There is increasing evidence from animal studies in support of the concept of an active emmetropization mechanism which has potentially important clinical ramifications for the management of refractive errors. Recent research into refractive development and emmetropization is reviewed, with emphasis given to work involving the chick, tree shrew and monkey, which represent the three most widely used animal models in this field. The findings of this research are reviewed in a clinical context. Compensatory eye growth responses to focusing errors imposed by lenses represent the most compelling evidence for active emmetropization. These observations are complemented by other evidence showing recovery from induced refractive errors such as form-deprivation myopia. Of the animals listed above, chicks show the most impressive emmetropization, being able to compensate fully (using choroidal and scleral mechanisms) to lens powers ranging from +15 D to -10 D. The range of lens powers eliciting appropriate compensatory responses is narrower in the tree shrew and monkey, and the response patterns generally are also more complex to interpret. These data relate to young animals and together indicate refractive plasticity during development. Extrapolation of these findings to humans predicts that natural emmetropization will be inhibited in neonates by early intervention with prescription lenses, and that refractive correction of myopia will lead to accelerated progression. This convincing evidence for active emmetropization warrants due consideration in developing clinical management strategies for refractive errors.