Eye Care in Puppies
Your mother may have told you, “Never rub your eyes, except with your elbows.” And she might well have added, “And never put anything in your eyes unless told to by a doctor.” Well, pretty much the same holds true for puppies. It’s a really bad idea to go poking around a puppy’s eyes unless you know what you’re doing and, in most instances, it’s unnecessary. If dogs had been left to be dogs, as nature intended, there would be very little for an owner to do in or around their puppy’s eyes. Unfortunately, dogs were selectively bred for all kinds of unnatural physical traits; short noses, extra skin folds, small eyes, and so on, so now it’s not “a given” that a pup’s eyes will need little or no attention.
First of all, let’s consider normal eye care where there is nothing obviously wrong with a pup’s eyes and where selective breeding has not created special problems for the pup and its owners. Let’s imagine, for example, a thoroughly mixed Heinz 57 mongrel with bright shiny eyes and 20/20 vision. What does the owner need to do? Virtually nothing. Of course, it’s a good idea to make sure that the pup’s eyes stay the way that nature intended and that trauma inflicted by dust, grit, larger flying objects, and chemicals is totally avoided.
Tips for Eye Safety
- Do not allow puppies or adult dogs to stick their heads out of car windows unless they are wearing well- fitting eye goggles (Doggles®).
- Ditto for dogs riding in the back of trucks, although this practice is plagued by other more serious risks.
- When shampooing your dog, take care to keep the shampoo out of the dog’s eyes. It is probably best to use a tearless shampoo or, under your veterinarian’s direction, apply a bland ophthalmic ointment as directed to protect the pup’s eyes during shampooing.
- When spraying noxious chemicals around the house (e.g. insect sprays), keep the dog out of the room for its own protection.
- Avoid using sticks or other sharp projectiles as play objects.
- Use round-ended scissors when trimming your pup’s hair.
Signs of Healthy Eyes
- They are wide open (not squinting).
- They are moist and glistening.
- The conjunctivae (pink membranes surrounding the eye) are pink and healthy looking.
- The pupil (the black circular area in the center of the eye) constricts to a small circle in bright sunlight and dilates in dim light.
- There are no accumulations of mucous or other discharges in the “corner of the eye.”
- There are no unusual swellings in and around the eyelids.
- That there is nothing rubbing on the eye (especially hair).
Signs of Irritated or Damaged Eyes
- Squinting, blinking, or tearing excessively.
- Pawing at the eyes or rubbing the face on the floor.
- The pup appearing restless or whimpering.
*Note: If only one eye is affected, the signs of squinting and tearing will be confined to that one eye.
Common Eye Problems
Infection. If, in the process of interacting with your dog, you notice that it has excessive discharge from one or both eyes you should take good note of the nature of the discharge. Is it clear or cloudy, is it grayish or yellowish, is it from one or both eyes? Then call your local veterinarian and ask for help. Tell him (or her) on the phone what you have observed in order to accurately transmit the nature of the problem. In all likelihood, he will require you to go to his office for an appointment. There he will flush out the pup’s eye with sterile saline and perhaps stain it with a special dye to check for ulcers and the free flow of dye from the eye into the nose. He’ll also inspect the eyelids and, if he finds nothing unusual, will probably contemplate a course of antibiotics on the assumption that the problem stems from a bacterial infection. He will also check your dog’s general health status while you are in the clinic because some systemic diseases may lead to ocular discharge.
Lumps and Bumps. It is extremely unlikely for a new pup to have a tumor of its eye or eyelids. However, there are some lumps and bumps that may arise and may cause new owners concern. One possibility is a meibomian cyst, which is a swelling of one of the glands at the base of an eyelash due to blockage of the duct of the gland. Another problem that sometimes occurs is a prolapsed third eyelid gland, sometimes referred to as “cherry eye.” Your veterinarian will make the diagnosis and will explain the treatment options.
Allergies. Some pups develop skin allergies as they get older and these may affect the skin around the eyes. The pup’s continued rubbing at his eyes can cause the conjunctivae to become reddened as a result. The solution to this problem is to treat the allergy. Again, your veterinarian can advise.
Congenital Problems. A number of pups are at risk of developing eye problems because of their conformation and/or other genetic problems present in their breed. Dogs with short noses (brachycephalics) frequently have excessive skin folds around their face and eyes. Sometimes the skin can roll over so that the hair drags across the delicate cornea, covering the surface of the eyeball, causing chronic irritation: Sometimes infections develop deep in the skin folds themselves. The rolling of skin into the eyes is also a feature of over endowment with skin, as seen in Shar Pei’s and Bloodhounds. Sometimes it is possible to minimize the irritation caused by hair dragging on the surface of the eye by keeping the hair well trimmed. Any trimming of hair around the eyes should be carried out using blunt-ended scissors and should be performed with the scissors parallel to the eyelids, not pointing in towards the eyeball. It is as well to trim the hair away from the eyes in dogs like Old English Sheepdogs as their “bangs” can obscure their vision and the hair may also hang in their eyes. For dogs with deep fissures in the skin around the eyes, these clefts may have to be cleaned out on a regular, perhaps daily basis using, say, Q-tips and normal saline, or some other veterinarian-recommended cleaning fluid. Normal saline can be purchased at most stores where other eye care products or contact lens products are located. It can also be made by dissolving a teaspoonful of salt in a pint of lukewarm water. Dogs with exopthalmos (e.g. Pekinese) are prone to ulceration of the cornea and their eyeballs may prolapse (pop out) if they are tightly grabbed by the scruff. Clearly all measures should be taken to avoid having dogs like this in situations where their eyeballs may rub on an abrasive surface e.g. confining them in a small ferry kennel), and clearly they should never be scruffed. Dogs with droopy lower lids (like Bloodhounds) have their conjunctivae exposed to all sorts of insults, leading to increased risk of infection. The local veterinarian may advise daily treatment with artificial tears to keep the conjunctivae moist and irrigated or may recommend a surgical solution if the problem is severe and protracted. Some dogs, e.g. West Highland Whites, seem to have a tendency to develop dry eye. Artificial tears can be a palliative solution for this problem although your veterinarian will have more definitive and permanent therapeutic recommendations.
Clearly it makes good sense to take your new young puppy to a veterinarian for an eye examination before you even get involved in eye care yourself. He or she will either conduct an ophthalmological examination or will recommend you to a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist for special attention. A veterinary ophthalmologist would be able to explain to you about the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) that was established to track heritable eye diseases in purebred dogs. A dog that is registered by CERF is certified as unaffected by a major heritable eye disease. CERF examinations are performed annually but the first one can be done as early as 8 weeks of age. Even if a problem is found, such as progressive retinal atrophy or juvenile cataracts, at least the correct course of action and likely outcome can be spelled out for your greater understanding. CERF examinations do not entail measuring tear production, staining of the eyes to look for ulcers, or measuring the pressure inside the eyeball (intraocular pressure). However, if the ophthalmologist was to suspect decreased tear production, corneal ulceration, or glaucoma, tests for these latter conditions would be conducted. Your local veterinarian can explain to you about surgeries that can be performed to correct eyelids that roll in (entropion) or out (ectropion) to make life easier for you and the dog and avoid some of the daily maintenance required for these conditions. In addition, if excess tearing is noted it may well be due to distichiasis (a double row of eyelashes), ectopic cilia (abnormally positioned hairs growing from oil glands on the eyelid), or a failure of the drainage system of the eye (blocked or absent tear duct). While these latter conditions can be managed by daily cleaning of the tear-stained areas, your veterinarian can probably offer you a more permanent solution to these problems (depilation to remove extra eyelashes or the establishment of proper drainage for the eye when the nasolacrimal duct system is blocked or absent).
Once you know what’s going on you can take the necessary action, which may be definitive or simply involve specific daily management measures. If your pup has the all clear from the veterinarian and/or ophthalmologist, then all you need to do is to protect your pup’s eyes from unnecessary physical onslaughts while you vaccinate him and protect him from exposure to systemic disease.