It may cause a bit of panic to see something wrong with your dog’s eye, but don’t worry.
Eye ulcers in dogs are relatively common and have a plethora of causes.
What causes eye ulcers?
Eye ulcers are usually caused by trauma.
Notice how close your dog is to the ground.
Then consider how it runs through the bushes and tall grasses at top speed chasing who-knows-what.
Yeah, it’s probably having a ton of fun, but it’s probably running face-first into all kinds of sticks, leaves, seeds, etc.
Some of that stuff is scratching its eye, and some of it is getting stuck right in there.
And look at how dogs play together.
A little rough sometimes, don’t you think?
Could be a cat scratch.
Could be from rubbing its face on the carpet.
Could be from a faceplant into the side of the couch.
The point is, one of the reasons we love our dogs – their reckless abandon – is one of the reasons they’re prone to eye ulcers.
But there could be other causes, such as a chemical burn, like from drywall dust or shampoo.
The eyelashes – yes, eyelashes – may be an issue.
A birth defect called entropion causes the eyelids to roll inward, causing the eyelashes to rub against the eye.
Similarly, a condition known as distichiasis causes eyelashes to grow from the margin of the eyelid.
And ectopic cilia are when hairs grow abnormally from underneath the upper or lower eyelid. Sounds a bit… uncomfortable.
Less common causes also include diseases like epithelial dystrophy, a genetic condition affecting fat metabolism.
Some dogs, like boxers, pugs, Boston terriers, and shih tzus are more prone to this.
Certain dogs may also be genetically predisposed to “dry eye” – keratoconjunctivitis sicca – although this can also be caused by environmental factors.
Endocrine diseases like diabetes, Cushing’s syndrome, and hypothyroidism could also be a factor.
What are the different types of ulcers a dog can get on their eye?
There are essentially two types of ulcers a dog can get in their eye. Indolent and corneal.
To understand the nature of each ulcer, we need to understand the outermost layer, or lens, of the eye known as the cornea.
It has three layers:
- The epithelium – the very thin outermost layer of cells.
- The stroma – the cornea’s main supportive tissue underneath the epithelium.
- The Descemet’s membrane – the deepest layer and protective barrier against injury and infection.
Indolent ulcers are said to be the most common and occur when the epithelium and stroma don’t stick together like they’re supposed to.
They are sometimes known as spontaneous chronic corneal epithelial defects (SCCEDs), persistent corneal erosions, non-healing ulcers, or boxer ulcers.
Only seen in middle-age and older dogs, they occur spontaneously and are more common in certain breeds.
Corneal ulcers, also known as corneal erosions, or corneal abrasions, range from mild to severe, and are generally caused by trauma, whether by physical injury, infection, or disease.
A mild case may only affect the epithelium, but a severe case could extend into the stroma.
The most severe eye ulcer is known as a descemetocele and affects the Descemet’s membrane.
If this membrane ruptures, irreparable damage could occur.
What are the symptoms of an eye ulcer in dogs?
One thing is clear: these things are painful.
Here are some symptoms:
- Squeezing its eye closed and/or blinking
- Rubbing its eye with its paw or on the ground or carpet.
- Discharge from the eye.
- Red, inflamed, or bloodshot eye.
- Cloudy appearance in the eye.
- Hole or crater-like injury on the surface of the eye.
- Avoiding bright lights.
Will a corneal ulcer need to be treated by a vet or will it heal on its own?
If your dog is showing any of the above symptoms you need to carefully consider your options. Your dog’s sight is at stake.
Unless you’re sure your dog’s eye injury is minor, its always safer to have it looked at by a vet. Consider all the things a vet can do that we simply can’t. They’re experts.
- Observe the dog from a distance to gauge its movements and ability to judge distance, light sensitivity, etc.
- Examine the eyelids for entropion, distichiasis, and ectopic cilia.
- Look for abscesses and masses.
- Do a Schirmer tear test (dry eye test) to see if the eye produces enough tears.
- Do a fluorescein stain test. This is where a vet drops a yellow-green dye into the eye to see where it collects. The dye will tend to run off the intact cornea but stick to ulcerated spots.
- Perform an ocular tonometry to measure pressure in the eye.
- Perform an adnexal exam (an exam of the accessory structures of the eye, i.e., anything outside the eyeball).
I don’t know about you, but I would do a poor job at even pretending to do any of these things. So, unless you’re sure your dog’s eye injury is minor, or already rapidly healing, it may be best to see a vet.
How do I know if a corneal ulcer is healing?
If your dog has a small crater-looking thing in its eye, and you are quite sure of the cause, and it’s getting smaller every day – it’s healing.
But you need to be careful. An eye infection can dramatically worsen in only a day or two. And an indolent ulcer will not simply heal on its own.
Another sign your dog’s eye is healing is a process known as neovascularization. You’ll know it’s happening when you see red blood vessels appearing in the white part of your dog’s eye near the ulcer. Your dog’s eye is creating these blood vessels to help heal the eye. On the downside, these blood vessels can remain indefinitely and interfere with your dog’s vision. Vets can use special eye drops to minimize their size and promote healing.
The only other way to tell if a dog’s corneal ulcer is healing is to repeat the fluorescein stain test.
How long does it take for a corneal ulcer to heal?
Like humans, a dog’s eye has some of the fastest healing tissues in its body. A corneal ulcer not exacerbated by other conditions should take about 3-5 days to heal.
But there are times when a vet will have to treat eye ulcers in dogs.
How will a vet treat an eye ulcer in a dog, and what medication will they use?
After diagnosing the ulcer and assessing for an underlying cause, a vet has many options, including:
- Antibiotics, which may be administered orally or via eye drops.
- Pain medication, such as atropine, or anti-inflammatories.
- Contact lens-style bandages to protect exposed nerve endings in the eye.
- Lubricating eyedrops.
- A buster collar to prevent the dog from pawing at its face or rubbing its face up against things.
Eye surgery is sometimes performed by a veterinary surgeon but may also be performed by a specialist known as a veterinary ophthalmologist.
The surgeon may perform a keratotomy, or debridement, which involves the removal of the ulcered epithelial cells. Then there is grid keratotomy, which involves making small incisions in a cross-hatched pattern across the ulcer and in healthy regions to promote healing.
In worst-case scenarios the dog’s eye may be surgically removed. But dogs being dogs, they tend recover and adapt remarkably well.
How much could treatment cost?
Depending on the size of the ulcer, anesthetic used, type of surgery, follow-up treatment, etc., you could be looking at anywhere between $200 and $2000.
Be reassured, however, that many of these eye surgeries are quite routine, non-invasive – and therefore not as expensive as you may expect!
Your dog may get eye ulcers because it’s just old. Or prone to them because of genetics. It may get them because it likes playing rough with other dogs.
The point is, they’re common. We know quite a lot about them, and vets know how to treat them. If you don’t panic, your dog won’t either.