Counteracting Cataracts: How to Keep Your Dog’s Eyesight Optimal as He Ages
You’ve heard of people having cataracts in their eyes, creating cloudy vision. But did you know cataracts can affect dogs as well? The condition tends to develop as we age, and the same goes for dogs as they get older, too. But there is hope. Here’s how to understand the signs of cataracts in dogs, and what steps you can take to help treat this common occurrence if your dog starts having trouble.
What Are Cataracts?
“Basically, cataracts are any cloudiness that develops within the natural lens of the eye,” says Mark Bobofchak, DVM, DACVO, a veterinary ophthalmologist at Eye Care for Animals in Akron, Ohio. “The purpose of the lens is to focus light onto the retina, which is responsible for actually absorbing the light and transferring it into a nerve signal that is transmitted to the brain to be processed into an image.”
The result of cataracts is that light is unable to reach the retina. That doesn’t mean your dog is unable to see at all, just that their vision becomes very blurry. Bobofchak likens it to looking through a heavily frosted window. “Animals can still see lights and moving objects,” he says, but they likely “look like shadowy blurs.”
What Are the Clinical Signs of Cataracts in Dogs?
If you note cloudiness in your dog’s pupils and she seems to be a little less able to distinguish what is right in front of her, these are considered telltale signs of cataracts. But if you only notice cloudiness in the eyes, Bobofchak says not to immediately conclude your dog has cataracts. “It is important to distinguish cataracts from a normal change that occurs to all dogs over the age of 9 that can cause the eyes to look cloudy,” Bobofchak says. “This change is called lenticular sclerosis and generally does not cause any noticeable vision deficits.”
Bobofchak says the best way to tell the difference between lenticular sclerosis and cataracts is to have your veterinarian assess your dog’s eyes. A consultation with a veterinary ophthalmologist can make certain which condition has clouded your dog’s eyes, and help determine what the best course of action is to maintain your dog’s sight.
Why Do Dogs Develop Cataracts?
Age is not necessarily always a factor in dogs who develop cataracts. Bobofchak says that cataracts in dogs are most commonly hereditary or due to diabetes. “Therefore, it is not uncommon for young to middle-aged dogs to develop cataracts,” he says. “Old-age cataracts certainly do occur, but they are not as common as in people.”
Since diabetes frequently goes hand-in-hand with cataracts in dogs, be on the lookout if your dog has been diagnosed with this endocrine disease. “Diabetes is a very common cause of cataract formation in dogs,” Bobofchak says. “Nearly all diabetic dogs will develop vision-impairing cataracts, and they can progress very rapidly. Surgery [to repair the eyes] can still be performed as long as the diabetes is well-regulated and the overall health is good.”
Beyond heredity and diabetes, Bobofchak says other causes of cataracts include trauma to the eye, malnutrition, or chronic inflammation within the eye, known as uveitis.
Which Dog Breeds Are More Commonly Affected by Cataracts?
Cataracts can be caused by genetics, and is inherited by some dogs. Bobofchak says veterinary ophthalmologists most commonly encounter cataracts in Boston terriers, cocker spaniels, miniature poodles, shih tzus, Yorkshire terriers, pugs, and Bichon Frises. “These cataracts commonly will develop between the ages of 6 to 9; however, some can be seen earlier, he says. “Siberian Huskies, for example, have a form of genetic cataract that often develops before 1 year of age.”
Is It Possible to Treat Canine Cataracts?
If you notice your dog’s eyes are becoming cloudy, make an appointment with your veterinarian to start the assessment of whether it’s cataracts that are appearing, or something else. You vet may prescribe a medicated eye drop (typically a topical anti-inflammatory or a steroid) to reduce inflammation of the eye, though surgery to remove the cataracts is usually considered the most effective treatment for cataracts in dogs. Bobofchak says surgery is about 90 percent effective and a dog’s vision is often significantly improved.
Deciding whether your dog will benefit from the surgery is a conversation you should have with your vet. “Some cataracts are small, non-progressive, and have minimal effect on vision and we never recommend surgery in this situation,” Bobofchak says. “If they progress to the point that they are impairing normal vision and affecting the dog's ability to navigate, surgery can be considered.”
If that’s the case, the next step is often consultation with a veterinary ophthalmologist. Bobofchak recommends early referral for an initial evaluation, even if your dog’s vision is still intact or you are not sure if surgery is the right option. Early evaluation by an expert “allows us more information about the overall health of the eyes and we can begin eye drops to minimize the risk of secondary complicating conditions,” he says. Those possible secondary conditions, Bobofchak notes, include glaucoma (increased eye pressure), retinal detachments, and uveitis.
“Many times, cataracts can be monitored if they are not significant or progressing slowly,” says Bobofchak. “However, if [the dog is a] surgical candidate, it is best to pursue surgery earlier rather than later as long-standing cataracts tend to have a lower success rate.”
Are Cataracts in Dogs Preventable?
Unfortunately, Bobofchak says there’s not a lot owners can do to help prevent their dog from developing cataracts. “Cataracts are generally not preventable. There are eye drops that are available which claim to be able to reduce or prevent cataract progression, but I have not found them to be very effective, particularly for diabetic cataracts,” Bobofchak says.
If you are looking to clear up concerns over possible cataracts in your dog, make an appointment with your veterinarian for a consultation.