A veterinary office will field hundreds of “advice” questions concerning pet eye problems a week. “Watchful waiting” is advised with some minor complaints, but never with eyes.
A non-veterinarian person cannot assess an eye problem’s severity, and a description over the phone just doesn’t cut it. In other words, when someone calls in and says the pet’s eye “looks funny,” it’s time for a trip to the vet. Your vet may even direct you to a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist for immediate assessment if the emergency requires it.
Here are the top 5 canine ophthalmologic emergencies we see in general practice.
1. Corneal Ulcers
Corneal ulcers are the most common acute eye problems seen. (This goes for cats as well.) The cornea is the outer “skin” of the eye; an ulcer occurs if this layer has been damaged.
Corneal ulcers are often traumatic in origin, although certain diseases of the cornea can result in an ulcer. Trauma to the cornea can occur with a scratch from a bush, a stick or even another critter.
Treatment involves early diagnosis of the severity of the ulcer and the administration of appropriate eye medications. More serious ulcers may require surgery, and frequent re-checks are needed to ensure the cornea is healing nicely. When a corneal ulcer goes from bad to worse, the cornea can actually rupture — this is a true emergency indeed.
Proptosis occurs when an eye literally bulges out of the socket and the eyelids entrap the globe. This occurs most frequently in brachycephalic breeds (Boston Terriers, Frenchies, shih-tzus), and is a true emergency.
Even with immediate care, the dog may lose the eye depending on the extent of trauma sustained by the extraocular muscles, nerves and blood supply. Many of these eyes can be replaced and vision saved in about 20% of dogs, but only if you act immediately.
3. Corneal Laceration
Corneal laceration occurs when there is a complete tear through the cornea. I have seen 2 of these from a cat claw, the most common offender.
A sharp object, like a stick, can also puncture the cornea. The dog is almost always holding the eye completely shut and is in significant pain. Again, immediate surgery may save the eye.
Get to the vet. There is a very small window of opportunity when it comes to repairing these eye injuries.
4. Lens Luxation
Lens luxation is over-represented in certain breeds like the Russell and other terriers. In these dogs, due to a genetic disorder, the lens can spontaneously luxate, or become dislocated. In other breeds, causes may vary — head trauma is one example. This is a difficult diagnosis and may require a visit to an ophthalmologist.
Compared to the normal eye, a lens luxation can look like a very dilated pupil or a blue or whitish eye. Removing the lens can save the eye and save the dog from pain and total blindness.
Here are some helpful tips from a veterinarian on how to medicate a dog’s eye:
5. Acute Glaucoma
Acute glaucoma looks like a discolored, a “red” or an inflamed eye. There may be discharge and painful blinking (blepharospasm).
Glaucoma occurs when, for whatever reason, the pressure in the eye elevates, leading to pain, secondary changes and blindness. The condition is usually obvious in just 1 eye, but both eyes are at risk. Again, this is over-represented in certain breeds like the Cocker Spaniel, Northern breeds, basset, shih-tzu, Great Dane and others.
As with every other eye problem in this post, acute glaucoma should be assessed and treated immediately. Both systemic (oral) and ophthalmic drugs are used. Get an opinion from a veterinary ophthalmologist to help your primary care vet manage the case.
The bottom line? Don’t mess around with eyes. Ophthalmic problems need early diagnosis and treatment.
If someone at your vet’s office puts you off, be aggressive. Say you need to be seen today (like, right now). Follow veterinary instructions to prevent further damage to the eye and see a veterinary ophthalmologist if your vet recommends a referral. Often, your vet can manage the case after initial assessment and treatment recommendations by the specialist.
Your chance to save your pet’s eye is today, not tomorrow. Advocate for your pet’s health and get treatment immediately.
- Haeussler, D. J. “Top 5 Canine Ophthalmologic Emergencies.” Clinician’s Brief. 2017; 15(1), 67–71.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Feb. 1, 2017.