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Corneal Ulcers in Dogs and Cats

It can happen so easily: a dog runs into a low-hanging tree branch while on a hike; a cat swats his housemate during playtime.  Later, the squinting, redness, tearing, and rubbing of the face: these signs together are suspicious for potential damage to the cornea of the eye.  The cornea is the transparent outer layer of the front of the eye, and serves to refract and transmit light, as well as to protect the inner structures of the eye.

If your pet is showing these signs, and you are worried about damage to the eye, it is best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian in a timely manner. The vet will begin by visualizing the structures of the eye with the aid of an ophthalmoscope or other similar instrument. Depending on the findings, the next step will most likely be a "corneal stain"; the vet will put a few drops of a fluorescein dye onto the surface of the eye. If there is a corneal ulcer, the dye will highlight it and provide the veterinarian with more information about its depth.

The majority of uncomplicated corneal ulcers heal quickly with the aid of ophthalmic antibiotic drops given three to four times daily. Pain can be managed with prescribed medication. If your pet is scratching or rubbing at their face, your vet may recommend an Elizabethan collar (or "cone") to prevent additional damage to the eye. For more complicated or chronic ulcers, or those that have surrounding inflammation of the cornea itself, there are additional therapies and procedures that can aid the healing process. It is not recommended to try to self-treat your pet’s eye without the guidance of a veterinarian, as several types of eye medications can do a corneal ulcer more harm than good.

During the treatment process, it is critical to monitor the eye closely. Depending on the type and chronicity of the ulcer, a veterinary recheck will be recommended two to seven days after the initial evaluation, and regularly thereafter until the eye is completely healed. It is also important to watch at home for such signs as acute increase in pain, discharge, or dramatic changes to the appearance of the eye, and to contact your veterinarian if any of these occur.

There are serious complications that can develop if the ulcer does not heal appropriately.  One such possibility is known as a "melting" ulcer, which happens when the associated infection causes the cornea to soften and deteriorate. Another severe form of a corneal ulcer is a "descemetocele". This type of ulcer is so deep that all that is left of the local cornea is one cell layer between the outside and the inside of the eye. As you may imagine, this causes the eye to be extremely fragile, and makes it very vulnerable to rupturing: this is considered to be an ocular emergency.

In addition to making sure that the ulcer heals appropriately, the veterinarian will also consider the underlying cause. Traumatic injuries as those described at the beginning of this article are most commonly to blame, but there are also certain ocular abnormalities, such as dry-eye or a hair growing in the wrong place along the eyelid, that can predispose to corneal damage.

If you are concerned that your pet may have a corneal ulcer, the safest approach is always to reach out to your veterinarian as soon as possible.  This way, they can evaluate the eye and develop and discuss a plan for treatment and observation that will give your pet’s eye the best chance of healing comfortably and completely.

Should you have any questions, comments or concerns, please don't hesitate to contact us by phone at 845-876-6008, or by e-mail at [email protected].

Thank you for choosing us to be part of your pet's healthcare team!

With warmest regards,
Your friends at Rhinebeck Animal Hospital


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