Question: My seven-year-old American Cocker Spaniel, Molly, has just been diagnosed with dry eyes. The vet has prescribed an eye ointment which is very expensive. Can you suggest any complementary therapies?
S.W., via email
Answer: Dry eye, known in medical terms as keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), is a common eye problem in dogs, especially certain breeds like the American Cocker Spaniel, West Highland White Terrier, Shih Tzu, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, English Bulldog and Pug.
Middle-aged and older dogs tend to be more prone to the condition, which is caused by a deficiency of tear film resulting in drying of the cornea and the conjunctiva—the membrane that lines the eye and eyelids.
Tears, made up of water, mucus and fatty liquid, are vital to lubricate the cornea and wash away any bacteria or dirt that contacts the eye. Any condition that impairs tear production can cause dry eye.
The most common cause is autoimmune disease, which damages the tear-producing glands. For some reason, the body's immune system attacks cells that are needed to produce part of the tear film, causing them to produce less. This means that dogs with dry eye form antibodies against their own tear glands, causing them to malfunction.
KCS may be inherited, or another theory is that it can be triggered by vaccinosis (complications associated with vaccines). Many holistic doctors believe that repeated unnecessary stimulation of the immune system by overvaccination, or vaccinating for diseases that aren't life threatening, can cause autoimmune disorders.1
Other possible causes of dry eye include hypothyroidism (underactive thyroid), infection with canine distemper virus, certain medications like sulfonamides and inner ear infections that affect the nervous system.
Diagnosis and symptoms
Dogs with dry eye will have painful, red, irritated eyes, and you'll likely notice them rubbing their eyes frequently. Some will keep their eyes semi-closed, some will squint or blink repeatedly and others will completely shut their affected eye. Both eyes are usually affected, but one eye may be worse than the other.
Many dogs have a thick, yellowish eye discharge due to a reduction in the watery component of tears. Ulceration of the cornea is also common, and chronic cases often have a history of recurrent eye injury, ulcers and conjunctivitis. Dogs may also have dull eyes and, in severe cases, may be partially blind.
Many eye conditions have similar signs and symptoms, so it's important to consult with a vet to get a confirmed diagnosis and rule out other possible causes. Your vet will perform a tear production test called the Schirmer tear test (STT), which uses special paper to measure the tear film produced in one minute.
A full eye exam with special fluorescent staining and measurement of intraocular pressure to rule out corneal ulcers and glaucoma may be warranted. Your vet will also have to check for blocked tear ducts before arriving at a diagnosis of KCS.
Conventional vets treat dry eye in two ways: by stimulating tear production and by replacing tear film to protect the cornea. The immunosuppressant drugs cyclosporine and tacrolimus are often used topically as eye ointments. They can bring big improvements, but your pet will need to take them for life.
Tear film replacements like artificial tears and carbomer-based gels are used to keep the cornea moist, and if there are corneal ulcers, topical antibiotic eye drops may also be prescribed.
Surgery is another option, which involves repositioning the salivary ducts in such a way that they secrete saliva onto your dog's eyes to moisten them. But this is a risky procedure with significant complications, and it's usually pursued only as a last resort.
An integrated approach using the topical medications prescribed by your conventional vet along with these complementary therapies can help prevent your dog from losing their vision and make it easier to cope with this serious eye condition.
Toxic chemicals your dog may be exposed to in the home, outdoors or via vaccinations can contribute to autoimmune disease, so a vital first step is to avoid exposure to as many toxic compounds as possible.
For a start, avoid vaccinations if your dog has severe KCS. Your vet may be able to provide an exemption letter, as holistic vets like myself believe it's wrong to vaccinate animals with autoimmune disorders.
Try to minimize the use of regular tick, flea and worming treatments and use natural solutions instead. Using natural formulas around the home, for example in cleaning products and toiletries, can also be helpful.
Giving your pet detox-supporting supplements may be beneficial. Daily Defense and Clinoptilolite Detox Powder by Glacier Peak Holistics are good options in the USA. In the UK, try Detox Gold made by Pet Wellbeing.
Limit or avoid dry kibble if your dog has dry eye. Use fresh, moist food and add well-cooked brown rice, potato, pasta, barley or millet to make up around 25 percent of the meal.
According to traditional Chinese veterinary medicine, you should avoid feeding your dog "warming" meats like chicken, shrimp, venison and lamb and use "cooling" meats like pork and beef. Celery, mushrooms, spinach, carrots and broccoli can be added to meals, either steamed or raw.
Omega fatty acids
Diets rich in these essential fatty acids can be helpful for autoimmune disorders.2 Omega-3s in particular may be useful for dry eye, as they have anti-inflammatory properties.
Flaxseed (also called linseed) oil contains a unique balance of omega-3 and omega-6 essential fatty acids. You could add cold-pressed flaxseed oil to your dog's daily diet (add a teaspoonful to each meal), or alternatively try a high-quality omega-3 supplement, such as Nordic Naturals Omega-3 Pet, and follow the dosing instructions on the label. Also check out my flaxseed biscuit recipe above, which your dog will love.
The following supplements may be helpful for Molly too.
Evening primrose oil
Suggested dosage: 250 mg/day
Vitamin A (as cod liver oil)
Suggested dosage: for small dogs (and cats) 2,000 mg/day; medium dogs 5,000 mg/day; and large dogs 10,000 mg/day
This traditional Chinese technique can be beneficial for all sorts of pet problems including dry eye, and it's something you can do yourself. Using your index finger, touch the following points on your dog and apply steady pressure or use small circular strokes for 30 seconds once or twice a day.
GB 20. Gallbladder 20 is located below the back of the head in a depression at the nape of the neck about half way between the spine and bottom of the ear. There are two points, one on each side, which feel like dimples and can easily be found if you move your dog's head up and down.
LI 4. Large intestine 4 is located in the web formed between the dewclaw and the first long toe on both front paws. Massage this point using your thumb and index finger using a back and forth motion.
After about a month of working on the points above, you can move onto the eye area, unless it is still very sensitive. Using your fingertips, gently massage the skin in a circular direction starting at the inner corner of the eye adjacent to the nose, then moving under the eye to the outer corner and then over the top of the eye and back to the inner corner. Massage in each direction three times and repeat twice daily.
Euphrasia (eyebright). This Western herb can help with dry eye and other eye conditions. Simply steep ½ teaspoon of the dried herb in 1 cup of boiled water (strain any particles using a coffee filter), leave it to cool, and then use as an eye wash by squeezing drops onto the eye with a clean gauze pad soaked in the tea. You can also use a dropper (use three drops three times a day), or add 1-3 tsp, depending on your pet's size, to their food.
Bilberry and marigold. These herbs can be used along with eyebright if your dog's eyes show hyperpigmentation and there's a thick discharge coming from them. Use ¼ tsp bilberry, ¼ tsp eyebright and ½ tsp marigold (fresh herbs) to 1 cup of boiled water. Steep, strain and cool, then use as an eye wash as above.
Thuja 30c. This can be helpful for pets who've experienced complications from vaccines.
Suggested dosage: 3 times daily for 5-10 days, or give 3 days before and 3 days after core vaccines.
Similasan Dry Eye Relief. These homeopathic eye drops, available on Amazon, can help to soothe dry eyes.
Suggested dosage: follow instructions on the label
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy
It can be hard to find local businesses offering this therapy for pets, but studies show it can be useful for autoimmune disorders.
1 cup (140 g) ground flaxseed meal
¾ cup (100 g) plain or self-rising flour
1 free range egg
2 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp light olive oil
2 level Tbsp dried eggshells (optional)
1) Preheat oven to 375°F/190°C. Grease an 8x11-inch baking tray (20x29 cm).
2) Combine all the ingredients together in a large bowl until the mixture comes together to make a soft dough.
3) Spread the dough evenly over the baking tray and bake for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the tray. Cut into bite-sized squares.
4) Keep in an airtight, labeled container in the fridge for up to three days, or frozen up to a month.
Variation: add a handful of finely chopped herbs such as sage, thyme and parsley
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House UK, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com