Spring 2009 Newsletter

Canine Eye Disease

By Nancy McLean, DVM

Is your dog squinting or holding her eye closed? Is your dog's eye occasionally red or runny? Have you noticed that your dog's eyes are getting cloudy as he ages or that his vision seems to be declining? Eye problems are common in dogs and can often be serious. The eye can only respond in a limited number of ways to injury. A dog who has a red eye or who is squinting might have a minor or a serious eye problem. Only a complete eye exam can determine the cause of the problem. In addition, serious eye problems must be addressed quickly to prevent loss of vision.

Common eye problems in dogs include cataracts, "cherry eye", dry eye, and glaucoma. A cataract is an opacity or cloudy appearance in the lens of the eye. The lens sits inside the eye and must be clear to allow light to reach the back of the eye. When a dog develops cataracts, the lens becomes opaque or cloudy and clear images can not be transmitted. Cataracts usually worsen with time and, as the lenses become increasingly cloudy, the dog will have limited or no vision. The most common reason for dogs to develop cataracts is because they have inherited the problem from their parents whereas cataracts in people usually develop from old age. Since this is an inherited problem in dogs, it is not uncommon for young dogs to develop cataracts. Cataracts can also develop secondary to a disease that affects the rest of the body. For example, most dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts. If you think your dog has cataracts, you should have him or her evaluated by your veterinarian. If your dog does have cataracts, your veterinarian can refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist who can remove your dog's cataracts using the same procedure that is done for human patients.

Dogs, like most animals, have a membrane that can be pulled over their eye called the third eyelid. The third eyelid has a tear gland within it that can pop out of place and become inflamed; this is called a "cherry eye." Some breeds develop "cherry eye" more than others because the attachment that anchors the gland is weak. If a "cherry eye" occurs, your dog should be seen by a veterinarian. Most of the time, the gland will need to be re-positioned surgically. The gland should not be cut out because dogs need it to make enough tears- especially in New Mexico's dry environment!

Dry eye is a common disease in dogs. It usually occurs when the dog's own immune system attacks the tear gland but occasionally it is related to problems elsewhere (e.g. ear infections or low thyroid production). Dry eye is uncomfortable for dogs. They will squint or hold their eyes closed, the whites of the eyes are red, and they often have thick discharge from one or both eyes. Tears are measured as part of a routine eye exam and, luckily, new medications can help most affected dogs.

Glaucoma is a common disease in many breeds of dogs and results from an increase in the pressure inside the eye. Fluid is constantly made in the eye and drains out through a part of the eye called the filtration angle. This part of the eye develops abnormally in some dogs so the fluid builds up and increases the pressure inside the eye. This leads to discomfort and blindness. Glaucoma can develop quickly. If it is left untreated, it rapidly causes blindness. Symptoms of glaucoma include a cloudy or blue appearance to the eye, redness to the whites of the eye, a dilated pupil, an enlarged eyeball, and blindness. Glaucoma can be treated with eye drops initially but may require surgery such as the implantation of a valve that can drain fluid from the eye or laser surgery to destroy the part of the eye that makes the fluid. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for glaucoma to lead to permanent blindness and even the loss of an eye in dogs.

Although dogs do not see as well as people (a dog with "perfect" vision is similar to a person with 20/60 vision), their sight is still important for their quality of life. In addition, eye problems can be very painful. Because the symptoms of serious eye problems are typically the same as those for minor ones, it is important for your dog to see a veterinarian right away for an eye problem. If necessary, your veterinarian can refer your dog to a veterinary ophthalmologist for additional tests or treatments. If you would like additional information about eye problems in animals, go to the website of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists at www.acvo.org.

Dr. Nancy Johnstone McLean, DVM, DACVO is a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. She has two dogs (an Australian Shepherd and a mixed breed) named Maisie and Q. McLean lives in Albuquerque with her husband and baby daughter. She works at VCA Veterinary Care Animal Hospital and Referral Center.

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