Home Care for Watery or Runny Eyes

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runny eyes

A watery or runny eye is one of the most common symptoms seen in dogs. It can be a minor issue or a major problem. Like many pet owners, you may not know what to do when your dog has a runny eye, so this article will focus on what you can do for your pet at home. If you were to call and ask me about a problem I’d most likely tell you to see your vet. However, I realize there are some situations that make seeing a veterinarian very difficult. Maybe an emergency happens when no clinics are open and emergency care isn’t available. Maybe you just don’t have the money and can’t afford a vet visit. I understand that things happen.

Let me be clear: I don’t want the advice below to replace your vet. It is meant only to help you in case you can’t see your vet. Many pet owners make harmful choices because they don’t get any advice. With this series of articles, I want to help you prevent harming your dog. I’ll try to guide you through dealing with specific problems as though you were a friend of mine and I was talking you through a problem on the phone.

Here are some of the most common questions pet owners ask vets about runny eyes.

What is a Runny Eye?

The term “runny eye” refers to an abnormal increase in eye discharge. Sometimes the discharge can be very watery and other times it can be thicker and similar in consistency to glue.  In general, the more discharge, the more serious the problem.

What Causes a Runny Eye?

Symptoms can be caused by a variety of problems including a lack of tear drainage due to abnormal or obstructed tear ducts or tear duct openings. Another common culprit is excessive production of tears by the tear glands due to irritation or inflammation of the surface structures of the eye, or from pain in or around the eye. Causes can include:

  • Keratitis (inflammation of the cornea)
  • Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the conjunctiva)
  • Eyelid defects or abnormalities
  • Blepharitis (inflammation of eyelids)
  • Corneal ulcers
  • Glaucoma
  • Lens luxation (displacement)
  • Uveitis (inflammation of the iris and blood vessel layers within the eye)
  • Trauma
  • Keratoconjunctivitis sicca or dry eye syndrome
  • Foreign object in the eye (most commonly plant material)

For a full list of possible causes, go to causes of eye discharge.

What Can I Do at Home?

Specific home treatments are dependent on the cause of the watery eye. Here is the general approach to treat a watery-eyed dog:

  • Consider if there was a cause for eye discharge. Did the dog get in a fight? Suffer trauma? Get scratched? Had a recent bath where shampoo could have gotten into the eye? These are all common causes for trauma or corneal ulcers which should be evaluated by a veterinarian.
  • If your dog’s eye has only a small amount of discharge and your dog is not scratching at the eye or squinting, it is possible it is a short-term problem that will resolve.  However, if the eye is extremely red and the dog is acting pained (rubbing or scratching at the eye or squinting), the condition may be more serious.
  • If you can find any predisposing cause such as aerosols in the air, shampoo in the eye or other causes of trauma, immediately cease using the irritating products and take care to ensure that problems do not occur in the future.
  • If your dog has a watery eye and you cannot take your dog to your veterinarian (always the best recommendation), then you may try the following:
  • If possible, try to examine the eye. Does the cornea look normal? Do you see anything in the eye? Again, if the eye is extremely red or your dog acts as if he is in pain, the BEST thing is to have your dog evaluated by a veterinarian.
  • Gently wipe the discharge from the hair around the eye with a warm moist tissue. This way you can determine whether the discharge is recent or might have occurred a few hours ago; a recent discharge will still be wet.
  • Flush the eye with sterile eyewash from the pharmacy. You may need a helper; it can be difficult to hold a dog still for this procedure depending on how badly the eye hurts and the dog’s personality.
  • Do not put anything in the eye not designed for that specific use or recommended by your vet. It is best to only use prescription medications provided by a veterinary office (prescriptions filled online may be expired or come from uncertain origins). Many prescription medications include neobacimyx (B.N.P. triple antibiotic ointment for the eyes (bacitracin/neomycin/polymyxin)), which is available over-the-counter (without a prescription) at many pharmacies.  Remember that most antibiotic ointments are more effective when used every 4 hours for 3 days. If you purchase an over the counter eye medication, please be sure there are no steroid (often hydrocortisone) ingredients unless your pet has been evaluated by a veterinarian. Steroids can delay healing and cause serious problems if there is an ulcer, infection or other damage to the eye.
  • Use an Elizabethan collar (“e-collar”) to prevent your dog from scratching at the eye. A dog can do very serious damage to an eye in a short period of time by scratching or rubbing at it. You can purchase e-collars from your vet or most pet stores. Carefully continue to evaluate your dog. If the eye looks worse in ANY way, please see your veterinarian.
  • This is important! If your dog’s eye remains red or their condition worsens, or your dog is squinting or trying to rub at the eye, call your veterinarian promptly. The same goes if your pet stops eating, acts lethargic, vomits, has diarrhea, or shows any other physical abnormalities mentioned above. Your pet needs your help and the professional care your veterinarian can provide. If your pet is having the clinical signs mentioned above, expect your veterinarian to perform some diagnostic tests and make treatment recommendations. Those recommendations will be dependent upon the severity and nature of the clinical signs.

When is a Watery Eye an Emergency?

A watery eye is an emergency if your dog is rubbing at the eye, you notice blood, the eye looks cloudy, you see something in the eye, the pupils are different sizes or you notice your dog squinting or holding the eye closed.  Any of these signs warrant medical attention; please see your veterinarian.

Great Links for More Information

For more details on runny or watery eyes, go to our articles on Eye Discharge in Dogs and Red Eyes in Dogs.

Related topics include Corneal Ulcers in Dogs, Glaucoma in Dogs, Eye Trauma, and Uveitis in Dogs.

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