Corneal Ulcers: Causes, Treatments in Dogs and Cats

Flickr Image for Corneal Ulcers in Pets

Courtesy of manuelsvay / Flickr

Courtesy of manuelsvay / Flickr

One of the most common age-related issues in human beings, eye problems also affect our furry friends. By the time they reach middle age (ages 7-9), most dogs and cats experience some dwindling of sight. However, when the problem threatens to rob them of their vision overnight, it may be the result of corneal ulceration. Never heard of it before? Keep reading!

The front clear part of the eye, the cornea lets light in and forms a cover over the iris and the pupil. When the sensitive outer layer of skin (the epithelium) that protects the cornea is scraped, scratched, or erodes, the defect is considered a corneal ulcer. In most cases, the condition is extremely painful and will cause pets to squint incessantly or rub at their eyes. However, if the ulcer deepens, spreads, or becomes infected, it can rob an animal of its sight.

Causes of Corneal Ulcers in Pets

Although more common in dogs, corneal ulcers or ulcerative keratitis does affect cats. The most frequent cause of the condition is obtained injuries. An ulcer may develop because of blunt trauma caused by non-stop rubbing, or a laceration caused by contact with something sharp. Pets that are allowed outdoors may also encounter dangerous chemicals that can burn the cornea. Furthermore, erosion can be caused by irritating substances like dust or shampoo that gets caught in the eye and wears down the epithelium over time.

A far less common cause, corneal ulcers may be the result of viral or bacterial infections that start in the eye and develop into something more serious. More generally, dogs and cats that suffer from dry eye due to decreased tear production (keratoconjunctivitis) are at a greatly elevated risk of developing corneal ulcers.

Symptoms of Corneal Ulcers in Pets

When human beings have an eye issue, they see a doctor immediately. But when a dog or cat has ocular problems, they often try to hide it. When the pain becomes too intense, however, pets generally paw at the affected area; not knowing, of course, that this rubbing only exacerbates the injury. The damaged cornea will also be more sensitive to the light, which means your furry friend will squint, blink, and nictitate more than usual. In some cases, a discharge will accumulate in the corners of the eye and may run down the face. These streaks are often mistaken for tear stains when the true cause is corneal ulcers.

Diagnosis of Corneal Ulcers in Pets

Minor damage caused by scratches, erosion, or abrasions can seldom be seen without the use of special equipment. If the corneal ulcers are suspected, your pet’s veterinarian may perform a fluorescein. This simple test involves a special stain that is placed on the cornea and will immediately adhere to ulcerated areas. Stain tests are generally the only eye tests needed to detect superficial damage to the cornea. But when the damage is more serious, i.e., when the ulcers are very deep, the doctor must take samples for culture and examination before treatment is undertaken.

Treatment options of Corneal Ulcers in Pets

Just like any other injury, treatment is based on the extent of the damage; consulting with your pet’s veterinarian is a must.

The good news is most corneal ulcers aren’t really ulcers, they’re abrasions! They distress in only a very small amount of skin loss to the outer layer of the cornea, skin that will grow back. It is for this reason that the most common treatment for corneal ulcers is rest and relaxation. Eye drops like Akwa Tears may be prescribed to prevent bacterial infections and shield the recuperating region, as well as mild analgesics to relieve pain and inflammation.

The bad news is that when corneal ulcers are large and growing, surgery may be required to save the eye. After all, you can’t simply tell your pet to stop scratching at a painful, irritated eye—which means the injury will invariably grow worse over time. The only way to deal with the issue and allow for normal healing is to remove dead or damaged layers of corneal skin and/or perform a corneal graft. Both procedures are extremely painful and expensive and have long recovery times.

Prevention of Corneal Ulcers in Pets in Key

As with most things in life, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Corneal ulcers are a progressive, degenerative injury that must be caught before they grow larger or deeper. Failure to do so will cause your furry friend unnecessary pain and may rob him of his sight! Our advice?

Far too many loving pet parents ignore the early warning signs of this potentially serious condition. They don’t do it on purpose, of course. Because these symptoms of corneal ulcers are so broad and could be caused by anything from a virus to seasonal allergies, most overlook fairly obvious signs of ocular irritation. This is perfectly understandable if the symptoms last for only a few hours, but if they persist for any longer, always contact your pet’s veterinarian for advice.

Has your dog or cat suffered from corneal ulcers?

How did your pet get diagnosed? What medications or treatments did your pet’s veterinarian prescribe? How did the treatments help? Let us know by leaving comments in the ‘Leave a reply’ link at the bottom of this post. Thank you.

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