Tibetan Spaniels in Warrenton, VA
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Virtually all purebred dog breeds suffer from one or more inherited diseases.  And although the Tibetan Spaniel is generally a healthy, hardy breed, they do have a predisposition to some problems.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

This is a genetic, inherited disease that occurs in both eyes simultaneously, affecting the retina - the surface on the back wall of the inside of the eye. This tissue is composed of two classes of photoreceptor cells, called rods and cones; the rods function in dim light, and the cones in bright light. A dog affected with PRA starts by having trouble seeing in a dim light, and then gradually loses the ability to see in bright light as well. Eventually he will become completely blind.

PRA occurs in most breeds of dogs, but is a little more common in Tibetan Spaniels. It was first documented in Tibbies in 1988 and affects them as a late onset form of the disease.  Affected dogs appear normal when young, but develop PRA as adults.  It is not painful, but there is no cure for it, although a nutritional antioxidant supplement for retinal health may help to slow the progression of the disease.

The first sign of PRA is usually the dog being hesitant about moving from light to dark areas, as he is aware that his vision is impaired. With Tibbies this is often seen between the ages of 18 months and 4 years, but the onset can occasionally be much later.

At the moment there is no way to predict which dogs will be affected, and no cure for those who are, but fortunately, most dogs very quickly adjust to the loss of sight and cope remarkably well.

Cherry Eye

Another potential problem related to the eye is a condition known as "cherry eye".  The medical term for this is nictitans gland prolapse, or prolapse of the gland of the 'third eyelid'.  Dogs have a third eyelid located in the corner of each eye.  The nictitans gland is responsible for the production of tears, and is not normally visible. In cherry eye, the gland comes out of its normal position and swells, creating a visible red lump.

The exact cause of the problem is not known, but it is thought that it is due to a weakness of the tissue that attaches the gland to the surrounding structures of the eye. Once the gland prolapses it can become infected and begin to swell, becoming irritated, red, and swollen. There is sometimes a mucous discharge associated with the condition as well.

The treatment of cherry eye is very straightforward and consists of surgically repositioning the gland.  This procedure consists of tacking the gland back in place with a suture that attaches it to the structure of the eye socket.  The surgery is usually quick and easy and has very few complications.

Liver Shunt - Portosystemic Shunt

More properly called a portosystemic shunt, this is an abnormal connection between blood vessels, that allows blood to bypass the liver.  The portal vein is a major vessel in the body that enters the liver and allows toxic components of the blood to be detoxified.  When a shunt is present, the portal vein is connected to another vein which allows the blood to flow around the liver, instead of into it.

If a shunt is present it will usually be apparent by the time a dog is a young adult but occasionally it might be diagnosed later in life.  Depending on how much of the blood flow is being diverted, there can be a large variation in the clinical signs of the condition.  Failure of a puppy to grow at the normal rate is often an early indicator.  Other symptoms include:

  • Abnormal behavior after eating
  • Pacing and aimless wandering
  • Depression
  • Weakness
  • Seizures
  • Poor appetite
  • Stunted growth
  • Excessive sleeping and lethargy
  • Straining to urinate (because of bladder stone formation)

The treatment is usually surgical intervention to correct the shunt - after the dog has been medically stabilized by the veterinarian.

Weeping Eyes

This is a non-specific term that covers a number of problems referring to excessive tearing.  In the Tibetan Spaniel the configuration of the face can push the facial hair against the eyes, irritating them and causing tearing.  The tears will naturally drain away through the nose but if there are too many tears, they will overflow onto the face.

Facial hair also sometimes acts like a "wick" to draw the tears onto the face.  In most cases this really isn't anything to worry about and doesn't have any long term consequences.  Attention to cleaning the area around the eyes when grooming will help to prevent infection and discoloring.


As with a number of purebred dog breeds, susceptibility to allergies in Tibbies appears to be increasing.  The signs to watch for are similar to those in people, such as watering eyes.  This will usually be a temporary, seasonal affliction, but if the problem is acute, it may be necessary to consult your veterinarian.

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