Eye health in dogs

December 18th, 2008

Eye health in dogs is about as complex as it gets, with a myriad of canine eye conditions and complaints. Sue Moses finds most conditions can be treated and, at the very worst, a blind dog can lead a happy life.

Melbourne animal-eyecare ophthalmologist, Dr Robin Stanley, says a blind dog initially copes much better than its owner. While the thought is daunting, the fact is, dogs rely on sight, smell and hearing equally, and can cope well without one, providing their environment is controlled.

Very few of my clients choose to euthanase a dog that has or will become blind, Stanley says.

However, most eye conditions do not deteriorate to blindness. Many can be treated at a general veterinary practice, providing swift action is taken. Excessive squinting or blinking, or eyes that appear weepy, cloudy, red or sore, all warrant a prompt trip to your local veterinarian.

Stanley says vets commonly refer patients to an animal ophthalmologist for specific diagnosis and treatment. Many problems are inherited (genetic), he says. Most importantly, I advise people to do some research into the breed of dog they are getting. Certain breeds are prone to particular eye problems, and it is wise to do some research to find out which breeds are prone to these problems. Speak to the breeders and establish if they are dedicated.

Stanley says that in recent years, much had been done to reduce genetic eye conditions, with the formation of the Australian Canine Eye Scheme (ACES) by the Australian Veterinary Association and the Australian and New Zealand Kennel Council.

The scheme monitors the breeding of dogs prone to eye conditions and has greatly reduced the problems. The scheme requires breeders to use breeding dogs that are known to be free from hereditary conditions, as well as checking all puppies.

Breeders who belong to this scheme have committed to what is a form of quality control, and it is worth checking if a breeder is a member, Stanley says.


Many vulnerable breeds are to known eye conditions, including Collies, Gold Retrievers, Poodles, Cocker Spaniels and Labradors. Many breeders have been trying hard to reduce the incidence of inherited eye diseases. One of the common genetic conditions is cataract, a condition where the lens of the eye changes from clear to opaque, eventually causing blindness.

Inherited cataract usually strikes purebreds before the age of six. However, cataract can also be the result of diabetes or old age. Stanley says the treatment of cataract is an area that has greatly advanced through modern medicine. Revolutionary surgery now allows the cataract to be removed through a tiny incision and an intra-ocular lens implant. Two small incisions are made into the eye. The cataract is removed and a plastic lens inserted. The incision is then stitched, closed with hair-like dissolving sutures.

Treatment is most successful if performed earlier rather than later, Stanley says. Average cost is about $3400 for the surgery to be performed on both eyes.

Once again, Stanley says most of his clients do not hesitate about having the surgery performed, knowing it provides the opportunity to restore their beloved pets vision.

Genetic eye conditions

Cataract can also be a secondary condition of the serious genetic condition known as Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). In these cases, the cataracts are not usually removed, as the retina is permanently damaged and there is no hope of restoring vision.

Often confused with cataract, is a less serious condition called sclerosis, seen in dogs that reach the age of about nine years. This is an ageing process, where the lens of the eye changes from flexible and clear to become crystallised, taking on a hazy blue appearance.

There is some deterioration of eyesight, which can be likened to humans finding they can no longer read small print as easily as they once did. The condition does not require treatment.

[Writers note: when my own Terrier was diagnosed with the condition, I was told by the veterinarian it would not affect her too much, unless she enjoyed fine embroidery!]

A much more serious condition, also known to be inherited, is glaucoma high pressure in the eyeball. This is the medical emergency of canine eye conditions, and there isnt necessarily a specific cause. The lens of the eye can luxate (turn) and the retina is at risk of becoming detached both causing much pain and blindness in most cases. Persistent pawing or rubbing an eye indicates the discomfort. In many cases, it is necessary to remove the eye, and the concern is then that the condition will affect the other eye.

Dry eye – keratoconjunctivitis sicca – is another of the inherited conditions, where not enough tears are produced. Miniature Schnauzers, West Highland White Terriers and Cavaliers are among the breeds affected. Dogs with protruding eyes, such as pugs, are also likely candidates. Artificial tears in the form of drops, to lubricate the eye, are among the treatment options, while cyclosporine ointment can be administered to encourage the formation of more tears.


Dogs with this condition are more likely to develop conjunctivitis, a bacterial infection, which can also develop due to allergy. The treatment can include a combination of antibiotic ointment with Calendula tea, a tried-and-true a natural remedy.

This natural and cost-effective treatment is widely recommended by veterinarians. Dr Emma Tomkins says the natural soothing remedy is very useful in assisting with the treatment of eye conditions, including allergies and trauma. Whenever there is inflammation present, it is very helpful, she says.

Clients can buy the leaf, with natural anti-inflammatory properties, make the tea themselves and wipe the eye four to six times a day. For some conditions, it is a great alternative to long-term steroidal medications, which can lead to thinning of the cornea, such as when treating an allergy that may be ongoing, Tomkins says. People also find it great when they have hayfever.

Tomkins says she has encountered a large amount of canine eye conditions, particularly in the spring and summer, when grass seeds played havoc, commonly lodging under the eyelid. Removing the offending seed and administering antibiotics usually has the dog well on the road to recovery. However, in some cases where the grass seed has scratched the surface of the eyeball, a corneal ulcer can develop.

Tomkins refers some patients that require specialist diagnosis and treatment to ophthalmologists. We see dogs that have trauma injuries to the eye and the surrounds of the eye from incidents like car accidents or fighting; these add to the many genetic conditions, she says.

Eyelid abnormalities

Tomkins also sees a range of eyelid abnormalities. Entropion is a condition where the eyelid may roll inwards so the hairs of the eyelid rub against the eyeball. This causes discomfort and ulcers, but can be corrected with surgery.

Entropion is found in particular breeds, as is its sister condition ectropion, where the eyelids roll outwards. This is found in the droopy-eyed breeds, such as Bloodhounds, Saint Bernards and Basset Hounds, and can be corrected with surgery if necessary.

Having extra eyelashes is a condition called ectopic cilia, while distichia is when there is a double row of eyelashes. Ectopic cilia are usually single eyelid hairs that are growing the wrong way, and they actually grow right onto the eye, causing severe pain. Both conditions can be corrected with surgery.

To help relieve pain and inflammation, some vets or natural animal-health clinics make herbal eye mixtures that can be used alone or in conjunction with other forms of treatment. Dietary supplements are also available to promote eye health, with ingredients including vitamin A and E, and antioxidants to promote healthy eye pigment.

If you are concerned about your dogs eyes, please consult your local vet or animal naturopath.

The Australian Canine Eye Scheme (ACES)


ACES is a national assessment system for registered dog breeds, offering qualified certification for a range of congenital and inherited eye conditions.

Eye assessments are carried out by registered veterinary eye specialists and administered by the Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) to national quality assurance standards. Endorsed by the Australian National Kennel Council (ANKC) as a screening service, ACES is valuable to dog breeders and new owners.

ACES is available to breed clubs or individual owners who wish to screen their dog for eye diseases. Regular ACES certification will help breeders plan mating programs and reassure other breeders and new owners about the soundness of their current stock.

It also offers a means by which breeders of valuable pedigree pups can have whole litters checked by a qualified eye specialist at six to 10 weeks to confirm normal eye development before sale, in the event of a later buyer dispute.

An ACES exam screens for a range of eye diseases, including those involving the eyelids, tear ducts and surrounding structures, but records only those conditions affecting the eyeball (cornea, iris, ciliary body, lens, vitreous, retina and optic nerve). Examination procedures are prescribed by the Australian College of Veterinary Scientists Ophthalmology Chapter to international standards.

For information on ACES, visit www.ava.com.au and click on Veterinary Information, then ACES.

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