They say eyes are the widows to the soul. If that’s true, dogs have beautiful souls. There’s no doubt they feel emotions just like people do, and there’s science to prove it. Though they can’t tell us how they’re feeling or what the matter is, they have other ways of telling us what we need to know. They use body language, more completely and deeply than we humans can understand. Eye contact is a big part of that. But what if your dog isn’t looking at you directly? What if they’re squinting at you? What does it mean? And why do Chihuahuas and other toy breeds seem to do it more than larger dogs? Are they okay?
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The Root of the Behavior
There is a condition, called epiphora, which means an overflow of tears. Certain breeds have a genetic condition that causes epiphora. In addition, Chihuahuas, Pugs, Cocker Spaniels, and certain other dog breeds often have a genetic deformity that affects the eyelashes or eyelids, causing them to turn inward. That inward turn causes the eyes to water, which may cause them to squint. There’s really nothing you can do about it, except keep their eyes clean and dry. If your dog suddenly starts squinting, it could be that there’s something small like dirt or another foreign substance in your dog’s eyes. Small dogs tend to be more prone to getting things in their eyes, as dirt stirred up is more likely to reach their eyes and faces. If the squinting is persistent or accompanied by other symptoms like swelling around the eyes, redness, or itchiness, you should see your vet for treatment. Eye infections can become serious if untreated.
The reverse of epiphora, called Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS), is dry eye. While mildly irritating or annoying in humans, dry eye can potentially blind your dog if left untreated. For your dog, KCS can cause the cornea to dry out, which leads to inflammation and infection. If your dog’s eyes appear to be leaking mucus, you should see your vet for treatment before the condition becomes more serious. But there's another reason why dogs squint that is not tied to their eye health. As a part of their complicated body language, they use their eyes for a lot of it. Squinting can be used as an indicator of happiness or contentment. It can also be a form of submission. Watching your dog’s other body language can help you differentiate the cause of your dog’s squinting. Submissive squinting may be accompanied by “smiling” or showing teeth. A wagging tail does not automatically mean your dog is happy either. It can mean agitation or stress. Panting is also an indicator of stress.
Encouraging the Behavior
Eye health is important in Chihuahuas. Making your regular vet check-ups is important, as is monitoring your dog for any sudden changes in health or behavior. Sudden changes are those that should be monitored most carefully, since they may often indicate when a more serious problem is going on with your dog. Keeping your dog’s eyes clean and dry is also important. If your dog has watery eyes, the fur below them may become stained. There are products available to help with staining, but mostly, wiping your dog’s face with a clean cloth or towel at least twice a day will help prevent staining.
If your dog suddenly begins squinting, try to inspect your dog's eyes carefully to make sure there isn't an injury or a foreign body in your dog's eyes. If the squinting persists, you may need to see your vet just to make sure everything is alright with your dog's eyes. Behavioral squinting, like that associated with the "smile" may be an expression of discomfort or stress. Take note of what is happening when your dog begins squinting. It may be that a new visitor or location might be causing your dog to have anxiety. You can consult your vet or a qualified trainer for advice on how to deal with your dog's stress and nervousness.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Older dogs usually experience a degeneration in their senses, especially those of sight and smell. Eye problems may develop in old age that were never previously an issue. Cataracts are commonly known to affect older dogs, but there is a less severe condition known as Nuclear Sclerosis, which creates a bluish haze on the lens of the eye. It does not normally obstruct vision and is a normal part of aging in dogs. Glaucoma is another worrisome condition that may arise. Glaucoma affects the pressure in the sensitive tissues in the eye. If left untreated, it can lead to blindness. Eye infections are another condition to look out for, and infections can lead to other problems including total blindness. Older dogs who begin to lose their sight may become nervous, uncomfortable, or defensive in new places but seem fine at home. Talk to your vet about eye health and make sure to monitor your dog’s eyes for sudden changes.
Your dog’s eyes are so much more than just organs used for seeing. They can be the most expressive part of their face. They may not know how to tell us when something is wrong, but it’s our job as responsible pet owners to pay attention to their needs and give them plenty of love and attention.