Are Cocker Spaniel eye problems common in the breed? The short answer is yes. The breed is known for their “eyes of melted chocolate,” which are associated with their fair share of issues.
In my 30 years of Cocker Spaniel ownership, I’ve dealt with most eye problems and concerns in the breed. Amazingly, I’ve never had a Cocker Spaniel that went blind, although that is one of the problems the breed faces if conditions like glaucoma are not addressed.
One of the biggest eye concerns in Cocker Spaniels are cataracts, which were first recognized in the breed in the 1970s. We’ve come a long way since then, but there are many eye ailments that plague the breed. This post will break down each Cocker eye issue and solutions for each.
Note: Most of the information in this article applies to all breeds and mixes of dogs.
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Are Cocker Spaniels Prone To Eye Problems?
Yes, Cocker Spaniels are overrepresented when it comes to eye issues. Anyone who is interested in bringing a Cocker into their life or who currently has will likely become acquainted with a veterinary ophthalmologist at some point in the dog’s life.
As much as we’d like to know if our Cocker Spaniel’s vision is blurry or his eyes feel itchy, dogs just can’t tell us. My Cocker’s veterinarian assesses his eyes at each checkup and we are now performing eye pressure tests to screen for glaucoma, which I will discuss further down.
Unfortunately, the breed has a genetic predisposition to many eye diseases, but reputable breeders are working hard to reduce eye problems in their lines. Hopefully one day the vast majority of eye issues in Cockers will be eliminated.
The Cocker Spaniel breed standard calls for eyes to be round and full with a slight almond-shaped appearance to them.
Most Common Cocker Spaniel Eye Problems
Expressive Cocker eyes are susceptible to certain ophthalmologic problems, which include:
- Cherry Eye
- Dry eye (KCS)
- Progressive Retinal Atrophy
- Retinal dysplasia
- Imperforate lacrimal punctum
Cocker Spaniel Eye Emergencies
In addition to the above eye issues, some conditions are more serious than others and require emergency care. For example, glaucoma can be acute (rapid onset) and cause the dog serious pain and blindness.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Acute anterior uveitis
- Acute corneal ulcer
- Acute blindness
- Anterior lens luxation
- Blood in the eye
- Bulging eye
- Chemical keratitis
- Corneal laceration
- Eye foreign body
- Optic neuritis
- Traumatic proptosis
It is your job as a diligent dog parent to monitor your dog’s reactions, outward appearance, and behaviors. If you know what is normal, or baseline, you will be prepared when things are outside the norm. Let’s break down each of the eye problems and their associated solutions.
First, it’s good to know what a normal eye looks like so that you can report abnormal changes to the veterinarian. Some eye changes are undetectable to the naked human eye, so keep that in mind.
Basic Anatomy of Cocker Spaniel Eyes
Eyelids and Eyelashes: This is the outermost portion of the dog’s eye anatomy. The eyelids and eyelashes keep debris and dust out and they also help with the cotnrol of light rays entering the eyes.
Conjunctiva: A thin membrane called the conjunctiva covers the sclera. Sometimes when there is an eye injury or respiratory issue, the conjunctiva becomes inflamed. The conjunctiva is thin and located near the front of the eye.
Sclera: The whites of the eyes, and this is something we as humans have in common with dogs: We both have whites of our eyes.
Iris: This area is responsible for the amount of light that enters the dog’s eye. Looking at the dog’s eye as above, the dark center is the pupil, the colored ring is the iris and outside of that the white sclera is located.
Pupil: The darkened black part of the eye that dilates or constricts to either allow more or less light to enter the eye. In the dark, the pupil dilates whereas it constricts in a lighter environment.
Common Cocker Spaniel Eye Problems and Solutions
Glaucoma deals with the fluid in a dog’s eye. Unfortunately, Cocker Spaniels are among the breeds most affected by glaucoma. All eyes have a certain level of pressure to maintain, called intraocular pressure. Glaucoma causes an increase in intraocular pressure. As the disease takes hold, pressures build, and most often, there are no outward symptoms until there is extensive eye damage.
There are four levels of glaucoma based on the stage of the disease: Class IV is very early glaucoma and Class I means the eye is enlarged and the eye is blind.
A stable intraocular pressure in a normal eye is 15-25 mmHg. There are both primary and secondary types of glaucoma, which a qualified ophthalmologist can discern. Intraocular
Diagnosing glaucoma includes:
- Measuring the intraocular pressure
- Visually examining the drainage angle via gonioscopy (Note: gonioscopy is the only test available to diagnose closed-angle glaucoma or hereditary narrow glaucoma).
Symptoms of glaucoma:
- Excessive tearing
- Yellow or green eye discharge
- Red eye
- Pupil enlarged and does not move with light shone on it
- Frightened pet or pet who is irritable (due to pain) – they may even snap or bite
There are both surgical and nonsurgical solutions for Cocker Spaniel glaucoma.
Here is an image of acute glaucoma in an American Cocker Spaniel, with an intraocular pressure of 55 mmHg in the Merck Veterinary Manual.
Do you see a cloudy haze forming on your Cocker Spaniel’s eyes? It might be cataracts. Simply stated, cataracts cloud your dog’s lens. Sadly, Cocker Spaniels are one of the breeds with a higher than usual propensity to develop cataracts.
Inherited cataracts generally appear between the ages of one and four years. The spot on the eye with the cataract is an area the dog cannot see through. Cataracts may stay as a mild form and not enlarge while other times they can grow slowly or even cause blindness or lead to other eye problems.
Unless the lens of the eye is surgically removed, there is no universal cure. My Senior Cocker Spaniel has cataracts that are followed by his veterinarian. Cataracts may develop in older dogs as part of the aging process, just like people.
Diagnosing cataracts includes:
- A complete ophthalmologic examination, which will assess if the dog has vision loss and if there is any other eye issue(s) or nuclear sclerosis occurring.
Symptoms of glaucoma:
- Cloudiness on the eye, which may appear whitish, blue, or grey
- Bumping into things, seemingly not aware something was there; walking with nose to ground in some dogs
- Diabetes mellitus may cause cataracts, and if this is the case, increased water consumption (polydipsia) with increased urination (polyuria) may result.
Do not let a cataract go without being managed, assessed, and treated by the dog’s veterinarian, or even better, a veterinary ophthalmologist you see at least yearly.
Cataracts that are untreated can slip (luxate), flat around the eye, block fluid from draining, and even lead to glaucoma and blindness. Cataracts that are untreated and begin to dissolve can cause terrible pain and/or eye inflammation.
Here’s the latest on cataract treatment in dogs.
Cataracts are so prevalent in Cocker Spaniels that a molecular genetic study of inherited cataracts in the Cocker Spaniel began many years ago.
Dr. Gustavo Aguirre, VMD, PhD, world-renowned veterinary ophthalmologist and gene-therapy researcher at the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Pennsylvania, hopes to identify the marker that will lead to a DNA test for hereditary cataracts in Cockers. This, in turn, helps humans who are affected by cataracts.
My friend and Cocker colleague, Debi Lampert-Rudman, has been organizing Cocker Spaniel eye clinics for two decades because she wants to give back and help find the genetic marker.
Dr. Aguirre believes cataracts in Cocker Spaniels are caused by a major gene rather than the combined action of several genes.
“There is NO SUCH THING as PERMANENTLY CLEAR cockers,” Rudman shared. “Yes – you read that right.”
She says that the term “permanently clear” with regards to the eyes of a Cocker Spaniel was “made up by cocker breeders many years ago as something to say when their eight-year-old Cocker had a good clear eye exam.” However, Rudman says it is not a medical term.
When Rudman recently attended an eye clinic for Cockers, Dr. Gustavo Aguirre at the University of Pennsylvania, told her that no other breeds use that term. In fact, he says the term “permanently clear” has been a major contributor to the current eye problems in the Cocker Spaniel breed overall.
The Merck Vet Manual says that in dogs, cataracts that are secondary related to diabetes mellitus are increasingly common.
So why say it at all? Rudman shares that when Cocker eyes are not tested beyond 2 to 4 years of age, those dogs are being bred with the potential for hereditary cataracts. The older dogs are perfect candidates and carry a great wealth of knowledge to the DNA cataract marker research.
Don’t use the term “permanently clear” she says.
CLICK THIS: Images of cataracts in a dog from the Merck Veterinary Manual.
We have way too much experience with this anomaly of the Cocker Spaniel eye: Our first Cocker Spaniel had this condition in both eyes.
All dogs have a third eyelid and this is completely normal. That third eyelid is called the nictating membrane, or sometimes the “haw.” The pigmentation of the haw varies in dogs, but one thing is for sure: There seems to be a higher than normal rate of Cocker Spaniels affected with cherry eye, dubbed so for the cherry looking nature of the gland when it protrudes.
It can be painful if left untreated because this gland is exposed and can get irritated or inflamed. It may also itch the dog, and as dogs do, he will rub his face on something to try and stop the itch. The gland is also responsible for tear production, so the dog is at risk for issues with that if not addressed.
Diagnosis and symptoms can be made by a qualified veterinarian. Back in the 1990s when our first Cocker had cherry eye bilaterally (both eyes), the treatment was eye drops. Drops did not work and so the vet actually removed both glands under anesthesia. This procedure is no longer the norm, and it can cause a flurry of other issues: Namely dry eye and the problems that arise from it.
Our dog’s littermate, McGee, had cherry eye in his first 2 years of life, which was corrected by tacking (suturing) the gland back into place.
Every now and then, my dog’s third eyelid pops out and I have learned a technique to pop it back into place. It is rare that this happens, so I do not recommend you poke around your dog’s eyes and put your fingers near him unless you are certain what you are doing and why.
This is the video I discovered years ago that helped me massage the gland back into place. Keep reading, there are products to help, too!
Those beautiful Cocker Spaniel eyelashes can also be the source of problems if the dog is affected with distichiasis. Dye to the direction the eyelashes grow, they may touch the eyeball surface. Due to this and how harsh the contact is, dogs can suffer from any number of conditions including ulcers, abrasions, inflammation, and eye tissue infection.
Diagnosis is by examination, sometimes with magnification, fluorescein staining if the cornea, and tear duct assessment to survey for damage. One study in our research reports that English Cocker Spaniels may have a genetic link, although there is no permanent conclusion.
Conservative management includes keeping the eye lubricated or even removal of the portion of the eyelid that is causing the most issue (seek a veterinary ophthalmologist for this). Canine electroepilation to destroy the follicles causing the issue can also help. Our first Cocker had this condition and we treated it with special lubricant with success. Each dog is different. You may not be able to even see the offending lashes.
Eyelid Abnormalities: Entropion and Ectropion
Outward drooping or rolling of the lower eyelid describes ectropion while entropion is when all or part of the upper or lower eyelid turns itself inward. (my mnemonic device is “en” for inside).
Both conditions may have a hereditary factor, and most experts agree that breeding of these dogs should be discouraged.
Veterinary diagnosis and treatment is essential.
Of the two conditions, ectropion is the more mild one and may be managed and treated with eye drops, unless surgery is needed for ongoing issues.
Entropion may be treated with surgery, ointments, and drops. A qualified veterinary ophthalmologist should perform delicate surgeries of this nature since a risk is removing too much tissue and causing ectropion to develop.
If you made it this far, there are three other common eye issues that affect Cocker Spaniels, though there are more. These are the ones we have experienced and seen in our lifelong Cocker Spaniel passion and ownership.
Painful and itchy, Cocker Spaniels affected with dry eye need veterinary help. Dry eye is what it sounds like: a drying of the tears that are needed to lubricate the eye, keep infection away and provide the oxygen and nutrients of the eye. Without tears, the eye is compromised.
The medical term for dry eye is keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS). Dogs may get KCS from other infections of diseases, as a secondary problem, or from a condition of the tear glands. Even injury can cause dry eye.
One of my favorite resources, The Cocker Spaniel Owners’ Medical Manual, notes that some Cockers get dry eye while on sulfa drugs or atropine eye drops.
Diagnosis of dry eye is with the Schirmer tear test, a normal result which merits 15 mm and 25 mm per minute. Any dog that is under 5 mm per minute is a dog with dry eye.
Redness and inflammation are generally present in a dry eye and the eye is itchy. Medications like prednisolone acetate and Atopica may be used until tear function is restored. In the meantime, artificial tears as recommended by your Cocker’s veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist are likely to be used.
Progressive Renal Atrophy
One more eye disease that has a higher rate in the Cocker Spaniel breed is PRA (progressive renal atrophy). Night blindness and an increase in reflectivity of the retina are two signs of PRA. There is another type of renal atrophy that occurs, called central renal atrophy, but for this article, we are showcasing PRA.
Early on, dogs may bump into things. Cataracts can occur in dogs with PRA, so vet ophthalmologists recommend an electroretinogram be done before cataract surgery in Cockers who may be blinded by PRA.
“This condition is progressive and affects both eyes,” Caroline Coile, Ph.D., writes in her book, The Cocker Spaniel Handbook Nothing can be done to prevent or slow it. It is not painful.”
PRA progresses into day blindness and the dog will eventually go blind.
When the mucous membranes of the eyes are inflamed, conjunctivitis occurs. Whenever the suffix -itis appears on a word, it indicates inflammation. Any number of things can cause inflammation of the conjunctivae of the eyes.
Things like dust, pollen, airborne irritants, distemper, and even other viral diseases can cause conjunctivitis. An antibiotic ointment is generally prescribed. If antibiotics do not help, the concern is a Staph infection. Overall prognosis is very good in this condition.
It is your job as a diligent dog parent to monitor your dog’s reactions, outward appearance, and behaviors. If you know what is normal, or baseline, you will be prepared when things are outside the norm.
Maintenance Products for Cocker Spaniel Eyes
Saline Eye Rinse
Have a rinse/flush on hand and in a first aid kit. If your dog ever needs his eyes flushed with a simple saline solution, you can’t go wrong with Bausch + Lomb Advanced Eye Relief Wash.
Eye Stain Wipes
Many dog eyes, including Cocker Spaniel eyes, get tear stains. These Angels’ Eyes Gentle Tear Stain wipes can help.
Vetericyn Ophthalmic Gel
I keep Vetericyn Plus Antimicrobial Gel on hand for safe, effective relief for any sort of canine eye irritation or wounds. I like that it is antibiotic-free and nontoxic in eye gel form.
Local Treatment of Superficial Ocular Infections
Another product I always have in my dog’s first aid kit is terramycin. It is designed to treat conjunctivitis and secondary bacterial inflammatory conditions of the eye – check with your veterinarian before using.
Eye Wear For Dogs
Cocker Spaniel Eyes Maintenance
Having your dog’s eyes examined with a baseline by your regular veterinarian is a start. For dogs like Cockers who have a history of known eye issues as a breed, seeing a veterinary ophthalmologist for a baseline examination can be helpful.
What was once called CERF (certified eye registry foundation) has evolved into the OFA Eye Evaluation. OFA means Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. OFA eye exams take place in special clinics, sometimes at a dog show, or even in veterinary offices or with a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Our dog, Dexter, went to an eye clinic several years ago as a baseline. It was held at a local firehouse and a team came through with a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. With a few droplets of a solution in each eye, a veterinarian will assess if your dog is affected by a number of eye diseases. For breeders, this is important, as it is for dogs in the show ring. For pet parents, it is a convenient way to get a baseline on your dog’s eyes.
The OFA eye certification exam does not provide complete ocular health assessment, but it does provide a good eye screening exam. The exam is done about a half hour after pupil dilation drops are placed in the eyes.
Read more about Cocker Spaniel eye health from the American Spaniel Club, of which I am a proud member.
Can Foods and Supplements Help?
There are foods that your dog can consume for overall good health, and that includes for the eyes.
The folks over at Natural Awakenings have some good ideas on how to include foods that are good for canine eye health.
Over at Whole Dog Journal, they write that cod liver oil has dramatically lowered intraocular pressure in rabbits, humans, and other animals, and oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed oil, also help lower pressure.
What about carrots? Carrots are rich in valuable vitamins and minerals. Low calorie, nutritious, and dog parents love them as an alternative to higher calorie dog treats. Of course, if you have an anti-vegite for a Cocker as I do, consider the Veg-to-Bowl food mix from Dr. Harvey’s. We have been using it for years as a regular part of our dog’s diet. (it includes carrots)
Be cognizant of the size of the carrot or the piece of carrot you give your dog so that he or she does not choke on it.
OPHTHALMOLOGY-RELATED WEB SITES:
Do some more reading. We spent hours and hours researching some of our favorite Cocker Spaniel eyes and dog eyes websites, and here are a few we like and use:
Geriatric Eye Changes in Dogs
Not all eye changes are due to age. Sometimes puppies or young adults can get eye issues. This is why diligent dog parents need to have a baseline screening of their dog’s eyes at least yearly. If there is a breed like the Cocker Spaniel in question, it is helpful to seek the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist for a baseline screening and beyond.
Here’s a very helpful guide to some of the common age-related eye changes to watch for in your dog: Your Dog Needs Bifocals Guide: Dog Geriatric Eye Changes
What To Watch For In Cocker Spaniel Eyes
I could write an entire book on the Cocker eye, but suffice it to say that eye issues are a concern in the breed. As much as we’d like to know if our Cocker Spaniels’ vision is blurry or his eyes feel itchy, dogs just can’t tell us.
Since eye problems may or may not present themselves in a front and center fashion, we’ve outlined some preventative measures and things to ‘look out’ for in your favorite pooch/pooches:
- Are your dog’s eyes frequently bloodshot, bulging, or appear swollen? Don’t use over-the-counter human eye medications. Have those baby blues (or greens or browns) examined asap by the vet.
- Although tempting, it’s not in your dog’s best interest to let his head hang out the window while riding in a car. Fragments, dirt, and debris flying into Rover’s eyes while traveling even at a low rate of speed can cause serious damage or injury.
- Does the eyelid appear to be turned inward or outward? Never attempt to fix these problems, as more damage can be done. Call the vet.
- Fido face first. Since dogs tend to sniff the ground and tackle their immediate path face first, the cornea can easily be scratched. Redness, watering, and pawing at the eye may ensue.
- A cloudy and/or bluing of the eyes may indicate glaucoma, so a vet visit is in order.
- Any sort of growth or formation, especially if causing an inability to close the eye, requires urgent attention.
- Discharge or excessive tearing may be signs of infection or a blocked tear duct or may cause irritation to the underlying skin. Refer to the vet.
- Disturbances in vision and/or early signs of blindness may include bumping into things and your pooch may seem confused. The earlier this is checked out, of course, the better.
Be the best dog parent you can be, and make regular eye screening and maintenance a part of your Cocker Spaniel’s regular routine.