What Do My Dog’s Eyes Say About His Health?

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Your dog can’t exactly tell you where it hurts, but observant owners can still get clued in to a pet’s possible health problems — by looking closer.

The eyes are a great source of information about a pup's health because they're connected to both the vascular and neurologic systems. Eye examinations can reveal signs that are suggestive of bacterial, viral or other systemic infections, as well as cancer, hypertension and diabetes.

Dr. Catherine Nunnery, DVM, DACVO, a veterinary ophthalmologist based in Gaithersburg, Md., fielded our questions about some of the most common eye issues in canines.

Q. My dog’s eyes are red. What could be causing this?

A. Dr. Nunnery: "Changes in the color of the eyes can be disconcerting. In fact, it’s one of the most common eye concerns that compel owners to bring dogs to the vet. Typical causes include inadequate tear production (dry eye), scratches on the surface of the eye (corneal ulceration), inflammation inside the eye (uveitis), inflammation of the lining of the lids (conjunctivitis) and increased pressure in the eye (glaucoma). While a serious condition like glaucoma may require surgery, most of these conditions are typically treated with drops, ointments or oral medications."

Q. How can I tell the difference between fatigue-related bloodshot eyes and something more serious?

A. "Time of day is helpful in determining if the eyes are bloodshot from fatigue or something else. Examine the white of the eye by gently pulling up the upper eyelid and looking for redness. In the morning, the whites of the eyes should look quite white, with a few pink blood vessels. At the end of the day, we are all more bloodshot, but increased redness of the white area may indicate ocular disease.

If one eye looks redder than the other or if both eyes look redder than they did the day before, and if there are any other changes in the color or comfort of either eye, see a veterinarian. Ocular changes, such as squinting, rubbing, tearing and discharge, are good reasons to visit the vet."

Q. My dog’s eyes appear to be hazy and cloudy. What could be wrong?

A. "Scratches on the cornea or inflammation inside the eye (uveitis) — both of which can be treated with medication — commonly cause the haziness. Glaucoma, which can also be the cause sometimes, may be treated with anti-glaucoma medication. But it sometimes means surgery."

Q. My dog has been squinting, as well as rubbing, his eyes. What could cause this?

A. "Squinting or holding the eye shut usually indicates ocular pain, which can be intense because there are so many sensory nerve endings on the cornea’s surface. A plethora of problems contribute to eye pain, including dry eye and many other causes I've mentioned. Most can be treated with topical antibiotics, anti-inflammatories or systemic pain management."

Q. I’ve noticed that my dog is bumping into things and missing balls when we play fetch. Is he possibly losing sight in his old age?

A. "Like us, animals go through age-related changes and deterioration. People typically need reading glasses after the age of 40 because age affects the eye's ability to focus. Obviously, your dog doesn’t need glasses for reading, but he may have trouble seeing clearly in the dark.

Other causes of vision loss are cataracts (opacity of the lens), retinal degeneration (loss of rod and cone function), diabetes and glaucoma. Unless the vision issues are related to cataracts, there aren’t many treatments available for the other causes. Dietary supplements containing antioxidants may help slow retinal degeneration."

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