I saw a cloudy haze forming on my Cocker Spaniel’s eyes and I feared he might be developing cataracts. I worried since I know many pet parents who have had cataract treatment in dogs. Cataracts cloud the lens of a dog’s eyes and Cocker Spaniels have a higher-than-average propensity to develop cataracts, so I made an appointment with his veterinarian for a closer inspection and to see if cataract treatment was an option for my dog.
Cataract treatment in dogs involves the removal of cataracts by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Dogs don’t always go blind because of cataracts and one of the best ways to help your dog’s eyes is with regular eye exams to screen for cataracts, glaucoma, and general eye health. Cataracts form for a variety of reasons, so treatment of them depends on the dog’s age, pre-existing conditions, and the cause of cataracts. Some medications are available to treat cataracts in dogs, such as eye ointments and eye drops, but cataracts will not disappear without surgery.
The good news is that not all cataracts need to be removed. My dog was diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes and as of this writing, he is almost 12 years young. Specifically, he has bilateral immature cataracts in both eyes but the veterinarian was able to visualize his retinae during the eye exam, which is a good sign. He showed no signs of glaucoma and his tonometry reading was within normal limits. I’ll talk more about eye exams, what breeds are more prone to cataracts, cataract treatment in dogs, types of canine cataracts, and options for pet parents dealing with a dog affected by cataracts.
What Are Canine Cataracts?
Knowing what your dog’s eyes look like normally can help knowing what abnormal looks like. A cataract isn’t always noticeable and cloudiness of the eye isn’t always a cataract. More about that shortly.
In simple terms, part of a dog’s eye includes the lens. When the lens of the eye gets cloudy, light is unable to reach the retina. When a cataract is fully mature, the entirety of the lens and retina cannot be seen during an eye examination by a veterinarian or veterinary opthalmologist. The retina is sensitive to light and the innermost lining of a dog’s eye.
Think about the lens of a camera. It helps to keep things in focus, and that’s the job of the lens of the canine eye. If a cloudy film or opacity forms over the lens, dogs won’t be able to see as clearly and could wind up not being able to see at all.
There are specialized cells in the lens of the eye made up of protein. When the cells in the lens or those protein fibers are compromised or damaged, cataracts occur.
Here’s what my dog’s eye looks like normally and some basic anatomy of the canine eye:
What Are Symptoms Of Cataracts In Dogs?
Sometimes a dog may paw or scratch at her eyes and a pet parent may mistake the behavior as an allergy or temporary irritation. Sometimes, the eye(s) may bulge or look reddened or inflamed.
Other symptoms of cataracts in dogs include:
- Cloudiness on the eye, which may appear whitish, blue, or grey
- Bumping into things, seemingly not aware something was there; walking with nose to ground in some dogs
- Diabetes mellitus may cause cataracts, and if this is the case, increased water consumption (polydipsia) with increased urination (polyuria) may result.
- Squinting and watery eyes
- Reluctance to climb stairs or jump
According to Dr. Matthew Fife for petMD, “When a dog has a cataract, it obscures the vision. The cataract may be the size of a pinpoint, which most dogs (and people) can’t notice, but a cataract may also grow to the size of the entire lens, which can cause blindness.”
How Are Canine Cataracts Diagnosed?
Often times, your dog’s veterinarian may be the first to diagnose cataracts, as was the case with my Cocker Spaniel. He didn’t seem to have any issues with vision (and knock on wood, he still doesn’t), but the veterinarian diagnosed them during a routine examination. We’ve been following them ever since and they have progressed slightly, but his retinae are still visible (a good sign).
There are a variety of tests a veterinarian may do during an ophthalmic exam and veterinary ophthalmologists will likely go into greater detail. If your dog has diabetes mellitus, his chances of developing cataracts are greater.
During a dog’s routine veterinary examination, a vet will use a bright light with a magnifying lens on it to detect cataracts. As of this writing, my dog’s retinae are visible so they are not fully mature. We haven’t noticed my dog’s sight being affected, but this is something to watch for in your dog. Cataracts can develop over a long period of time or quite fast.
Once your dog’s vet has diagnosed cataracts, he or she should screen for glaucoma regularly with eye pressure readings. Most veterinarians should have the proper equipment to do this in office. Increased pressure in the eye (glaucoma) and inflammation of the eye (uveitis) are both conditions that can occur in conjunction with cataracts. My dog’s littermate, Ricky, has recently been diagnosed with glaucoma and has started regular pressure readings and eye drops to try and control it.
If your dog is referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist, the specialist will likely run more advanced testing to confirm the diagnosis and assess the severity of cataracts. If your dog is a viable candidate for surgery (the only way to complete remove cataracts in dogs), there are pre-operative tests to determine if your pup is a good surgical candidate. These tests include, but are not limited to:
- An ocular ultrasound: This test looks at the back of the eye to determine if the retina has detached and if there are any intraocular masses present.
- An electroretinogram (ERG): This test determines if your dog will have normal vision postoperatively.
What Types Of Cataracts Affect Dogs?
Cataracts may stabilize and not progress while others will progress rapidly. Dr. Ernie Ward says that cataracts occupying 30 percent of the eye lens will rarely cause vision issues. When the cataract covers 60 percent of the lens, the dog will likely show vision issues. If the opacity gets to 100 percent, a dog is blind in that eye. There are types of cataracts, however, and those include:
|Incipient Cataracts||Less than 15 percent of the lens is affected and is generally diagnosed with magnification. The dog has no vision issues.|
|Immature Cataracts||More than 15 of the lens is affected along with multiple layers or different sections. The retina is still visualized on exam and vision issues may be mild.|
|Mature Cataracts||The retina cannot be seen during the and the entire lens is involved. Significant near or total blindness may occur.|
|Hypermature Cataracts||This is an advanced stage where the lens shrinks and the lens capsule itself looks wrinkled. Uveitis, or inflammation in the anterior of the dog’s eye, often occurs.|
Sometimes a clouding of the canine eye is not due to cataracts but from a condition called lenticular (nuclear) sclerosis. Only a trained veterinarian or ophthalmologist would be able to distinguish between the two. Lenticular sclerosis is more of a bluish transparent haze that develops on the lens of a dog. It is basically a hardening and thicking of the lens fibers. This condition is not treated in most cases.
What Causes Cataracts In Dogs?
Genetics play a role in the formation of cataracts in many dogs. There are certain breeds who are predisposed at a higher-than-average rate to developing cataracts in their lifetime. As a lifelong Cocker Spaniel mom, I know American Cockers are one of the affected breeds.
Dr. Gustavo Aguirre at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania has led the study in the search for the gene and mutation causing inherited cataracts in American Cocker Spaniels. You can view the latest video update here from the American Spaniel Club’s presentation with Dr. Aguirre and his team. PDF slides of the presentation can be found here.
Sadly, in many dogs, a cataract is genetically designed to occur at some point in her life. Other causes include diabetes, ocular inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, infection, or trauma to the eye.
Other than American Cocker Spaniels, dog breeds commonly affected by inherited cataracts include Poodles, Golden Retrievers, Siberian Huskies, the Havanese, Labrador Retrievers, Boston Terriers, and the Welsh Springer Spaniel.
Surgical Cataract Treatment In Dogs
Surgery to remove cataracts has become more commonplace over the years. In many cases, a dog’s vision is restored postoperatively and they return to normal activity with a few days. Generally, a cone is worn for one to two weeks depending on the vet’s recommendation.
According to the Animal Eye Group and the expert sources we’ve quoted and researched for this piece, the only successful cataract treatment in dogs is surgery.
Cataract surgery should be performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist who has a successful track record performing this delicate surgery. The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) details the certification required to carry the title of “board certified.” You can also search on the ACVO website for a board-certified vet opthalmologist near you.
I’ve interviewed several Cocker Spaniel parents below, some who opted for surgical removal of cataracts. There are pros and cons to this procedure, and sometimes the removal of canine cataracts can lead to glaucoma. It’s a double-edged sword that is best managed by a qualified board-certified vet opthalmologist. You can always seek a second and third opinion. You know your dog best and how you believe he or she will react to surgery and any postop complications.
Cataracts are removed in dogs similarly to how they are removed in people. The technique is called phacoemulsification, which means ultrasonic vibrations liquefy the dog’s lens, which is then removed from her eye through a tiny incision. An artificial lens may then be placed if there are no complications discovered during surgery.
The cost of cataract surgery in dogs ranges between $2,700 and $4,500 on average plus postoperative care and medications.
Dogs who are unable to receive an artificial lens after the cataract is removed will still have vision but objects up close will be blurry. According to the Animal Eye Group, most dogs will be able to see and go about daily activities without an artificial lens.
Ironically, the most common side effect of cataract surgery in dogs is the development of glaucoma. It may not happen immediately, but if it does, it generally occurs within six months to four years postoperatively. Other postop complications include inflammation and retinal detachment.
Dogs must maintain a series of medicated eye drops for a few months after surgery and recheck visits are a must for postop success. Mature cataracts are considered harder to remove and sometimes their extraction is not possible.
Nonsurgical Cataract Treatment In Dogs
Dogs who are not candidates for surgery or for those pet parents who choose not to have the cataracts removed, there is no cure nor treatment to halt the progression. However, dogs with cataracts should have regular veterinary visits for eye exams and a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist is highly recommended.
The purpose of medicated eye drops prescribed by a veterinarian are to decrease eye irritation and inflammation and keep the eyes comfortable and pain-free. Cataracts may be very irritating to dogs, which is why close monitoring is crucial.
“When cataracts are developing, topical anti-inflammatory drops (such as non-steroidal diclofenac and flurbiprofen, or in more severe cases the steroids prednisolone acetate and dexamethasone) are recommended to reduce lens-induced uveitis, which can be the root cause of many other sequelae such as glaucoma and retinal detachment,” Martin Coster, DVM, MS, DACVO shared.
Can I Prevent Cataracts In Dogs?
Living with cataracts means testing your dog’s vision daily. Does he track a ball? Can he follow your finger? Can he see if you move from one side of the room to another? Vision can and does change rapidly and dogs may compensate well with the other eye. A board-certified veterinary opthalmologist would be my personal choice for cataract and eye health checkups because they deal with a wide range of diagnoses, treatments, and procedures on dogs’ eyes with extra experience.
Many veterinary ophthalmologists offer an eye certification program for breeders to screen their dogs to be certain they are not producing puppies prone to disease.
According to long-time Cocker mom and pro, Debi Lampert Rudman, “There is NO SUCH THING as PERMANENTLY CLEAR cockers. Yes – you read that right.”
She says that the term “permanently clear” with regards to the eyes of a Cocker Spaniel was “made up by cocker breeders many years ago as something to say when their 8-year-old Cocker had a good clear eye exam.” However, Rudman says it is not an official medical term.
When Rudman recently attended an eye clinic for Cockers, Dr. Gustavo Aguirre at the University of Pennsylvania, told her that no other breeds use that term. In fact, he says the term “permanently clear” has been a major contributor to the current eye problems in the Cocker Spaniel breed overall.
Not all dogs who develop cataracts will go blind. In fact, the older a dog is when she develops cataracts, the better her chances of maintaining reasonable vision into her golden years and beyond.
True Stories Of Dogs With Cataracts
Four Cocker moms shared their experiences with me regarding cataract treatment in dogs. Some opted for cataract treatment and some did not. Here, in their own words and photos, are their stories and feedback:
Dog Mom: Joan Mullally of New York, New York
Dogs: Leo and Melany
Breed: American Cocker Spaniels
Ages when affected: 9 and 14
How the dog(s) was diagnosed with cataracts: I rescued both Leo and Melany and they both came to me from the rescue with poor vision. My veterinarian compared it to trying to see through a really dirty windscreen while driving a car. They both had bulging and inflamed eyes.
Did you seek the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist? Yes, Dr. Jay Harrington, and I highly recommend him.
Did you opt for surgery? For Melany, we did not. She had a host of other health issues and we just kept her comfortable with medications. She adapted well to the loss of vision and anyone who met her never thought she had issues. She passed away at almost 21 years of age.
For Leo, we opted for surgery in his remaining eye that had some vision left. Sadly, three days after cataract surgery he was crashing into things again and became totally blind. Leo passed away from a stroke at nearly 19 years old.
Did you try non-surgical treatment? When they first came to me from the rescue, they needed 4 different drops 6 times a day, cyclosporine and several others. They needed a range of drops after as well to manage pressure, deal with inflammation and dry eye, and so on.
Any advice for other dog owners about cataracts: Be sure to go to a vet who has the gauge to measure intraocular pressure for glaucoma and knows how to read the gauge. All vets should really offer this now.
Dog Mom: Holly Taylor of Dallas, Texas
Breed: American Cocker Spaniel
Ages when affected: 5
How the dog(s) was diagnosed with cataracts: It was rather obvious he had them but the rescue did consult a specialist to see if he was a candidate to have them removed.
Did you seek the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist? Yes.
Did you opt for surgery? Yes, he had cataracts removed from both eyes and an artificial lens installed in one eye. He was sent home with many medications which he remained on for 12 weeks.
The veterinary ophthalmologist warned us a potential complication of cataract removal was glaucoma. Porter developed uncontrollable glaucoma in one eye less than a year after the surgery necessitating its removal. His other eye developed it two years later. With the breed already being prone to glaucoma and Porter having no familial health history, he may have wound up with glaucoma even if his cataracts had been left alone. I am leaning toward not having cataracts removed from any future Cockers that may develop it.
Did you try non-surgical treatment? No.
Any advice for other dog owners about cataracts? If you are getting a dog from a breeder, verify they do relevant eye testing. If it is from a rescue and you suspect cataracts, have a good long talk with your vet about the benefits and risks.
Dog Mom: Melissa Lee of Brooklyn, New York
Dogs: Princess Meagan Adora
Breed: American Cocker Spaniel
Ages when affected: 10
How the dog(s) was diagnosed with cataracts? I noticed that her eyes had become clouded, red, and had more discharge from the inner corners. She had allergies but this was different.
She was diagnosed by her regular veterinarian and I followed up at a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Did you seek the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist? Yes.
Did you opt for surgery? No. The veterinary ophthalmologist said her cataracts weren’t too bad yet and that one eye was more progressed than the other. She also said that she had severe dry eye which needed to be treated with Restasis and an eye lubricant.
Did you try non-surgical treatment? Yes.
Any advice for other dog owners about cataracts? Cockers have very sensitive eyes and ears and I would suggest extra attention to these areas. Always look for changes in the appearance of eyes and ears and watch for behaviors that might indicate problems. Fortunately for me and my Cockers, my veterinarian and I have always been able to communicate clearly and effectively.
Dog Mom: Welcome Knox of Columbia, South Carolina
Breed: American Cocker Spaniel/Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Ages when affected: 7 or 8
How the dog(s) was diagnosed with cataracts? I just noticed him bumping into things more. When he sat with the other dogs when getting a treat, he was looking in a different direction, like he was staring into space. My vet confirmed Milo had cataracts.
Did you seek the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist? No.
Did you opt for surgery? No. I believe it was around $1,500 for each eye back then and there was no guarantee it would work.
Did you try non-surgical treatment? At this time, Milo does not require any medications.
Any advice for other dog owners about cataracts? When you start to see cloudy eyes, don’t wait. Seek veterinary assistance for your dog.
More About Canine Eye Issues
The eyes are the windows to the canine soul and it’s up to pet parents to know what normal looks like in a dog so when abnormal things happen, you can act fast.
Cataract treatment in dogs has come a long way and early detection is key. If you’d like more information about canine eyes, various conditions, and ways to keep a dog’s eyes healthy, please click on my articles below. I wish each of your dogs a lifetime of good health and happiness.