My Dog’s Eyes Are Rolling Back, What’s Going On?

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You look at your dog, and it seems that he is rolling his eyes to the back of his head. It can’t be a sarcastic commentary on your behavior, can it? So what exactly is going on with your pup and his seemingly roving eyes?

Why Are My Dog’s Eyes Rolling Back?

Relax , in most cases, his eyes aren’t really heading toward the back of his head- it may merely look that way. What you are seeing is your pet’s nictitating membrane, or haw, commonly known as his third eyelid. But if you can see it clearly, something may indeed be wrong.

About The Third Eye

The nictitating membrane is found in the inner corner of your dog’s eye. It varies in color, from clear to cloudy, depending on the breed. This organ serves a number of purposes.

It acts as a sort of armor protecting the cornea from damage. Moreover, it functions as a sort of windshield wiper for the eye, sweeping away dirt, debris, and excess mucus.

The third eyelid tear gland produces about forty percent of the animal’s tears, while its lymphoid system produces bodies which help to fight infection. And it does all of this without usually being seen, something like a stealthy, disease and damage fighting ninja.

The only time you are likely to see this membrane is if you lift your pup’s eyelid while he is sleeping, or happen to observe it if he suddenly awakens. But if you can see the third eyelid on other occasions, something is wrong.

It may be a minor concern, but it could also indicate a major threat to your pet’s health.

The nictitating membrane may be abnormally elevated, prolapsed, or even protruding, and this could be for a number of reasons. One major concern should be a neurological disease that is affecting the nerves in the surrounding area.


One such condition is nystagmus, which is evidenced by involuntary movements of the eye. There are two types of this disease.

The most common, is evidenced by the slow and involuntary movement of the ocular globes in a single direction, with a rapid correction, or jerk, following.

Pendular nystagmus involves the involuntary movement of the ocular globe with no change in speed. The disease can also cause head tilting and circling.

Use Of Tranquilizers

Another cause for the unusual appearance of the third eyelid can be a relaxation of the muscles around the eye, This can be just a temporary condition caused by the use of tranquilizers. Your pet is simply just a little too relaxed.

But it could be also a sign of generally poor health.

all dog breeds are prone

Cherry Eye

A condition known as “cherry eye” is caused by the weakening of the ligament in the gland. The weakening of the ligament allows the membrane to prolapse and protrude from the eye as a fleshy, red mass, resembling a cherry. Hence the name.

Cherry eye is most common in young dogs as well as cats, those under two years of age.

Extreme Pain, Tumors & Other Conditions…

On the other side, you cannot rule out the presence of an abnormal growth, such as a tumor or cyst. It could also be caused by inflammation.

The unusual appearance of the third eyelid can also be the result of pain in the eye which has caused the eye itself to recede further into the cranial cavity in which it resides.

But pain is not the only cause of such a recession. Is your pet dehydrated? Has he suffered a recent weight loss? Your vet will also check for some abnormality in the structures behind the eye, as they may be involved in the problem.

The haw may be visible when it shouldn’t be due to the abnormally small size of the eyeball itself. In some animals, this can be a congenital condition, while in others it can be caused by inflammation.

Dogs may also suffer from other conditions which will cause a weird appearance to the eye. Just like humans, they can contract pink eye, an infection that can easily be treated.


They can also suffer from strabismus, or “lazy eye”, which causes the globes to not track together. This can be disconcerting to the owner but does not usually itself, affect your pet’s quality of life.

Strabismus can be caused by a number of factors. Often, it is an inherited condition, and if this is the case, there is no treatment. Your canine companion will live a long, healthy life, although with adorably wonky appearance.

However, the condition can also be caused by injury or infection, and it should be left to your vet to determine if this is the case, and provide a course of treatment for the condition.

Vestibular Disease

Yet another condition is a vestibular disease, commonly caused by an infection of the inner or middle ear canal.

This can cause your pet to appear unbalanced in his gait, and his globes to move involuntarily up or down. He may look drunk. This is not all that uncommon in older pups.

In fact, this condition is called old dog vestibular disease.

It can be caused by a number of things besides infection. An old trauma or a possible metabolic problem may be affecting your pet . It can, also, simply be a function of senior age.

A Stroke

Many owners will mistakenly believe that their beloved companion has suffered a stroke and dread the thought of euthanasia, but the condition usually resolves in a few days, much to their relief.

However, this is not always the case. Sometimes, if it looks like a stroke, it simply may be a stroke. This may be caused by FCE (fibrocartilaginous emboli), a piece of fibrous tissue or cartilage, breaking off from somewhere and causing a blockage in the flow of blood.

Such a condition must, of course, be diagnosed by a vet, and the outcome can, in fact, be dire.


Next time if you see your dog’s eyes rolling back in it’s head, think of his third eye.

Obviously, that little piece of tissue may indicate something minor, or something significantly more important as many dog health problems can be the cause .

Your pet depends on your best judgement not to ignore his symptoms. Your peace of mind, and his health depends on it.

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