Dog getting eye exam
Dogs may not be able to read eye charts (yet). But there are times when dogs may need a visit to a veterinary ophthalmologist for expert care. Check out some of the ways these board-certified specialists provide help for canine eyes. 

1. Eye Lens Replacement to Help Restore Vision

Dogs can develop cataracts, or an abnormal opacity in the lens inside the eye, due to factors such as diabetes, genetics or aging. More common in dogs than cats, cataracts can appear in one or both eyes and seriously impair vision. 

Removal of the cataract can improve a dog’s ability to see, according to Dr. Dennis Olivero, a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist in Minneapolis, MN.

If tests show that the retina, or nerve layer in the back of the eye, is healthy, surgery can be performed. Once the cataract is removed, an artificial lens can often be implanted. With that, many dogs can recover about 90 percent of their vision.

2. Canine Contact Lenses to Protect the Eye

Unlike their human friends, dogs aren’t usually prescribed contacts to correct vision — though they can have that benefit.

“Contact lenses are often used as a bandage for dogs that have slow-healing ulcers,” according to Dr. Olivero. Corneal ulcers are open sores on the clear outer surface of the eye. Because the cornea contains numerous nerve endings, ulcers can be extremely painful. Often, ulcers can take weeks to heal, and if left untreated, they can become infected or lead to a perforation, which requires surgical repair.  

That’s where a contact lens made specifically for dogs comes in. “The lens provides comfort, keeps the lids from rubbing over the open area and may help hold water-soluble antibiotic eye drops over the ulcerated area,” says Dr. Olivero. The lenses don’t include power correction so they have no impact on vision. 

There are a few cases, however, where contact lenses may be used to correct vision. For example, some dogs with cataracts may be unable to have a lens implant due to genetics or other eye conditions. Although cataract removal offers better vision than blindness, “studies show that dogs with no lenses are farsighted and have relatively poor near vision,” says Dr. Olivero. While most dogs can learn to adjust for the farsightedness, in select cases, a contact lens may provide some vision correction.

3. Eyelid Surgery to Remove Tumors 

Many older dogs develop tumors on their eyelids. Although the tumors are generally benign, they can rub against the eye and cause irritation, redness and discharge. Owners are often hesitant to do anything because they worry about anesthesia risks in older pets. 

The good news is that often, these tumors can be removed without hospitalization and general anesthesia. The protocol involves giving a sedative (instead of total or general anesthesia), using a nerve block to numb the eyelid and freezing the tumor with liquid nitrogen to remove it, according to Dr. Olivero. “This requires about 30 minutes and is done on an outpatient basis.” The vast majority of small to medium tumors that are removed this way never recur.

4. Eye Prosthetics for Blind Dogs

Some chronic eye conditions, such as severe glaucoma, infections and cancerous tumors can be painful and may result in blindness. If the eye is not amenable to medical therapy, removal of the eye may be an option to help relieve pain. Often, an implant is placed in the eye socket and the eyelids are permanently closed over the implant.

If there’s no tumor or serious infection in the eye, an artificial eye may provide a more natural appearance. “The eye tracks with the other eye, blinks with the other eye and looks close to normal,” says Dr. Olivero. While it doesn’t restore vision, it helps relieve the pain. “Most dogs are medication-free and comfortable after a month,” he adds.

5. Eyelash Removal to Help With Eye Irritation

While some breeds, like Cocker Spaniels, are famous for their long eyelashes, in other cases, eyelashes can be problematic. Distichiasis, a common condition in dogs, occurs when eyelashes grow toward the surface of the eye and rub against it. 

If the lashes are soft, there may be no irritation. “Dogs that have stiff eyelashes will usually need treatment because of chronic irritation to the cornea,” says Dr. Olivero. “The hair follicle is treated by freezing it with liquid nitrogen and the lash is then removed,” he adds.

Do you have any concerns about your pet’s eyes? If so, talk to your veterinarian, who may refer you to  a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist. While pets may not be getting prescription eyeglasses any time soon, a lot can be done to help support your dog’s vision and eye health and improve his quality of life.