Cataracts in Dogs: The Race Against Time

Cataracts in Dogs
Wyatt Robinson
Written by Wyatt Robinson

Most people are pretty familiar with cataracts in humans, as it’s a common problem around the world for adults and even children. However, few people know that dogs are also very good candidates to develop cataracts as well. There are many factors that can determine how high of a risk your dog has to develop these, and a few different options for treatment if and when they do arise.

Like any health concern with your pet, addressing cataracts earliest is always best, and will ensure that your dog keeps his eyesight for years to come. Here we’ll go over some of the causes of cataracts, as well as the consequences, and treatment options that are available.

Understanding cataracts: causes and effects

To really grasp how serious cataracts can be, and the potential they have to cause other complications, it helps to understand what they are and how they form. Though the can be caused by old age, disease, and physical trauma to the eye, the number one cause of cataracts in dogs is simply rooted in genetics. Many breeds are much more prone to getting them than others. As in humans, diabetes is also closely linked with the formation of cataracts.

Dog breeds and their health issues

Cataracts are milky, pale, opaque clouds that form on the lens of the eye. They cause vision to be blurry and hazy at first, and as they progress eyesight gets continually worse. Left untreated, these opaque clouds eventually form rigid disks, and can become discolored by dirt and dust, further obstructing eyesight. Eventually, it’s likely that the dog will go blind, or suffer further complications as a result of the advanced cataracts.

As a cataract advances, it begins to solidify into a rigid form. If that solid form somehow becomes dislodged from its connective tissues, it can float around the lens of the eye, blocking the eye’s natural drainage. As a result, the dog will quickly develop glaucoma, and become permanently blind. To learn more, please check out this article on glaucoma in dogs.

Cataracts in dog

Many breeds are somewhat notorious for being prone to cataracts. Typically these are smaller dogs, and include all varieties of poodles, Silky Terriers, Boston Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, Bichon Frises, Havaneses, and Shih Tzus. However, these are just some of the most common – bear in mind that larger breeds can and do develop cataracts, and that the longer they are left untreated, the more likely it is that the symptoms will be permanent.

The lesson to be learned here is to have your dog’s eyes checked early and frequently. Though cataracts are most common in aging pets, they can also be found in very young dogs, and even puppies. Catch them early, and treat them fast.

Treating cataracts: what are your options?

Thankfully, if you catch the cataracts before permanent blindness sets in, treatment is quite straightforward and successful. Your only option is surgery, but it has a very high success rate, and is performed at most veterinary practices.

Vet checking dog eyes

The surgery involves removing the dog’s natural lens with the cataract in it, and replacing it with an artificial one. The veterinarian will use a device that creates an ultrasonic frequency and breaks up the lens, at which point they vacuum out the remnants. The artificial lens is then put in place, and the cataract can never re-form.

Not all dogs are candidates for this surgery however, so be sure to go in prepared for a consultation before you’re able to schedule the surgery. Before it can be determined whether or not the surgery will be successful, the doctor will perform a series of tests on your pet’s retina, to determine if it is still functioning. If it is, you can proceed with scheduling the cataract surgery. If the retina is not functional, removing and replacing the cataract affected lens will not improve your pet’s vision.

The cost of cataract surgery in dogs can be quite high – about $2,000-$3,000, depending on whether both eyes need to be fixed or not. The reason it’s so expensive is because so much of the equipment used during the procedure is very costly and highly specialized. In addition, this is a very specific procedure that requires special training, which not all veterinary hospitals have.

There are options for covering the cost though, and treating your pet’s cataracts as quickly as possible. CareCredit is a line of credit that many veterinary hospitals accept as a form of payment. Though it requires credit approval, it’s a simple, fast, low interest way to fund your pet’s surgery, without taking out a loan or signing up for a credit card.

In addition, many people are not aware that there are pet health insurance companies out there. Though many of these companies offer reimbursement only coverage, they certainly help to offset the expense of costly procedures like cataract surgery, as well as covering standard medical care, like vaccinations and wellness exams.  VPI Pet Insurance is one such company that is worth looking into, and can help you manage these expenses if and when they do arise.

Post op: what to expect after your dog’s cataract surgery

Cataract surgeries in dogs have a tremendous success rate, with the average being about 95%. They’re very straightforward, and barring any unforeseen complications, your dog should have full and complete eyesight after the procedure, and never develop the cataracts again.

However, there is a lengthy recovery time with cataract surgery, so be prepared to pay extra special attention to your four-legged friend for quite a while after the surgery. Recovery can take a month or more, so be patient, and make sure you’re prepared for the additional time commitment and responsibility.

First and foremost, your vet will send you home with one of those lovely cones, or e-collars. Make sure your dog wears it at all times. He’s going to be tempted to try and scratch his face, which can wreak havoc on his healing eyes. Make sure to check his eyes at least twice a day for debris and abnormal discharge, though a small amount of white discharge is considered normal. If you notice anything in the eye, you can gently clean it by flushing it with warm water and wiping it with a cotton ball. You can learn how to do this properly in this article on keeping your dog’s eyes clean.

Cleaning dog eye

You’ll want to make sure to limit your dog’s activity in the weeks following his surgery. Have him sleep in a small room at night or while you’re at work, without any stairs or furniture to jump on. Provide him with a soft bed so he isn’t inclined to get creative to find somewhere cozy to curl up.

You’ll also need to put him in a harness for his walks, rather than a usual collar, and be sure to keep him on the leash when outside so he isn’t inclined to play or rough-house. Keep him away from other dogs for a while, and don’t let him run or jump too much until he’s made a full recovery. Be sure to stay diligent about his medications, and don’t miss a follow-up appointment – these are excellent times for your vet to check for post operative complications or infections.

Cataract prevention

The best medicine for cataracts is prevention, and there are some simple measures you can take to make sure your dog has healthy eyesight for a long time to come. Firstly, know your dog’s breeding, and if he’s one of the breeds at higher risk for cataracts, be sure to have his eyes checked regularly so you can catch them early.

Diet plays a huge role in the health of your dog’s eyes. Be sure to limit his sugar intake, which includes foods high in wheat and corn. Diabetes is one of the number one causes of cataracts in dogs, and one that is almost entirely preventable by maintaining a healthy, filler-free diet and regular exercise.

Dog with cataracts

It’s also important to keep your dog’s eyes clean. A very slight cataract can become advanced rapidly as dust and debris is introduced. If you notice foreign matter in your dog’s eyes, flush them immediately with lukewarm water.

Though cataracts are not a life-threatening ailment, they affect millions of dogs and humans alike. Left untreated, they can cause painful conditions, and ultimately lead to permanent blindness. By getting your dog’s eyes checked regularly at his wellness exams, you can catch cataracts early, and treat them before they do too much damage.

However, if you’ve caught the condition too late, it isn’t the end of the world for your relationship with Fido. We have a great article on blindness in dogs and how you can adapt to make your dog’s life more comfortable.

If you’re the owner of a breed that’s at high risk for cataracts, I highly suggest you look into either CareCredit or pet insurance. Be sure to check the insurance company’s coverage to make sure that a substantial portion of cataract surgeries is covered.

Help your dog

Your dog’s eyesight and quality of life doesn’t have to suffer – there are effective treatment options out there, and ways to prevent these problems from taking away one of your dog’s keenest senses – his sight.

About the author
Wyatt Robinson
Wyatt Robinson

Wyatt Robinson had a great 25-years career as a veterinarian in United Kingdom. He used to be a member of British Veterinary Association and worked in 3 pet hospitals in London and Manchester. He is shining when he sees his pets healthy and full of energy and it is his duty to help other dog owners to keep their best friends full of life.