- A cataract is an opacity, or cloudiness, in the lens of the eye.
- Cataracts can be caused by genetics, age, or certain diseases.
- They often start small and progress to be large. They can lead to blindness in dogs.
- Many pet owners choose to manage cataracts with eye drops and lifestyle modifications. Surgery is also an option.
Cataracts are a common cause of blindness in older people, but do dogs get cataracts, too? The answer is yes. Cataracts are a common cause of partial or complete blindness in dogs, and they seem to be getting more common, possibly as our dogs live longer.
Approximately 2 percent of dogs are diagnosed with cataracts and they can be caused by genetics, age, or influenced by other diseases.
Let’s dive into what cataracts are, how they develop in dogs, and what you can do to treat cataracts and keep your dog’s eye health top notch.
What Are Dog Cataracts?
A cataract is an opacity, or cloudiness, in the lens of the eye. Normally, the lens of a dog’s eye is completely transparent. It sits behind the cornea (sometimes called the windscreen) and the iris (the colored part) and focuses light on the back of the eye (the retina).
With age, certain genetics, or disease, the lens may become cloudy. This usually appears as a white, blueish, or cream cloud in the eye and ranges in size from as small as a pinprick up to covering the whole eye. How much the cataract covers affects how a dog sees.
Cataracts are progressive—meaning they start out as very small and barely affect sight but will eventually grow and cause vision problems. Cataracts that cover the whole eye can cause blindness.
It’s important not to confuse cataracts with nuclear sclerosis, a translucent blue-white change to the lens of older dogs. Nuclear sclerosis doesn’t seem to impact a dog’s vision and is considered a normal aging change to the canine eye.
What Causes Cataracts in Dogs?
Cataracts in a dog’s eyes are caused by a number of different things.
Hereditary or genetic cataracts are the most common form of cataracts in dogs. They may also be called juvenile cataracts. These cataracts affect dogs far younger than most other forms of cataracts. Juvenile cataracts affect over 100 breeds, but the most commonly affected breeds are:
- Poodles (all sizes)
- Boston Terriers
- French Bulldogs
- Staffordshire Bull Terriers
If these dogs inherit the cataracts gene from their parents, they often begin to develop cataracts as young as 8 weeks, and may be completely blind from 2-3 years of age.
Congenital cataracts affect dogs immediately at birth, and the dog will be born completely blind. This only affects a very small number of dogs, but Miniature Schnauzers appear to develop congenital cataracts more than other breeds.
Cataracts are also caused by aging changes in many dogs. This type of cataract normally affects dogs over four, with the average age for age-related cataracts being 9 years old. Yorkshire Terriers are the most common breed to develop age-related cataracts.
Dogs with diabetes also commonly get cataracts, with 3 out of 4 diabetic dogs getting some form of cataracts within 9 months of a diabetes diagnosis. Cataracts in dogs with diabetes can appear very suddenly and can cause pain and further eye damage within just a few days.
Symptoms of Canine Cataracts
So what do cataracts look like in dogs? The first symptom of a canine cataract is usually visible clouding in the eye. This can be any size, but usually starts smaller and begins to spread.
If the cataract begins to obscure vision, you may notice your pet behaving strangely. However, many pets quickly learn their way around their house and common walks, so you may not notice symptoms of blindness until they go to a new place or you move furniture around. A reluctance to jump into the car is a common sign, especially after a walk.
If cataracts cause other eye problems, like inflammation or increased pressure, or even trauma caused by walking into things, you may notice signs of eye pain. This includes excess tears and tear staining or rubbing at the eye.
Other symptoms of cataracts in dogs may include:
- Confusion and clumsiness, especially in new settings
- A change of color to the pupil, usually from black to a blue-white or cream-white color
- A reluctance to jump onto furniture or into the car
- Tear staining
- Eye discharge
- Redness to the white of the eye, or around the eyelids
- Rubbing at and scratching the eyes
- Squinting or repeated blinking
Diagnosing Cataracts in Dogs
Your veterinarian may be suspicious of cataracts if your older dog develops a visible cloudiness in the eye. He or she will need to do a physical examination and will probably use an ophthalmoscope (to look into your dog’s eye), as well as put your dog through an obstacle course.
A vet may also recommend several tests to make sure the cataracts aren’t related to diabetes and show your dog is otherwise healthy.
Evaluation is best performed by an ophthalmologist with further training in this area and with access to more equipment, so your vet may well want to refer you onwards to a specialist or a veterinarian with eye health expertise.
After the clinical exam and exam with the ophthalmoscope, your veterinarian may want to conduct an eye pressure test for glaucoma, as this condition can cause a lot of pain. This involves applying a local anesthetic to the eye and testing the pressure with a specialized device. This will need to be repeated as your dog’s cataracts progress, since glaucoma can occur at any time.
How to Treat Cataracts in Dogs
Canine cataracts are a progressive, irreversible disease—meaning that once your pet develops cataracts they cannot be reversed and will continue to get worse. They can, however be managed or surgically removed.
Managing Cataracts in Dogs
The majority of owners choose to manage their dog’s cataracts. This may be for financial reasons, as cataract surgery for dogs can be quite expensive, or because there isn’t a vet offering cataract surgery nearby.
Managing the cataracts involves monitoring the progression of the disease with regular veterinary check-ups and treating any secondary diseases that might occur as a result of the cataracts, such as uveitis (inflammation) or glaucoma (high pressure inside the eye).
Regular eye drops may be needed, and in some cases, you may find yourself applying several drops daily. These will not treat the cataracts, but they can prevent complications such as high pressure (glaucoma) and inflammation (uveitis).
Eye drops that are prescribed for dogs with cataracts can include:
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drops (Keterolac, flurbiprofen)
- Steroidal anti-inflammatory drops (prednisolone)
- Anti-pressure drops for dogs that have developed glaucoma (latanoprost, timolol, dorzolamide, brinzolamide)
You’ll also need to monitor and care for your pet’s fading eyesight by keeping to a set daily routine and being careful not to take them anywhere new or move your furniture around.
Goggles or plastic cones may be needed to protect your dog’s eyes from injury if they’re in a new place and are more susceptible to bumping into things. You can also train your dog to respond to commands to warn your pup about upcoming obstacles.
Cataract Surgery for Dogs
Cataract surgery is usually performed by a veterinary ophthalmic specialist. First, several tests are done to ensure your dog is a suitable surgical candidate. Your dog needs to be able to be placed under anesthesia, and the veterinarian will want to ensure that the cataract is the sole reason for your dog’s loss of vision.
Cataract surgery may be recommended for dogs that have both eyes affected, in order to get the maximum benefit from the operation.
The most common type of cataract surgery for dogs is called phacoemulsification. In this operation, the veterinarian passes a probe into the eye which vibrates to break up the cataract, then vacuums it out.
The surgery has a 75-85 percent success rate. Afterwards your pet should be able to see, but your dog may experience some visual deficits, such as being long-sighted. Sometimes an artificial lens is then inserted to improve your dog’s vision, but this isn’t suitable for every animal.
Surgical costs vary, but the average cataract surgery for dogs costs around $3,500.
How to Prevent Cataracts in Dogs
Preventing cataracts in dogs may or may not be possible depending on the cause. If you’re getting a new puppy, and the breed commonly suffers from hereditary cataracts, it’s a good idea to only buy from a reputable breeder where both parents have been DNA tested for hereditary cataracts. This should reduce the risk of your dog carrying the gene and developing juvenile cataracts.
Unfortunately, the second most common cause of cataracts is old age, and there’s no way to prevent age-related cataracts in dogs. Ensuring your dog has a healthy diet with plenty of vitamins may help, but this type of cataract may be inevitable.
Regular check-ups at the vet should spot the signs sooner, allowing you to adjust your lifestyle to manage the cataracts effectively. Age-related cataracts are the slowest progressing of the cataract diseases and you and your dog may be able to live a normal life with only minor changes.
If your dog suffers from diabetes, getting their diabetes under control as quickly as possible is the best way to reduce the risk of them developing cataracts.
- Nuclear Sclerosis
- Corneal Ulceration
Don't miss our vet-approved pet care tips!
Sign up for our newsletter to stay in-the-know.