You might have heard that veterinarians can do surgery for cataracts in pets, it’s true! As human surgery advances, so does veterinary surgery, albeit often at a slower pace.
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What is a cataract?
Cataracts are a fancy term for opacification of the lens or lens capsule. Within the pupil (the black region in the centre of the eye) there is a structure called the lens. The lens focuses the light that enters the eye, onto the retina. The retina is the region at the back of the eye that’s important for transmitting light signals, via the optic nerve, to the brain and allowing us (or our pets) to see. So, the lens is key for proper vision. It is composed of a capsule that surrounds lens fibres, all of which should be transparent.
When a dog has a cataract, the transparency is lost. The lens becomes cloudy or even white if the cataract is advanced. And the pet can’t see because light can’t get through to the back of the eye. Although we often see cataracts in older pets, they can occur at any age because of underlying problems.
What causes a cataract?
Apart from age, cataracts can be caused by systemic problems like diabetes. They can also be hereditary (this occurs in many breeds including Old English Sheepdogs and the Poodle). Or they can result from trauma and inflammation in the eye.
How are cataracts in dogs diagnosed?
We might suspect a cataract based on a history of altered vision, previous trauma to the eye, a susceptible breed, or just looking at the dog’s eyes from a distance. Dogs with advanced cataracts have very obvious white circles where the black pupil is normally seen. We will do some vision tests to assess if your pet can still see. Then we use an ophthalmoscope to have a proper look at the lens. We can assess the maturity of the cataract based on if we can still see through to the retina and how developed the opacity is.
How can I get cataract surgery for my dog?
First of all, it has to be pointed out that not all dogs are candidates for cataract surgery. First and foremost, if there is an underlying condition this needs to take priority. Additionally, dogs with glaucoma, eye infection, impaired retinal function or who pose high anaesthetic risks, are not suitable candidates for cataract surgery. If you are interested in the surgery and your vet feels like your dog could benefit, they can refer you to a specialist ophthalmologist who can decide if it’s a good option. The specialist will often do some further testing to check how the retina is functioning before being able to give the go-ahead for surgery.
What happens during cataract surgery?
If your dog is a candidate for cataract surgery, the procedure has a high success rate for restoring good quality sight. It is done under a general anaesthetic using tiny instruments and a surgical microscope. First the lens undergoes a procedure called phacoemulsification, where, just as in humans, it is broken up and removed from the eye. Then, a tiny, replacement lens is inserted into the eye and positioned appropriately. Dogs need to use a buster collar for a couple of weeks after the surgery. This is so they can’t rub at their eyes. Owners will need to administer eye drops several times a day at first, so it does mean some intensive management. The dogs have regular follow-up appointments for several months after the procedure, to monitor their healing and vision.
Cataract phacoemulsification and lens replacement is a great option to restore sight in pets who have cataracts and is just one example of the more sophisticated procedures we are able to offer our veterinary patients. If you notice your pet has cloudy-looking eyes, make sure you get your vet to take a look, cataracts might well be the cause. However, do remember that whilst they’re not ideal, cataracts are not the end of the world, so don’t despair if your dog can’t have the surgery. Often cataracts will come on gradually and pets grow accustomed to reduced vision, they will adapt to having poor or no sight and can still enjoy an excellent quality of life.