Cataracts can affect dogs of all ages. Some cataracts are mild and do not require treatment, but others may lead to blindness, pain, and high pressure within the eye (glaucoma) if left untreated. Surgical treatment can be very effective, but is expensive and does come with a risk of complications.
Can affect vision severely, but quality of life is usually good with appropriate treatment.
Table of Content
- Requires diagnosis by a veterinarian
- Cataracts in dogs is a lifelong condition, unless treated
- Treatable by a veterinary specialist
- Prevention is not possible
- Transmission to other dog breeds, or between dogs and humans, is not possible
- Diagnosis requires examination by a veterinarian, and may require referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist
Older dogs and pure breeds.
Symptoms & types of dogs cataracts
A “cataract” is one or more opaque patches forming with the lens of the eye. The purpose of the entire lens is to focus light onto the retina (the back of the eye), allowing a picture to form so that a dog can see. To do this properly, the lens needs to be transparent (clear). But cataract completely blocks light from the eye.
When patches start to form in the dogs lens, it blocks the light from getting through to the back of the eye. In the early stages, this will probably not affect your dog’s vision very much. However, as they become more advanced, this can cause vision loss in your pet’s vision, and eventually means that they will go blind. It may also cause the center of their eyes (where the lens is) to appear cloudy and blue.
Advanced cataracts in dogs may cause pain and swelling in the eye. If this happens, you might see redness around the eye, and your dog may hold the eye partly closed. There may also be some runny discharge from the eye.
A “cataract” is one or more opaque patches forming with the lens of the eye.
Understanding the Diagnostics of Canine Cataracts
In most cases, cataracts can be diagnosed by your veterinarian after examining your dog’s eyes with an ophthalmoscope. Sometimes, however, cataracts can have an unusual appearance and your vet may need to refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist for examination.
They may also perform other tests to check the health of your dog’s eyes, including:
- Fluorescein – an orange dye that is applied to look for damage to the surface of the eye (cornea). It will turn your dog’s eye green temporarily after being applied.
- Intra-Ocular Pressure Testing – after applying some local anesthetic drops to the eye, your veterinarian may gently tap the surface of your dog’s eye with a device to measure the pressure inside. This is to look for signs of raised pressure (glaucoma) or low pressure that could suggest inflammation (uveitis).
- Schirmer Tear Tests – small strips of paper that are used to look for “dry eye”.
- Indirect Ophthalmoscopy – a more specialized way to look inside your pet’s eye.
Your veterinarian may recommend running extra tests to see if there is an underlying reason for your dog’s cataracts or if it appears to be hereditary cataracts. These may include:
- Blood and urine tests – to look for diabetes or other illnesses
- Blood pressure checks
- Ultrasound of the eye – to look at the structure of the back of the eye.
In most cases, cataracts can be diagnosed by your veterinarian after examining your dog’s eyes with an ophthalmoscope.
Learning about the causes of cataracts in dogs
There are two different types of cataracts in dogs: Primary Cataracts and Secondary Cataracts.
These cataracts in dogs develop on their own, rather than being caused by another health condition. The reasons for dogs developing cataracts like this, are thought to be genetic – many breeds of dogs are prone to develop these kinds of cataracts.
Unfortunately, these cataracts often affect young dogs to middle-aged dogs, rather than older ones. In rare cases these cataracts may be congenital – that is, present when the puppy is born.
These are cataracts that develop as a result of some sort of damage or inflammation in the eye itself. These can also happen at any age but are more common in older dogs.
Some of the common causes of secondary cataracts include:
The lens in older dogs can degenerate over time as the dog ages, causing cataracts to form. The age that this happens varies depending on the size of the dog – large-breed dogs can develop these once they are over six years old, whereas small-breed dogs don’t usually develop them until after the age of ten.
High blood sugar levels in diabetic dogs can lead to damage to the lens and the formation of cataracts. Most diabetic dogs will develop cataracts after 6-12 months, even if they are being treated with insulin.
Severe eye injuries can sometimes cause cataracts. For example, sharp objects that penetrate the lens can lead to cataract formation, as can blunt trauma that causes inflammation within the eye (uveitis).
The lens in older dogs can degenerate over time, causing cataracts to form.
Best treatment options for cataracts in dogs
The main treatment for cataracts is surgical removal of the cataracts and implantation of an artificial lens. This is called “Phacoemulsification” and is generally performed by veterinary ophthalmologists. As it is a specialist procedure, it can be quite expensive – often around $3000-$4000.
This surgery will restore the dog’s eyesight in almost all cases. It also prevents future complications from cataracts, which can include pain, swelling, and increased pressure in the eye (glaucoma) that can require surgical removal of the eye.
However, the surgery itself does come with some risk of complications – around ten to fifteen percent of dogs going through the procedure will experience them. These can range from mild inflammation to severe changes in the eye that can lead to it becoming blind or even needing to be removed entirely.
Phacoemulsification is best done when cataracts are immature, so it’s best to consult with a veterinary ophthalmologist as soon as your dog’s cataracts are found.
If your dog’s cataracts are not severe enough to need removal, or you decide that surgery is not the right option for your dog, then they will need to be monitored closely.
There are no eye drops that have been proven to slow cataract development in dogs. However, advanced cataracts can cause inflammation within the eye that can need treatment – often non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drops, and sometimes other drops or tablets, too.
Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant supplement that may help slow the formation of cataracts in diabetic dogs. However, research is still at an early stage, and large doses of alpha-lipoic acid can be toxic. Speak to your veterinarian about a supplement that may be safe for your dog.
If your dog’s cataracts are not severe enough to need removal, or you decide that surgery is not the right option for your dog, then they will need to be monitored closely. The lens in older dogs can degenerate over time, causing cataracts to form.
Cataracts can affect dogs of any age, but are most common in older dogs and dogs with diabetes. Some cataracts will remain the same size, but others will progress and cause blindness. In the long term, cataracts may cause damage and inflammation in the eye, which can be painful and require the eye to be removed.
Surgical treatment of cataracts (phacoemulsification) can be very effective, but is expensive and does come with some complications. It is usually carried out by specialists, so speak to your veterinarian about a referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist for more information.
Milder cataracts (“incipient” or “immature” ones) cause few problems, and dogs can often live comfortably with them. However, more serious cataracts (“mature” and “hypermature” ones) can lead to impaired vision or blindness, and may cause pain and swelling within the eye.
There is no proven way to treat cataracts in dogs with oral medication or eye drops. There is some early research suggesting that alpha-lipoic acid (an antioxidant) may help to slow cataract formation in diabetic dogs, but this is not yet proven.
Cataracts themselves are not painful to dogs, though they may affect their vision. However, advanced cataracts may cause inflammation within the eye, which can be very painful.
Cataract surgery is usually done by a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist, and so can be more expensive than routine surgeries performed by a regular veterinarian. Phacoemulsification (cataract surgery) costs an average of $3000-4000 but may be more expensive if there are complications.