Why Do My Dog's Eyes Look Sunken In?

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Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

Help! My Dog Has Sunken Eyes

If you wake up one morning and find your dog's eyes sunken in, you may be wondering what is happening, and you'll obviously be concerned. The reasons why a dog's eyes would sink in are several, ranging from not-so-severe issues to severe issues requiring immediate veterinary attention.

First and foremost, what's a sinking eye and what does it look like? The medical term for sunken eyes is enophthalmia, meaning "recession of the eyeball within the orbit."

Key Topics

  1. Pay Attention to Sunken Eyes in Dogs
  2. Causes of Unilateral Sunken Eyes in Dogs
  3. Causes of Bilateral Sunken Eyes in Dogs
  4. The Bottom Line: See Your Vet
  5. Further Reading

Pay Attention to Sunken Eyes in Dogs

A dog's eyes sit in the eye socket, a bony cavity in the skull with a concave shape meant to purposely accommodate the eyes. Normally, eyes in dogs are neither sunken (enophthalumus) nor bulging (exophthalmos); rather, they're sitting well into the eye socket.

In certain breeds, though, prominent, loosely set eyes are the norm, as seen in the Pug, Pekingese, Boston Terrier, French Bulldog, or Shih Tzu. On the other hand, the eyes in some breeds are set deep, as seen in long-nosed breeds such as Border Collies.

How Do Sunken Eyes Happen?

When eyes appear abnormally sunken, they will be likely noticeable to owners, but how exactly does this happen? What mechanism is behind sunken, hollow eyes in dogs? There are different dynamics that could take place when we see a sunken eye in dogs. Following are a few:

  • Atrophied Fat Pads: Fat pads, which sit under the dog's eyes, are responsible for providing padding in a cushion-like manner and allowing free movement of the eyes. When these fat pads atrophy, though, usually due to loss of fat, the eyes appear sunken in.
  • Muscle Spasm: According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the dog's eyes have a retractor muscle that, when it spasms, causes the eye to sink in. This can happen in certain local or systemic medical conditions we will see below.
  • Sympathetic Trunk Damage: Sunken eyes may also be seen when a group of nerves of the sympathetic trunk are damaged. These nerves branch off from the spinal cord in the dog's chest and then climb upwards to the neck and face. The sunken eye is found on the same side of the damaged nerves.
  • Masses: Another reason could be the presence of a mass. While masses arising from the posterior part of the eye cause the eye to protrude, masses found in the front, anterior part of the eye cause the affected eye to sink in, explain William C. Aaroe, a veterinarian, and Juliet R. Gionfriddo, a veterinary ophthalmologist, in an article for DVM360.

The causes of sunken eyes in dogs are various, and when it comes to diagnostics, a lot can be deduced based on whether the sinking affects one eye or both. In the next paragraph, we'll see some causes of sinking eyes in dogs.

Veterinarian Karen Becker Talks About Horner's Syndrome


If your dog's eyes appear sunken, of course you should see the vet to determine what's exactly going on. The following conditions listed below are NOT a diagnosis and not meant to substitute professional veterinary advice. They may help you understand common causes, though, and help you realize why that vet appointment shouldn't be delayed.

Following are some causes of sunken eyes in dogs. They have been divided in sections so to differentiate problems commonly affecting only one eye or both.

Causes of Unilateral Sunken Eyes in Dogs

When a dog presents with only one sunken eye, it's often a sign of a problem within the eye itself, but not always. Several causes of sunken eyes in dogs fall under the Horner's Syndrome category. According to Eye Care for Animals:

"A syndrome is a collection of symptoms that often has a limited number of causes and can thus help doctors diagnose the underlying problem."

Horner's syndrome takes place when the group of nerves leading to the eyes are damaged. In this syndrome, the dog develops sunken eyes along with an elevated third eyelid, a droopy eyelid and often one pupil smaller than the other one. The causes are various. Following are some conditions commonly affecting one eye.

Traumatic Eye Injury

Veterinarian Dr. Christian K. explains that sometimes an eye injury can cause a loss of fluid from the inside that causes the eye to sink in. The eye is usually painful. Also, painful eye conditions such as uveitis, conjunctivitis and presence of eye ulcers may trigger the dog's retractor bulbi muscles to retract the eye globe back into its socket as a protective measure. When dealing with eye injuries, it's important to see the vet the same day as they may considerably worsen quickly, and vision loss is possible.


As mentioned, masses in the anterior portion of the eye cause the eye to sink in. These masses can be accompanied by an elevated third eyelid. The masses are typically minimally painful and slow to progress. Ocular masses may sometimes be benign, but they also can be malignant and spread to other body parts (metastasizing).

Horner's Syndrome

This is a neurological cause of sunken eyes in dogs, even though sometimes, an exact cause cannot be found, which in this scenario, Horner's syndrome is referred to as being "idiopathic". When the cause is neurological, how are the dog's eyes affected? An injury to the neck or intervertebral disc disease may damage the nerves of the spinal column leading to the eyes and trigger Horner's syndrome. Other potential causes of Horner's may be a middle ear or inner ear infection, head injury, a growth pressing on nerves,a bite wound, use of choke collars or even a recent blood sample taken from the dog's jugular vein. Symptoms include:

  • Enophthalmos (sunken eye)
  • Ptosis (droopy eyelid)
  • Miosis (constricted pupil)
  • Presence of nictitating membrane (protruding third eyelid)

In this syndrome, the affected eye is not painful, but dogs may have trouble seeing. The effects on the eyes as mentioned are caused by some sort of damage to the nerves responsible for important functions such as the size of the pupils.The damage can occur anywhere along the nerve's pathway including within the brain and spinal cord, between the chest cavity and the base of the skull, and between the base of the skull and eye. The vet will therefore need to determine the exact problem area. When a cause cannot be found, it's known as "idiopathic."

Did you know?

"Dogs do not have the range of eye movements that humans do, but they can move their eyes in one direction people can not: backwards! They have a muscle that humans do not, the retractor bulbi, which enables them to retract their eyes back into their sockets---an ability you may be reminded of when you try to put drops in your dog’s eyes."

— D. Caroline Coile Ph.D

Causes of Bilateral Sunken Eyes in Dogs

In some cases, both eyes appear sunken. When this happens, the cause is often more systemic than localized. This means it affects multiple body parts and very likely there are other accompanying symptoms affecting other body parts or organs. Following are some causes of eyes sinking in affecting both eyes.


Since the body is for the great part made of water, dehydration causes shrinkage of all the major tissues, including those fat pad found around the eye. Also, the water content within the eyeball is affected.Therefore, when a dog is severely dehydrated, the fat pads behind the eye lose substance and eyeball dehydrates causing the eyeball to sink in. Usually dogs with this level of dehydration will also have dry gums, dry nose, dry eyes and loose skin that stays lifted over the shoulder blades and back when lifted up.

Weight Loss

Dogs that are emaciated and suffer great weight loss also have sunken eyes since again those fat pads will be depleted and atrophied. Malnutrition, starvation and weight loss may therefore be another cause for sunken eyes in dogs.

Systemic Diseases

Systemic diseases affect several body parts and therefore there are several symptoms and these may include the eyes which may appear sunken. Tick paralysis, may cause many neurological complications including abnormal reflexes, weakness and sunken eyes. According to the Dog Owner's Veterinary Handbook, tetanus may cause the retractor muscles of the eyes to spasm in both eyeballs, causing the sunken eye appearance accompanied by exposure of the dog's third eyelid. Other systemic conditions, such as parvo, may cause sunken eyes secondary to dehydration.

The Bottom Line: See Your Vet

There are several reasons dogs may develop sunken eyes, and, as we've seen, they're all quite serious. If your dog presents sunken eyes or any other abnormalities, please see your vet.

For Further Reading

  • Why are My Dog's Eyes Darting Back and Forth?
    Why are your dog's eyes darting back and forth? What causes nystagmus in dogs along with the scary accompanying symptoms? Discover some possible causes.
  • Dog Stool Information: What do Normal Dog Stools Loo...
    What do normal dog stools look like? Why does a dog's stool start firm and then turns soft? What's the normal color? Why is there mucus in the dog's stool? Answers to some common questions.
  • My Dog Has a Dry Nose, Should I be Concerned?
    Does your dog have a dry nose and you are worried about it? Learn potential causes of dog dry nose and when it's time to be concerned.
  • What Your Dog's Gum Color and Appearance Can Tell Ab...
    What do pale gums in dogs look like and most of all, what makes a dog's gums pale? In this article we will talk about abnormal gums and why it's important to take your dog immediately to the vet.

WILLIAM on July 08, 2017:


torrilynn on May 11, 2015:

thanks for the useful article. its always best to notice the symptoms and signs ahead of time. best of wishes.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 09, 2015:

Thank you Kathleen, indeed, some physical changes are not that evident, but if we pay close attention and learn what to look for, we can better understand what the dog's body is trying to say so we can take care of them and have them see the vet.

Kathleen Kerswig on May 09, 2015:

Anyone who is a dog-lover could benefit from this article. This information could help someone who would not normally have paid attention to their dog's sunken eyes. This is a good thing you are doing - helping pet owners take better care of their beloved pets. Blessings!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on May 08, 2015:

Oh that a symptom. I though he had sleepless night

Steps for Applying Your Dog's Eye Medication

Treatment for eye problems sometimes requires eyedrops or ointments, both easier to administer with a few quick tips:

  • Have the eyedrops or ointment close at hand, then clean away any discharge around your dog's eyes with warm water and a cotton ball.
  • For eyedrops, tilt your dog's head back a little. Then, resting your hand on your dog's head so you don't hit its eye with the dropper if the dog moves, squeeze drops into the upper part of your dog's eye.
  • To apply eye ointment, gently pull down your dog's lower lid, creating a pocket for the ointment. Rest your hand on your dog's head. That way, if the dog moves, you won't hit the eye with the ointment applicator. Then squeeze a ribbon of ointment into the dog's eye.
  • Gently open and close the lids for a few seconds to help spread the ointment or drops evenly.


Cloudy Eyes in Dogs

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then it is no wonder we get worried when our dog’s eyes start getting cloudy. After all, we don’t want our dogs to lose their vision or be uncomfortable.

When dogs have cloudy eyes, it may be a natural part of the aging process. But cloudy eyes also can be a symptom of a number of eye problems. Trying to distinguish between what is normal and what is a problem can be tricky. While your veterinarian is your best source of information about your dog’s eye health, it helps to know what types of problems can cause a cloudy appearance in your dog’s eyes, and any other symptoms you can look out for.

The most common causes of cloudy eyes in senior dogs are nuclear sclerosis and cataracts. However, there are some other conditions that can also create a cloudy appearance in your dog’s eyes that require immediate veterinary attention.

What to Do If Your Dog Is Staring at a Wall

If your dog is staring at the wall, the first thing to remember is not to panic. Just because you’ve caught your dog staring at the wall once does not mean that your dog has CDS, a seizure disorder, compulsive behavior, or cancer.

However, if you notice that your dog stares at the wall on a regular basis, or that the staring is accompanied by other changes in behavior, call your veterinarian. You should also consider videotaping the episodes and documenting the date, time, and duration to show to your veterinarian, especially if there have been repeated episodes.

Many of the causes of staring are treatable, and it is important to take this symptom seriously, no matter how minor it may seem.

To test if your dog is dehydrated, use your thumb and forefinger to pinch a little skin on their back or the top of their head. If they are well hydrated, the skin should spring back when you release it. As the skin loses moisture, it will move back into place more slowly. In the most severe cases of dehydration, it does not spring back at all.

Any reduction in elasticity of your pet’s skin is known as a ‘skin tent’. Animals which are emaciated or obese often have mild ‘skin tent’. This does not necessarily mean they are dehydrated. This can be difficult to assess in older animals, those with thick or long-hair coats or breeds with excessive skin folds.

Watch the video: Why Is Your Dog Looking At You?

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