Canine cataracts are a common problem for dogs. Unfortunately, they’re even a common Golden Retriever eye problem.
There are several types and causes of cataracts. Let’s talk about what they are and what you can do about them.
What Are Cataracts?
The lens in the eye focuses light onto the retina at the back of the eye so your dog can see clearly. Cataracts occur when the normally transparent lens becomes cloudy.
Any spot on the lens that’s opaque (you can’t see through it), regardless of size, is a cataract.
They can affect one or both eyes
Vision loss can be partial or complete.
Some canine cataracts will develop rapidly, even in a matter of days.
Other cataracts can take months or years to develop.
The most noticeable cataract symptom is a white or cloudy look to a dog’s eye.
It’s sometimes described as a “crushed ice” appearance.
Some dog cataracts are clearly visible to the naked eye, while others can only be seen with an ophthalmoscope.
Canine Cataract Types and Their Causes
Congenital cataracts (present at birth) make up the majority of cases. They’re also known as congenital juvenile cataracts in dogs.
The most susceptible breeds are Schnauzers (especially Miniatures), Spaniels, Poodles, Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Huskies, and several types of Terriers.
Despite the fact that a dog is born with them, they’re not necessarily inherited. Infections or toxins can also cause these cataracts in unborn puppies.
With hereditary or congenital canine cataracts, symptoms can appear in puppies as young as 5 weeks old. The cataracts may develop rapidly over weeks, or slowly over years, in one or both eyes.
Developmental cataracts are those that develop early in life. As with congenital cataracts, they may be inherited or caused by problems such as diabetes, nutritional deficiencies (possibly from milk replacement formulas), toxins, infection, or trauma.
The canine cataracts that occur in dogs over six years of age are called senile cataracts. They actually occur much less frequently in dogs than in humans.
Just so you know, it’s actually not unusual for older dogs’ eyes to become slightly blue-gray. This usually occurs in dogs over 6 years old, and is called nuclear sclerosis.
Since it rarely affects their vision, it seldom requires treatment.
Trauma from an automobile accident, or penetration of a thorn, shotgun pellet, or other object may damage the lens and a cataract may develop.
Traumatic cataracts usually only occur in one eye and can be treated successfully with surgical removal.
Treating Canine Cataracts
Different types of cataracts require different types of treatment. A small cataract that doesn’t restrict vision is probably not significant, while a more mature cataract may warrant aggressive treatment.
On the other hand, if a cataract is of a type that can be expected to progress rapidly (such as the hereditary cataracts of young Miniature Schnauzers), it may be best to surgically remove the cataract when it’s smaller and softer, as surgery is easier then.
Something else to keep in mind is that a cataract can slip from the tissue strands that hold it in place, allowing it to float around in the eye where it can cause trouble.
If it settles in a place that blocks the natural fluid drainage of the eye, glaucoma can result, leading to pain and permanent blindness.
A cataract can also cause glaucoma when it absorbs fluid and swells so as to partially obstruct fluid drainage from the eye.
The only treatment for canine cataracts is surgery (unless the cataracts are caused by another condition like canine diabetes–in which case cataract eye drops may work).
The good news is that surgery is almost always (90 to 95 percent) successful. The dog has to have a general anesthesia but is usually able to go home the same day. Even better news is that once the cataract is removed, it doesn’t come back.
The procedure and equipment used for cataract surgery for dogs are very similar to those used for cataract surgery in people.
A veterinary ophthalmologist will surgically remove the defective lens, replacing it with an intraocular lens or IOL.
This plastic or acrylic prosthetic lens allows for more focused vision.
After successful cataract surgery, your dog will see close to normal, but his vision won’t be perfect.
That’s because only a handful of different IOLs are available for dogs, and an exact replacement of the original lens isn’t possible.
In some cases, it’s not possible to safely place the replacement lens into the eye.
Since the cornea actually does two thirds of the focusing of the eye, he’ll still be able to see, but not perfectly.
His close-up vision (1 to 15 feet) will be blurry. But most dogs adjust quite well to this disability after a short time.
You should know that canine cataracts can cause a serious reactive inflammation inside the eye (Lens Induced Uveitis, or LIU) that will need to be treated, whether or not you opt for surgery. If you skip surgery, you’ll need to apply anti-inflammatory eye drops for the rest of your dog’s life, as well as take him in for periodic eye re-examinations.
LIU can lead to complications such as glaucoma or a detached retina, and LIU also decreases the success rate of cataract surgery (in case you later decide to go through with it).
In other words, there’s an ideal window of time in which to perform surgery. In general, the earlier a cataract can be removed, the better.
By the way, the average cost for cataract surgery for dogs is usually about $1000 to $1500 (U.S.) per eye. Why does it cost so much? Because it requires specialized equipment, just like for people. You’re also paying for the advanced training of a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist.
Canine Cataract Surgery Recovery
Surgery aftercare requires a significant time commitment. Your job as the caregiver is vital to the success of the procedure. Your duties may include the following:
• Administer eye drops several times a day for about 3 to 6 months
• Keep your dog calm and quiet
• Keep the Elizabethan collar on at all times for 1 to 3 weeks after surgery, to keep him from hurting
• Use a harness instead of a collar when on walks to reduce pressure on his head (and eye) from pulling
• Cancel all grooming and vaccination appointments for about 6 weeks
• Schedule and keep all follow-up appointments
• Report any changes you may notice to your doctor
Vision usually improves during the first week, but the return of vision sometimes takes up to 2-3 weeks. Most dogs experience little or no pain after surgery.
Complications After Cataract Surgery For Dogs
Although this is a highly successful procedure, there are some possible problems after cataract surgery:
• Some degree of uveitis (inflammation) is unavoidable. This can cause a pupil constriction reaction which can increase the risk of scarring within the eye. Eye drops to keep the pupil dilated are usually effective in preventing this, but not always. Inflammation in the eye will resolve over weeks to months after surgery.
• All dogs develop some scar tissue inside the eye. Excessive scar tissue can limit vision later on.
• Glaucoma (increase in eye pressure) occurs in 30% of all dogs who have cataract surgery, usually within the first 24 hours after surgery. This is usually temporary, and is successfully treated with eye drops.
• Retinal detachment can occur. While re-attachment is sometimes possible, the success rate is low and this complication usually results in complete vision loss.
• Bleeding after surgery can be a serious complication and can easily be caused by excess barking or activity after surgery. Small bleeds are of little consequence but a large bleed could ruin vision.
It’s Your Decision
Your veterinarian can help you decide if cataracts are affecting your dog’s vision enough to warrant surgery. A cataract by itself doesn’t necessarily require treatment. Dogs with one normal eye and a cataract in the other can still see well enough to skip surgery.
Even if canine cataracts rob your dog of his vision entirely, it’s important to remember that blind animals still have a good quality of life.
They do quite well as long as you don’t move the furniture around too much, and you keep everybody’s clutter picked up off the floor–which may not be such a bad idea anyway!