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Home > Dogs > Whale Eyes in Dogs: Vet-Approved Signs, Causes, & FAQ

Whale Eyes in Dogs: Vet-Approved Signs, Causes, & FAQ

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Dr. Lorna Whittemore

Veterinarian, MRCVS

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Whale eyes refer to the look your dog gives you when you can see the whites of their eyes when their heads are slightly turned. From observing your dog, you’ll probably be familiar with whale eyes, even if you didn’t know what it was called until now.

Dogs communicate in various ways through their body language, and whale eyes generally mean your dog is anxious or stressed. We’ll discuss whale eyes in detail and how to keep your dog from becoming stressed below.


What Are Whale Eyes in Dogs?

Whale eyes are caused by your dog moving their head but not their eyes, so it shows the whites of their eyes (sclera). Sometimes their eyes might look bigger as well. Whale eyes are sometimes referred to as “half-moon eyes” because the exposed white part of the eyes forms a crescent shape around the dog’s iris.

We’ve all seen those supposedly cute photos of toddlers hugging their best dog friend. However if you look closely many times the dog will be displaying whale eye as in general dogs do not like hugs. To keep your kids safe, teach them other ways to interact with your dog and be on the lookout for whale eye so that you can remove your child from the situation.

A dog exhibiting whale eyes usually feels stressed or fearful. You need to be aware of it because it can indicate that your dog will become defensively aggressive. Anxiety can escalate and become aggression if your dog feels threatened and that their signals have not been responded to. So if you notice whale eyes, it’s best to back away from your dog and give them space until they relax. In the meantime, you can figure out what’s wrong.

Sometimes dogs will give you a playful side-eye to indicate they want to play. So, it’s essential to know which signs to be alert for that indicate your pup is afraid or stressed vs wanting to play and to take context into account.

sad and worried border collie dog lying on a wood floor
Image By: Elayne Massaini, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Whale Eyes?

Whale eyes can indicate stress, but dogs can show other signs of being stressed, such as:

  • Lip-licking
  • Turning their head away
  • Licking your face (appeasement licks)
  • Panting
  • Raised hackles
  • Stiff body movements
  • Tucked ears
  • Tucked tail
  • Yawning

If your dog is displaying whale eye in combination with any of the above signs they are clearly showing to you with dog language that they need some space from the situation they are in.

What Are the Causes of Whale Eyes?

The causes of fear and anxiety in your dog can vary because, just like humans, what stresses one dog out might not stress another. The first step is to check their surroundings. Is there a child nearby? Is there a stranger approaching the front door? Or is someone touching their favorite toy? You might be causing them stress by touching them when they would rather not be touched or the kids have cuddled up too close on the sofa. If you identify the problem, you can remove the stressor and let them leave the room for some peace to regroup.

Avoid being overly comforting, and if you want to give them treats, allow them to earn them by sitting, for example. This will also distract your dog and give them a sense of normalcy when feeling out of control.

What Do I Do When My Dog Exhibits Whale Eyes Regularly?

It’s vital to remain calm and resist scolding your dog—they are looking to you to help, and using harsh words will only make them feel more anxious and fearful. If you cannot remove the stressor because it is outside, you can remove your dog from the situation.

Learn about dog behavior and body language. A useful visual aid is the canine ladder of aggression which shows all the opportunities to de-escalate a situation before it results in a bite, by responding to your dogs cues.

If your dog is exhibiting signs of fear and stress regularly, contact your veterinarian, so they can examine your pet for health issues. When dogs are in pain, they can experience anxiety and stress. Your vet can also refer you to a veterinary behaviorist or trainer who will evaluate them for stress-related issues.

Exercise can also be a wonderful stress reliever for your dog, just as it can for you. Activities like playing fetch, walking, or hiking are great bonding experiences and can also relieve tension. You can also keep your dog relaxed by preparing a quiet area in your home with their bed and toys, so they can retreat when the noise or commotion becomes overwhelming.

a sick vizsla dog lying on a dog bed at home
Image By: Edgar Feliz, Shutterstock

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How Can Stress Affect My Dog?

Stress can physically affect your dog and cause diarrhea and vomiting. It’s important to note that vomiting and diarrhea have other causes, too. So, if their diarrhea lasts longer than 24 hours or they’ve vomited, it’s best to contact your vet for advice.

Your dog might also engage in compulsive behaviors, like tail chasing or licking themselves raw. Your dog might also shed more often, and you may notice bald spots or more fur lying around than usual. Medical conditions can also be behind an increase in fur loss and compulsive behaviors, so be sure to get them checked out by the vet.

Which Activities Can I Do With My Dog to Relieve Stress?

Exercise is one of the best ways to combat stress and anxiety. Not only will it distract your dog, but it will also get them out and moving, which is excellent for their mental and physical health. Some of the activities you can enjoy with your dog to relieve stress include the following:

  • Pick a dog-friendly park and have a picnic
  • Take an agility or obedience class
  • Teach your dog new tricks
  • Buy a new toy together
  • Go to the beach
  • Make a puzzle for your dog to solve
  • Play in the leaves, snow, or sprinkler
  • Meet up with a friend for a run around the park

Bonding with your dog can take on any form, and it’s a great way to reassure them that they’re safe and loved. It will also help you get to know your dog better so you understand what they enjoy and what makes them feel stressed out.

Group of dogs playing in the park
Image By: Lunja, Shutterstock



Whale eyes are not a medical condition but can indicate that your dog feels anxious or stressed. Stress can become debilitating if it’s not addressed promptly, but by identifying the signs your dog is stressed, you can take steps to calm them down and remove the source of their anxiety. However, contact your veterinarian if you cannot determine why your dog is upset or relieve their stress. Your vet can examine them to rule out a medical issue, provide calming medications, or refer you to a veterinary behaviorist.

Featured Image Credit: ALEX_UGALEK, Shutterstock

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