Tips to properly care for and diagnose issues with pets' eyes

Cats and dogs depend upon their sight to be able to function in their environment. There is much that we can do to help to detect and possibly prevent vision problems that pets may develop.

The eyes of healthy cats and dogs should be clear without excessive tearing, redness, clouding, lesions on the eye surface or swelling of the eye rims. Eye problems may be caused by environmental irritants, injury, illness, and aging, however some eye disorders may be inherited or present at birth. An owner's awareness of these factors may reduce the occurrence of some eye problems in order to seek veterinary treatment in a timely manner.


Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the smooth pink tissue that lines the lids and covers part of the eyeball that affects cats and dogs. The presence of a clear eye discharge suggests an allergy, foreign body, or a physical irritant like a blast of air or a hair on the eye's surface. A pus-like discharge may indicate a bacterial infection. Redness and tearing may be caused by exposure to environmental irritants like household cleansers, paint fumes, second-hand smoke, pollen, molds, dust and grooming product sprays entering the eyes. Redness and tearing may also be symptoms of allergies, upper respiratory or other infections.

"Dry eye" (keratoconjunctivitis or KCS) affects middle-aged and elderly dogs particularly in the following breeds; cocker spaniels, Labrador retrievers, Rottweilers, Newfoundlands, pugs, Boston terriers and bulldogs. The symptoms include copious discharge and "red eye." "Red eye" is also a symptom of Glaucoma, an eye disorder that causes acute blindness and severe pain. Breeds at risk for this problem are cockers, Bassett hounds and beagles. Dr. John Kable urges owners to seek immediate veterinary attention if red eye, discharge or excessive blinking are observed.


Eye injuries include puncture wounds, abrasions, burns and lacerations all of which could cause serious damage and may rob pets of their sight and often occur in dogs with bulging eyes such as Boston terriers, pugs, and Chihuahuas. Such injuries also occur in hunting dogs whose eyes are exposed to grass, seeds, underbrush and thorny plants. Dogs allowed to ride in vehicles with their heads out of the windows are at risk for eye injuries from blowing debris. Symptoms of eye injuries include excessive tearing or discharge, crusting in eye corners, squinting, partially or fully closed eye (or both eyes), eye rubbing, excessive blinking, change in eye color and the pet vocalizing pain.

Sudden blindness may be caused by high blood pressure particularly in cats. Unevenly sized or dilated pupils may indicate head trauma and neurological problems.

There are several sight-robbing inherited eye disorders in purebred and mixed breed dogs and cats. Progressive Retinal Atrophy has loss of night vision as a symptom and affected animals may exhibit behavioral changes when light is limited. There is no known treatment for this disease. Another inherited eye problem is entropion (often present at birth) characterized by the eyelids rolling in toward the eye causing the lashes to rub against and irritate the cornea often resulting in infection or corneal ulceration. Eye tearing is a common symptom of this very painful condition. Entropion is prevalent in Chow Chows and Chinese Shar Pei and also occurs in standard poodles, pugs, Maltese and Chihuahuas. Surgical correction is usually recommended and often alleviates the pain, however owners of affected animals (including close relatives) should not be used for breeding.

Cataracts may be present at birth, can be inherited but may develop at any age or may be a symptom of diabetes. They are also common in elderly pets.

To protect, prevent problems and care for your pet's eyes:

  • Research eye and other health issues before selecting a particular breed of dog or cat.
  • Investigate breeders before purchasing a purebred (or "designer breed") dog or cat. Reputable breeders strive to eliminate inherited health disorders in their breeding programs by having their potential breeding animals evaluated by veterinary specialists. Request to see a veterinary ophthalmologist's report.
  • Report any injuries or physical changes of your pet's eyes to your vet immediately. Also report behavioral changes that may be related to diminished vision such as the pet appearing to be "lost" in familiar surroundings, bumping into walls and objects or not responding to familiar hand signals.
  • Protect your pet's eyes before bathing by applying drops of veterinarian-recommended sterile tear replacement ointment to each eye.
  • Do not allow dogs to ride in vehicles with their heads out of windows (or loose in the back of pick-up trucks). There are especially designed dog goggles that may offer some eye protection but might not be tolerated by some dogs.
  • Do not use over-the-counter human eye products on pets without consulting a veterinarian first.
  • Tearing and tear stains warrant a veterinary examination to determine cause and appropriate treatment.
  • Examine your pet's eyes after a romp through the woods, tall grass or a digging session in dirt or sand.
  • Keep furniture and familiar objects in their same position so that visually impaired pets can navigate comfortably in your home. Also, set up baby gates across stairways to prevent falls. When outdoors, closely supervise and guide them with leash walks, voice and touch.

Have a safe and enjoyable Holiday Season with the pets who grace your lives!

Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.

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