An ophthalmologist is a specially trained doctor, or vet, who treats problems with the eyes and surrounding structures. Ophthalmologists shouldn’t be confused with optometrists, who are not doctors but do have training in assessing eyesight, examining eyes and diagnosing certain conditions in humans. There are also dispensing opticians for people, who are trained in advising on glasses and contact lenses; but do not examine eyes or diagnose problems. So, do these specialisms exist in the veterinary world?

Different levels of veterinary ophthalmology

It is important to understand that there are a few different levels of specialisation within the veterinary world. Some vets will just have a particular interest in ophthalmology but no specific qualifications in this area. Others may choose to train to obtain a certificate in Veterinary Ophthalmology. However, to officially call themselves a specialist in Veterinary Ophthalmology, qualified vets must undergo a three year residency training course. And pass tough examinations set by either the European or American Colleges of Veterinary Ophthalmology. They are then eligible to register as an RCVS approved specialist. Veterinary ophthalmologists undertake training in all major veterinary species although many will focus on just a few; such as cats and dogs.

What’s the difference between a veterinary and a human ophthalmologist?

There are certainly some differences between human and veterinary opthamologists in terms of what they do. Veterinary ophthalmologists are less able to assess subtleties in vision eg long/short sightedness and early vision changes than their human counterparts. Many ophthalmologic procedures that in humans are carried out with them wide awake will require a sedative or even full anaesthetic for our furry friends. Treatment options will often differ between human and veterinary patients and conditions may have a very different clinical course. For example in animals glaucoma is usually diagnosed as an acute and very painful emergency. Whereas humans tend to suffer a more chronic form that is often first detected on a routine eye examination with few or no symptoms at all.

Veterinary ophthalmologists often work within large specialist referral centres alongside veterinary specialists in other fields. Some may work within general practices or even as a peripatetic. Or as a travelling specialist who will visit local general practices and see patients there. In order for a pet to see an ophthalmologist they have to be referred by a general practice veterinary surgeon.  

When is a veterinary ophthalmologist NOT required?

Not all eye problems in dogs need referral to an ophthalmologist. Simple problems such as conjunctivitis and straightforward eye injuries can often be dealt with by your normal veterinary surgeon at your local practice. There are, however, more complex eye conditions that your vet may recommend referral for. These include the treatment of cataracts, severe ulcers and more complex eye injuries. In addition to being more experienced, veterinary ophthalmologists will often have access to specialist equipment that allows them to carry out more detailed examinations and delicate, complex surgeries.

The decision on whether to refer your pet dog to an ophthalmologist depends on a number of different things. Veterinary ophthalmologists may be able to carry out different tests. Their experience means that it may be easier for them to diagnose and offer treatment options for your pet. The treatment options they are able to offer are likely to be more extensive, and they will often have carried them out hundreds of times. On the downside, they will understandably charge more for their services. In some areas of the country you may need to travel long distances to access a specialist. The best way to find a veterinary ophthalmologist is either to ask your usual vet for a recommendation or to look at the specialist database held by the RCVS and available online. Your regular vet will need to refer you.

If you think your pet needs the services of a veterinary ophthalmologist, your first port of call should be your regular veterinary surgeon. They will be happy to advise whether your pet’s condition may be helped by referral, give you an idea of what an ophthalmologist might be able to do, discuss the services available in your area and organise a referral should you wish to proceed.

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