Service Dog

While a dog would surely choose smell over vision if forced to have one or the other, those dogs who serve us need to see to do their jobs. That’s obviously true of dogs who assist the visually disabled, but it’s just as true for working dogs of all kinds, from police and military dogs to search and rescue and all kinds of disability assistance dogs.

Many veterinary ophthalmologists have long donated or discounted services to these dogs, out of respect and support for the work they do. A few years ago, one of them, Dr. William Miller of Advanced Animal Eye Care in the Memphis area, thought he could help more service dogs and the people they work with by making free exams an official offering of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO).

His colleagues agreed, and the organization launched the National Service Dog Eye Exam program, with the sponsorship and support of Merial. This is the fifth year, and every year more handlers and owners bring their dogs in for the screening. (Registration is now open for the 2013 event.)

Making It Official

“I’ve been providing free exams to service animals since 1986, and I knew many of my colleagues did as well,” says Dr. Miller. “We launched the national program, and that first year our ACVO members provided exams to between 800 to 900 animals. Last year we helped 5,000 animals. In all we’ve seen close to 12,000 animals since we started the program." 

The exam is a general one, meant not only to spot emergency or existing vision problems but also larger health problems such as tumors. In some cases what a veterinary ophthalmologist finds can save an animal’s life or lead to treatment that can extend his service.

Police Horse

“One of the goals of the program is to identify potential eye-threatening problems in dogs related to the service that they do,” says Dr. Miller. “This idea came about after 9/11. If we can predict, say, that a search and rescue dog in an urban environment will be much more predisposed to a particular eye problem, then we can alert handlers to that so they can prevent that problem from occurring in the future, keeping these dogs in service longer." In addition to screening search and rescue dogs, veterinary ophthalmalogists involved in the program have provided free exams to dogs trained to alert to seizures as well as diabetic alert dogs.

That could mean recommending specific protective gear for the dog, or informing owners about clinical signs that may signal a problem so they can contact an animal's primary care veterinarian or a veterinary ophthalmalogist for help.

Identifying Risk

Dr. Miller says he hopes the program also helps those who work with these dogs and the veterinarians who care for them to know about any special work-related risks the animals have. “There are a lot of unknowns. For example … accelerant dogs that detect what may have caused a fire — we don’t know how those accelerants may affect the eye, and so those are things we’re looking at.”

Service animals (not just dogs — police horses are eligible for the exam, too, for example) perform a wide range of tasks, which presents an equally wide range of situations in which an animal's eyes can be put at risk. Drug and explosive detection and arson dogs may face eye risks from chemical exposure, while search and rescue and cadaver dogs may encounter rough terrain in the course of their work that can hurt their eyes. 

Sometimes what’s discovered in an eye exam could be more mundane, as when Dr. Miller found a tumor on the optic nerve of a German Shepherd who served as a guide for his visually impaired owner. “It was not optimal,” notes Dr. Miller sadly. “With the help of a Merial product, we were able to shrink the tumor and keep the dog in service for another year. This allowed the owner to prepare mentally, and also to get on the list for another guide dog.”

A Positive Response

The cost of follow-up care after the exam is up to the practictioner. Dr. Miller says many of his colleagues donate that care or provide it at cost.

Not surprisingly, response to the program has been overwhelmingly positive. “You can look on the ACVO Facebook page," says Dr. Miller, and see "a huge number of comments and they’re all very positive.” He adds, “They’re very appreciative of the exams." For owners and handlers, the exams provide peace of mind. "If nothing else, knowing that your dog has normal eyes, if it’s a guide dog you can trust it, or if it’s a search and rescue or police dog that it’s not going to put you, the handler, in a situation you don’t want to be in if the dog is visually compromised,” says Miller.