If you notice your dog squinting and pawing at its eyes, or if the eyes are red, inflamed and watering heavily, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. It's possible in this case that your dog may have distichiasis, a condition that occurs when the eyelashes grow abnormally, placing them in direct contact with sensitive eyeball tissue. The hairs are often long and stiff and grow out of oil glands within the eyelids. In most cases there are multiple improperly grown hairs, and both eyes are affected. Also, even though dogs usually have no lower eyelashes, in cases of distichiasis both lower and upper eyelids can be affected.
When this condition goes untreated, the lashes rub continuously on the eyeball. In addition to pain and constant watering of the eye, ulcers eventually will appear on the dog's cornea, potentially causing scarring and vision loss. Dogs frequently have eyelid spasms as well.
Distichiasis is treated by removing the improperly positioned eyelashes that are causing the problem. Veterinarians do this using one of several methods. Plucking the hairs will solve the immediate problem, but the hairs will re-grow, so it's not a longterm solution. Cryotherapy, which freezes the hair follicles at their base along the eyelid, is the most effective method, but again the lashes often re-grow.
Electrolysis is the most permanent method of removal, and involves placing a tiny needle inside the hair follicle and then killing it with a pulse of electricity. While effective, the procedure can be expensive and time-consuming if many lashes are involved. A final method of treatment is electrocautery, which burns away the hair. The risk of scarring from this procedure is high, however, and it is seldom used for this reason. Whatever the method of treatment, the dog will be sedated first, and should recover well with proper follow-up care. When a dog's corneas have developed ulcers because of irritation from the lashes, then a broad-spectrum antibiotic also will be prescribed, to control any developing infection.
Distichiasis is more common in certain breeds of dog, including: Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, Llhasa Apsos, Miniature Poodles, Pekingese, Shelties and Shi Tzus. It's also found occasionally in the: Australian Shepherd, Bedlington Terrier, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Cardigan Welsh Corgi, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Clumber Spaniel, Collie (rough and smooth), Curly-coated Retriever, Dachshund (all varieties), Doberman Pinscher, English Bulldog, Field Spaniel, Flat-coated Retriever, German Shepherd, German Short-haired Pointer, Great Dane, Irish Setter, Labrador Retriever, Llhasa Apsos, Lowchen, Norwegian Elkhound, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Pomeranian, Portuguese Water Dog, Pug, Saint Bernard, Samoyed, Sussex Spaniel, Tibetan Spaniel, Weimaraner, Welsh Springer Spaniel and Yorkshire Terrier. To minimize future problems, it's best to avoid breeding dogs that have the condition.