If My Dog Has Cataracts: Will He Go Blind?
What Does a Cataract Look Like?
Cataracts are a common dog health issue and can affect almost any breed. While you may be worried your beloved pet will go blind—and he or she may—blindness is not a death sentence for most pets. With the proper medical care and some modifications to diet or exercise routines, most dogs with cataracts enjoy a good quality of life.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi answers some of the most common questions her pet parents ask her about cataracts such as how it is diagnosed and treated as well as what preventative steps might be effective.
What Does a Maturing Cataract Look Like?
Question 1: What are cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: Many owners of older dogs notice a cloudiness in their dog's eyes and wonder if their dog has cataracts. Most of the time, this cloudiness is actually a hardening of the lens that is similar to what humans experience when they turn 40 or older and need reading glasses to see the type on the newspaper.
This is called lenticular sclerosis, which means a hardening of the lens. Nevertheless, there are times when that cloudiness is something more such as cataracts. In cataracts, the lens actually stops being see through (transparent) and becomes cloudy and opaque.
In lenticular sclerosis, your dog can see through the lens, just not well enough to read the paper. As cataracts are developing, your dog becomes unable to see through the lens. The lens is the part of the eye that helps all of us focus on what we are seeing. The lens can harden and make it hard to focus, or it can become hard to see through as in the case of cataracts.
Q2: How do cataracts develop?
Dr. Cathy: Cataracts usually start with tiny dots at the edges (called incipient) that cover less than ten percent of the lens. The next step is the immature cataract stage, which involves less than fifteen percent of the lens.
Mature cataracts involve the entire lens and usually the eye is blind because your dog can no longer see through the lens. Hypermature cataracts are an advanced stage where the eye may also be swollen.
Common Causes of Cataracts
- Poor nutrition
- Injury or Trauma
- Some forms of medicine
Q3: What causes cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: Cataracts are either genetic or due to health consequences.
Diabetic dogs often develop cataracts, as do humans.
Some dogs, because of hereditary factors, may be born with cataracts.
Nutritional deficiencies can cause cataracts, as can trauma and some medications. But the grand majority of cataracts are simply genetically based as your dog was predisposed from birth to develop cataracts.
Q4: How can pet parents tell if cataracts are developing?
Dr. Cathy: Really, it takes a special examination with special equipment to diagnose cataracts properly. Your regular veterinarian may suspect your pet is developing cataracts based on a difficulty seeing through the lens to the back of the eye, but the cataracts will be fairly advanced at that point. If your dog is bumping into things, take her to your vet for an initial exam; your vet may then refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist for his or her opinion on your dog's eye health,
Q5: Will my dog need surgery to correct the cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: That is a matter of personal preference. For many dogs, cataracts are not painful. Many dogs adjust to blindness very well. However, many dog owners are seriously disturbed by their dog's loss of vision and understandably so. If your dog's cataracts are caused by genetic reasons, surgery may be the only way to restore vision. If your dog's cataracts are due to diabetes, managing the diabetes can halt the progress of the cataracts.
Prevention Includes Regular Eye Health Checkups
Q6: What type of nursing care is needed after surgery?
Dr. Cathy: For the most part, eye drops are the only aftercare once your dog goes home. While still in the hospital, the veterinary nursing staff will make sure your dog does not scratch his eyes.
Q7: What are the odds of my dog going blind?
Dr. Cathy: If the cataracts are due to genetics and continue to progress, then the chances of your dog going blind are quite high. Some dog's cataracts stay at the incipient or immature stage.
Cataracts in Dogs
Q8: Are there other health issues that mimic cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: As discussed above, lenticular sclerosis, or the hardening of the lens, is the most common cause of cloudiness in the eyes. As far as blindness, there is also retinal detachment, SARDS (sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome), PRA (progressive retinal atrophy), and infection in the eye.
Q9: How are cataracts diagnosed?
Dr. Cathy: Full diagnosis is made by a veterinary ophthalmologist using a fancy tool called a slit-lamp microscope.
Q10: What are the treatment options for cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: Surgical removal of the lens, phacoemulsification (ultrasound breakdown of the lens), treatment of nutritional imbalances, and regulation of diabetes are the best bets to treat cataracts.
Dog Health Issues
Which breeds are the healthiest?
Q11: Which breeds are predisposed to cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: The list is very long. Pretty much any breed can get cataracts.
Q12: How can pet parents protect their dog's vision?
Dr. Cathy: The best defense is a well-balanced diet started from the beginning (a healthy diet started even before birth can really help). Be wary of processed foods as these can lead to diabetes because of the high carbohydrate load.
Because most of our dogs’ lives are spent with us loving them and feeding them, we should be extremely careful about what we feed them. Real food that is low in carbohydrates will be very helpful in maintaining the proper weight and optimal overall health.
The other thing is to do the least invasive things such as minimal vaccines or minimal chemicals and to treat the root problems, not the symptoms.
Q13: What else do pet owners need to know about canine cataracts?
Dr. Cathy: Blindness is not a death sentence by any means, and many cataracts do not progress. If your dog does go blind, he can manage quite well with a little help from you.
Surprisingly, you do not have to help your dog do everything. Instead, let him find his way and he will adapt wonderfully well to blindness. For example, do not make huge changes in furniture or the environment because your blind dog will find his way around quite nicely.
As is the situation with many serious illnesses, preventative measures are usually better than medical solutions. Regular health checkups with your family veterinarian play an important role in identifying and mitigating health problems before they become serious.
The next important parts of the puzzle of keeping your dog as healthy as possible are diet and exercise. Feeding your dog a high quality diet (consisting of dog-friendly portions of human foods) and exercising him or her regularly—rain or shine—will also tip the scales in favor of better health for your best friend.
© 2014 Donna Cosmato