect our pets it is good to know you have found out about it soon. This was an interesting output on the topic hope all is well

Jaye Denman (author) from Deep South, USA on September 11, 2012:

Thanks, Til....I wish the next installment could say she's cured, too, but it will focus on all the obstacles we encountered and had to overcome after Part I ended. KCS is something that will require coping and adjustments every day for the rest of Puppy Girl's life. Most cases of this disorder are permanent, and it's probable that hers is immune-mediated.

I think people who love their pets should make the same "for better or worse" vow that's required for marriage and, in addition, pledge never to get a divorce! A dog's love and loyalty are unconditional, so ours should be the same.

This disorder is not an easy one to live with, but I keep reminding myself she could have something even worse. (Schnauzers are also prone to diabetes.) Both PG and I are becoming more accustomed to the treatment routine. Empathy and understanding for her do come more readily to me because of the blepharospasm and accompanying dry eye syndrome I've been coping with personally for 20-plus years. I know what she's experiencing. Other pet owners might not realize the level of pain a corneal abrasion causes. That may not seem like an advantage, but (to me) it is.

Thanks for your kind words.


Mary Craig from New York on September 11, 2012:

I can only echo the sentiments here and say how sorry I am for Puppy Girl and for you. It is always difficult to watch an animal in pain, you can't really communicate with them and they certainly can't communicate with you. I'm hoping the next installment will show she's been cured. Voted up, useful, and interesting.

Jaye Denman (author) from Deep South, USA on September 09, 2012:

Susan....Thanks for your good wishes. As the old saying goes, "There's good news and bad news", which is why the word "coping" is in the title. I'll take good care of her, and I think she's becoming more accustomed to the routine. This morning she "asked" for a tummy rub--a good sign!

Bob....It is tough not to be able to explain the "why" to her. I give her treats (her fave is a bite of banana). I also play a special CD developed to soothe dogs, and I use lavender essential oils in an attempt to allay her stress. She's not balking so much at the ointment any more--it probably soothes her hurting eyes--but she knows that one drop of Cyclosporine in each eye is going to hurt, and she doesn't like the sight of that bottle.

You made me laugh with the reincarnation remark! Thanks.

DrMark....Since she had other autoimmune issues from that allergic reaction to a vaccination, you're probably right about it causing this problem, too. I now avoid nearly all vaccinations by getting titers, and her immunity is holding. (I truly believe immunity lasts from initial vaccinations, and that dogs don't need all those boosters. After all, some vaccinations last a lifetime for humans.) Unfortunately, there's no choice about rabies boosters, as this state mandates them every three years. She's overdue hers now, but the vet is delaying it until she doesn't have active infection in her eyes.

Paula....Thanks for your kind words. It hurts me to know she's hurting, but the best thing I can do is try to alleviate as much of the pain as possible. Every morning when she wakes up, it's almost impossible for her to open her eyes. I have to gently clean them before the medication routine can begin, and then the Cyclosporine drops go in. (She also gets them at night, so that "fun" happens twice a day.)

Bob's comment was great, wasn't it? I'm still smiling.

Part 2 will be on its way soon with an update. Thanks to all of you for reading and comments.


Suzie from Carson City on September 09, 2012:

Jaye......Poor Puppy girl......My eyes actually began to burn as I read this....with sympathy. It is heartbreaking to know our babies are hurting, frightened and confused. As her Mommy, I know how you feel, believe me.

You certainly do the very best you can for her, especially in loving and comforting her, and having a good Vet.

I know her breed is susceptible to "eye issues" is my American Cocker. The constant eye "gunk," as I call it and the typical stain at the inside corner. Like you, I am always trying to wipe his eyes gently with warm water. Not much else we can do.

I LOVE the comment from Bob, about coming back as one of your That's cute. You are a good Mommy and I hope that Puppy girl's eye issue is soon taken care of. Keep us posted, Jaye!

Up ++

Mark dos Anjos DVM from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 09, 2012:

This is another good reason to avoid another vaccination for your dog. You had mentioned that she had an allergic reaction, and there is a possibility that she has a genetic predisposition that was aggravated by an autoimmune reaction after a vaccine. Idiopathic, at the moment, but maybe someone will come along and describe this relationship down the road.

Bob Bamberg on September 09, 2012:

Hi Jaye,

I'm so sorry that you and Puppy Girl are going through such an odyssey. It gives one such an empty feeling when we can't explain things to our pet. She must think the whole world is against her.

Would a small treat before and after each vet visit, groomer visit, and at-home treatment help her associate something positive with those events? Even a little extra head or belly rub may help soften those negative experiences for her.

I wonder if her condition might be further aggravated by local pollens? It's never easy, is it?

You're being a good Mom, though. If there's such a thing as reincarnation, I wouldn't mind coming back as one of your dogs.

Here's hoping for a speedy improvement in Puppy Girl's condition. Interesting hub...a nice blend of cold science and warm heart. Voted up and interesting. Regards to you both, Bob

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on September 09, 2012:

So sorry to read this about your Puppy Girl. I hope that your vet finds a way to make her eye better. Is there nothing else he can try? I'll be watching for part 2 of your hub in hopes that all turns out well for Puppy Girl.