Your dog is snoring and while this can be cute, what might be a little alarming is seeing parts of their eyes rolled back into their head while they’re sleeping. Understanding why they do this starts with a basic knowledge of the eye anatomy of the dog.

Dogs have extra parts to their eyes compared to humans, one of which is called a third eyelid, which is a membrane between the outer eyelid and the dog’s eyeball. Let’s see if we can uncover some critical pieces of information that explain why your dog is rolling its eyes in the back of its head.

Why do dogs roll their eyes back while they sleep?

The simplest explanation is that they need to move the eye to be more comfortable or that they are incredibly comfortable while they are sleeping. If your dog is breathing very slowly and deeply, there is a possibility your dog is in a profoundly deep sleep.

Another reason your dog may roll their eyes back in their head sometimes could be due to physical discomfort or pressure on the eyes. This movement commonly happens if they are on something elevated above where their head is supposed to be, such as a pillow or couch, and it causes them discomfort, forcing them to roll back their eyelids.

Sometimes an eye infection is to blame. Inflammation could be building in the lower or upper levels of the eyes, making the dog uncomfortable when its eyes are open because of the pain. To relieve the pain, they may roll their eyes back.

One might be that it’s a side effect of seizures. You can suspect a seizure if the amount of movement or extreme stiffness is abnormal for your dog while the dog is sleeping. Remember, all dogs move a little bit while they sleep and are having dreams. If you aren’t sure if what you’re seeing is abnormal, then call your vet.

What to do if the dog rolls their eyes while standing up and awake?

If you’re not scratching them in their favorite places with focused attention and they are rolling their eyes in the back of their head, check for other things. Do they look at you when you call their name? Are they stiff as a board?

Were they looking off into space when it happened? Are they drooling excessively? If so, your dog might be having a seizure while awake. You should consult with the veterinarian and ask what to do next. If they are having an attack, they might start barking or acting erratically until it passes. Avoid getting bit if possible.

They might have an injury to that part of their eye you can’t see just by looking at them. By closing that third eyelid, (rolling its eyes back), the dog is protecting or trying to heal what is wrong with the eye. If this behavior accompanies excessive tearing or swelling, then take the dog to the vet.

What to do if my dog rolls their eyes back when sleeping?

You should only be concerned about this if their eyes rolling back are also accompanied by other behaviors out of character for your dog. For example, if their body is generally relaxed while sleeping, but it’s not and while this is happening the breaths are fast, shallow, and seem distressed, there could be something wrong.

There’s a chance the dog could be having a bad dream, but if that is the case, there is a chance the body and breathing will return to normal in a few seconds. You could also try softly calling the dog’s name (enough to wake them but not startle them) to see if it brings them out of it. Other times, you may need to reassure them softly enough to hear “I’m here,” and with that, they may relax and go back to better sleep.

No matter why the dog is rolling its eyes back while sleeping, you’ll want to look at the parts of the eyes you can see and examine them for unusual redness, swelling, or dark streaks of any kind. You want to make sure there isn’t a hair sticking out of it or another foreign object, for example. Don’t put your face right up to the dogs while they are sleeping, as they might react out of instinct upon waking rather than as an excellent obedient house dog.

Is it normal for a dog to roll their eyes back when sleeping?

Yes. It can depend on the dog. In many cases, though, a dog wholly shuts its eyes when sleeping. If the eyes fall open and you see part of the eye, and it looks like it’s rolled back, it’s most likely the third eyelid that is the culprit. In most cases, the third eyelid only comes up if there is an illness, infection, or injury to the eye.

Sometimes the muscle layer prolapses in these cases, causing something called “cherry eye,” which can be scary to look at. Cherry eye is treatable with a vet’s help.

Do dogs normally close their eyes when sleeping?

Yes. Dogs normally close their eyes when sleeping. Closing their eyes is more common than their eye-rolling back. In sporadic cases, if nothing is wrong with the dog and they are highly relaxed while sleeping, sometimes an eyelid will open just like a human, which can be unnerving.

Sometimes a dog is only half-asleep, and their eyes will appear to be open slightly, then closed, then open again, and finally half-open until the dog falls fully asleep. If something seems out of the ordinary for your dog with this behavior or you see something that doesn’t look right with their eyes, contact your veterinarian for more information and assistance.

Can dogs sleep with their eyes open?

Yes. Dogs can sleep with their eyes open. Their eyes normally open during a deep dream state while running free through fields or chasing their favorite furry backyard nemesis. Their eyes will flutter open, and if their head is tilted a particular way, if they are sleeping on their back, or if their eye is squished up against a pillow when they relax back into a different state of sleep, the dog’s eyes may stay open. They won’t stay open the entire night though.

Sometimes this happens purely on instinct while sleeping on their stomachs and sleeping well, but not necessarily dreaming. It’s a built-in protection method for dogs so they can keep an eye on their surroundings, even on a subconscious level. It’s a carryover behavior from prehistoric times to help keep them safe. 

Author

I created and currently manage Pet Dog Owner, the website you can go to when you have questions about your dog's behavior. It is my hope that you find Pet Dog Owner to be a helpful resource. It is also my hope that it will help you to improve your relationship with your dog. You can read more about me and my website here.