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What Does It Mean If Your Dog’s Eyes Are Rolling Back?

It can be an unsettling sight, your pooch is lying on the couch and you notice that you can only see the white of their eyes as if they’re possessed. Or maybe they’re running around the yard completely fine, but you see one of your dog’s eyes suddenly rollback.

There are many reasons why dogs’ eyes start rolling back in the head and it doesn’t always mean their life is in danger, but it is a concerning symptom and one that should be reported to your veterinarian to have a proper diagnosis.

What causes dogs’ eyes to roll back?

Abnormal eye movement in dogs can be the symptom of a variety of disorders or diseases which in most cases are hard to identify without a medical examination.

More often than not, however, when we have the impression that our dog has one eye rolled back, what we’re seeing is actually their nictitating membrane acting up.

The Third Eyelid 

Most pet parents are unaware of this haw until they see it for themselves. You can see the nictitating membrane when you lift your dog’s eyelid while they sleep, or if they happen to be woken up abruptly. It is usually white, but the color can change depending on the breed.

This membrane is also called the “third eyelid” and it closes over the eye diagonally. Many issues related to the dog’s eyes are actually related to the third eyelid. Cats, eagles, and many other animals have this membrane as well.

The third eyelid is a shield for the eye. It protects it from debris, sweeps away mucus, and helps fight infections. The gland of this membrane is responsible for 40% of the total tears your dog’s eye produces.

Being the first line to protect your dog’s eyes, the third eyelid is often subjected to inflammation, infections, or diseases. Some of these problems may be genetic flaws, others may be the symptom of a more serious problem.

It’s important not to underestimate an unhealthy haw and have your dog checked as soon as possible.

Nystagmus

Nystagmus is a condition that causes involuntary movements and usually stems from a problem in the sensory system that is responsible for the balance of the head and body.

There are two types of nystagmus:

  • Jerk nystagmus: the eyes move slowly in one direction and then suddenly jerk the opposite way. This is the most common type seen in dogs.
  • Pendular nystagmus: the eyes oscillate back and forth at the same speed and in small movements.

Head tilting and circling are also symptoms of this condition. The third eyelid is usually visible in dogs that are affected by nystagmus and can give the impression that your dog’s eyes are completely rolled back.

Sometimes nystagmus can be with your dog since birth but only develop later in time. If this condition spurs from a problem in the nervous system, it can be caused by hypothyroidism, a physical trauma (accidents), tumors, or exposure to toxins like lead.

Prognosis and recovery vary depending on the causes behind the condition.

Cherry Eye

The prolapse of the third eyelid gland turns the membrane into a fleshy red mass well-visible on one or both sides of the eye, which gives this condition the name of Cherry Eye.

This condition is more common in dogs than it is in other animal species and it can affect both eyes at different times of their lives. Young dogs up until two years of age are usually more affected by cherry eyes, although there is no proof this is a genetic problem.

Cherry eye is easily diagnosed by close inspection of the nictitating membrane, which can start producing an abnormal amount of tears and discharge because of this issue. However, if untreated, it can easily lead to dry eye syndrome.

With quick intervention, cherry eyes can be treated with medications and manual massage manipulation over the affected area.

Sometimes the prolapse may even heal on its own, but most commonly, it will require surgery to replace the gland.

Medications

If your dog is under painkillers or tranquilizers and you notice their third eyelid showing up or their eyes rolling back, there’s no need to worry. Many medications have strong side-effects like lethargy or extreme relaxation and your dog should be fine.

It is nonetheless important to take into consideration these side-effects before giving your dog the medication. Your veterinarian should warn you about the possible consequences and suggest the best product for your dog based on their health condition and medical history.

Be sure to always follow the instructions of your vet or those written on the box. Giving the wrong dose of medication to your dog can be really harmful.

Tumors

Unusual eye movements can be the symptom of tumors. As we mentioned earlier, tumors that affect the neurological system can also cause other conditions related to the eyes, such as nystagmus.

Abnormal growth in the haw or in the eyelid can be due to tumors as well. Cysts can also be responsible for strange eye movements.

Cysts usually appear in the form of a lump under the skin, in the tissues, bones, and organs. They’re often confused with tumors because they grow in the same places, but cysts are mostly harmless.

While not strictly connected with cancer, certain types of tumors can indeed cause cysts, so if you notice lumps in the area of your dog’s eyes or under their skin, it would be better to perform a medical examination.

Seizures 

Seizures are the result of abnormal brain activity. Usually, the brain misinterprets an electrical impulse and triggers movements in the muscles controlled by the area of the brain that is affected.

Dogs that experience seizures usually become unnaturally stiff, shake uncontrollably, lose consciousness, or collapse suddenly, but there are also “silent seizures” that only affect a single part of the body — like the eyes.

Seizures are not painful for your dog, but they may experience panic and confusion, to the point where they might not recognize you.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not swallow their tongue when they have seizures, so do not attempt to open their mouth because they could hurt you or you could accidentally hurt them.

A dog that is having a seizure may also start drooling uncontrollably. Some dogs start whining or behaving anxiously already 24 hours prior to the episode.

Seizures in dogs are usually triggered by pre-existing medical conditions like epilepsy, infections, traumas, ingestion of toxic elements, or infected animals.

If it’s the first time your dog has a seizure, bring them to the vet soon after it’s over. Otherwise, call your veterinarian to see how to proceed. They may still advise you to come in for a medical examination.

The only way to eliminate these episodes is to find the core issue behind the seizures. Sometimes it can be fully treated, sometimes your dog will need to undergo medical treatment for a long time or for the rest of their lives.

Vestibular Disease

The vestibular system is responsible for the balance of the body and it’s located in the brain, with peripheral components located inside the ears.

When a dog has an infection that affects the inner or middle ear, they might develop the vestibular disease, whose symptoms are similar to those of nystagmus.

Your dog appears confused, struggles to walk straight, their head keeps tilting to one side and they may even fall on that side. Your dog’s eyes roll back inside their head and some dogs may be reluctant to stand up. It may feel like your dog is “drunk”.

Apart from infections of the ear, this disease can be caused by injuries, tumors, or hypothyroidism. Sometimes it is not possible to find a specific cause and the disease becomes idiopathic vestibular syndrome.

Older dogs are more affected by this condition. In fact, the vestibular disease is commonly known as “old dog vestibular disease”. However, young dogs can be affected as well.

Treatments need to be tailored for the primary cause behind the disease and in severe cases, hospitalization may be required. The first 24-48 hours are the most critical, after that the animal should slowly start to improve.

Usually, in the absence of a serious cause, most dogs completely recover within three weeks. Some of them may have minor residual symptoms (wobbling, head tilting) for their whole life.

Strabismus

A dog affected by strabismus has their eyes seemingly going in different directions. This happens because the eye muscles do not work together and the brain fails to control them.

Understanding the causes behind strabismus will be fundamental to know whether your dog needs treatments or not.

In fact, strabismus could be the result of tumors, injuries, or even vestibular disease. Head injuries and old age may very well be the cause of this condition.

However, strabismus is more common in certain breeds of dogs and maybe a hereditary condition. Strabismus alone doesn’t cause any pain or discomfort for your dog and they will be able to live a long and healthy life, just looking a little funny.

Strokes 

Strokes are caused by a lack of blood supply to the brain. There are two types of stroke:

– Ischemic: caused by the obstruction of a blood vessel

– Hemorrhagic: cause by the rupture of a blood vessel

Brain strokes can cause blindness, loss of balance, and seizures. Older adult dogs are more at risk of suffering from a stroke, but large-breed dogs may suffer from spinal cord strokes.

Unfortunately, there are no warning signs of strokes. A dog may be acting completely normal or even be running and playing before an episode happens.

If your dog has a stroke, they will need to be examined as soon as possible. With quick intervention and proper treatments, there is a good chance of recovery and it is possible to reduce the risk of future strokes.

Pain 

Your dog may be rolling their eyes back because they’re in severe pain, which could be coming from anywhere in their body, or from small eye injuries. The third eyelid may be often subjected to small scratches or wounds as well.

Usually, when a dog feels pain they will express by doing one or more of the following:

  • Whining/barking for a long time or for no apparent reason
  • Feeling lethargic
  • Showing disinterest in food or activities they like
  • Being restless, even at unusual times (night)
  • Lying in unusual positions/being unable to lie down

Different dogs may have different reactions to pain, but they all fall in the range of things your dog doesn’t usually do, so it’s up to you to recognize any unusual behavior from your pet.

When in doubt, bringing your pet to the veterinarian as soon as possible is always the best choice. Some diseases are not easily detectable without specific tests and analysis, but if left untreated could put your dog’s life in grave danger.

What should you do if your dog’s eyes are rolling back?

A dog with eyes rolled back will most likely need to be examined in order to find the cause behind the abnormality. This is essential to find the right treatment for your dog’s specific case.

In fact, unusual eye movements can be the symptom of several conditions, including cherry eye, tumors, and strokes. Some conditions are simply hereditary or due to old age, but others may put your dog’s life at risk.

Oftentimes when a dog seems to be rolling his eyes back, what you see is actually the third eyelid coming up. The third eyelid only shows up when your dog is sleeping, but injuries, infections, and some diseases may cause the eyelid to become inflamed or prolapse.

For all of the above reasons, the health of your dog’s eyes should not be underestimated and if a problem arises, make sure to bring them to the veterinarian as soon as possible.