Ectopic Cilia or Eyelash Problems in Dogs

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM

What are ectopic cilia?

A cilium is a hair, and ectopic means growing out of place. Ectopic cilia are one or several hairs that grow abnormally through the conjunctiva (the pink part of the eye) and come into contact with the surface of the eye (cornea). These abnormal hairs most commonly occur on the upper middle eyelid.

"The offending hairs rub against the cornea, often causing intense pain and corneal ulcers."

The offending hairs rub against the cornea, often causing intense pain and corneal ulcers (scratches that progressively get worse). These abnormal hairs must be removed or serious damage to the eye may occur. Ectopic cilia are most commonly diagnosed in young dogs and are very rare in cats.

Ectopic cilia are not the same as Distichia, although ectopic cilia are considered a form of distichiasis because their origins are similar. Distichia are extra eyelashes that, due to abnormal conformation, rub against the cornea. Some breeds such as the American cocker spaniel normally have long eyelashes that may contact the cornea but cause no problem. When distichia causes corneal irritation or discomfort, they should be surgically removed.

What are the clinical signs of ectopic cilia?

The clinical signs associated with ectopic cilia are those associated with corneal ulcers and eye pain. The eye and conjunctiva may appear reddened or inflamed with excessive tearing or discharge.

"The dog rubs or paws at the eye because it is uncomfortable."

The dog often rubs or paws at the eye because it is uncomfortable. Affected dogs often hold the eye tightly closed and blink uncontrollably (blepharospasm).

Are certain breeds more likely to have ectopic cilia?

Although ectopic cilia can occur in any dog, certain breeds have a higher incidence of ectopic cilia than others. Some of these breeds include:

  • Shih Tzu
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Boxer Dogs
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Flat-Coated Retrievers
  • English Bulldog
  • Pug
  • Pekingese
  • Labradoodle
  • Jack Russell Terrier

How are ectopic cilia diagnosed?

Diagnosis is usually made on physical examination. Some dogs will require topical anesthetics or sedatives to relieve the intense discomfort and allow a thorough examination of the tissues surrounding the eye (eyelids, eyelashes, tear ducts, third eyelid, etc.). Corneal staining will be performed to assess the cornea and to determine if any corneal ulceration is present. The ulcer is often at the central upper portion of the cornea (the 12 o’clock position), as this is where ectopic cilia most commonly develop from.

How is the condition treated?

The treatment for ectopic cilia involves surgical removal of the offending hairs. The problematic hairs can be removed surgically using a scalpel or punch biopsy, as long as enough of the surrounding tissue is also removed. Alternatively, cryosurgery (freezing) can be used to effectively kill the follicle. Any secondary corneal ulcers will be treated with topical ophthalmic antibiotics and systemic pain medications. An Elizabethan collar (E-collar or cone) may be worn to prevent self-trauma.

What is the prognosis for ectopic cilia?

The prognosis for surgical correction of this condition is generally good. Some dogs may develop additional ectopic cilia later in life that will also require surgical removal. Your veterinarian will discuss a diagnostic and treatment plan for your dog to help you successfully treat this condition.

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