What Is an Eye Ulcer in Dogs?

What Is an Eye Ulcer in Dogs

Dog eye ulcer is a condition in which the eye’s outer layer (cornea) erodes, resulting in a dent or divot. The dent can be superficial (if it affects only the surface of the eye) or profound (if it affects the deeper layers of the cornea).

The cornea consists of three layers: corneal epithelium, corneal stroma, and Descemet’s membrane. Defects affecting the epithelial cells are called corneal erosions or abrasions. Deeper defects reaching the corneal stroma or Descemet’s membrane are classified as ulcers.

Because of their unique anatomy, brachycephalic (flat-nosed) dogs like Pugs, Boxers, and Bulldogs are more prone to ulcers. In these dogs, the eyes are more exposed and, therefore, more likely to sustain trauma.

What Does a Dog Eye Ulcer Look Like?

Dog eye ulcers make the eyes cloudy, the whites red, and the area around the eyes covered with a discharge. However, the exact way a dog eye ulcer will look like depends on its depth.

Superficial corneal ulcers affecting the stroma will make the front of the eye look cloudy or hazy. The cloudy appearance is due to stromal fluid accumulation. The excess tear production is likely to make the eye look wet and teary.

However, if the defect passes the surface of the cornea and extends to the Descemet’s membrane, it will form descemetocele – herniation (perforation) of the membrane. In such cases, the eye fluid will leak out and cause irreversible eye damage.

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What Causes an Eye Ulcer in Dogs?

The most common cause of eye ulcers in dogs is trauma. However, there are other underlying causes. Here is a close look into the dog eye ulcer causes:

  • Trauma: Eye trauma is the most common cause of ulcers and includes different scenarios, like rubbing on the carpet, getting scratched by cats, or close contact with other sharp objects.
  • Chemical Burns: Many household chemicals and irritants can damage the surface of the eye and cause ulcers. Common examples are drywall dust and harsh shampoos.
  • Foreign Body: Foreign particles, including sand, dirt, and other debris, can enter the dog’s eye and get stuck behind the eyelids. This can lead to corneal damage and painful ulcers.
  • Eye Infections: Bacterial infections and viral Infections of the eye can also result in ulcers if left untreated for a longer period of time.  
  • Epithelial Dystrophy: Defined as weakening of the cornea, this condition is genetic and more common among certain dog breeds, like, for example, Boxers.
  • Dry Eye: Also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), is a condition in which there is no tear production or the tears are prevented from reaching the eye. The dryness results in ulcers.
  • Entropion: Entropion is when the eyelids are inverted inward, which results in the eyelashes irritating the surface of the eye. Over time, the constant irritation causes defects or ulcers.
  • Endocrine Conditions: Endocrine conditions, including diabetes mellitus, Cushing’s disease, and hypothyroidism, can also lead to the formation of ulcers.

Sometimes, the cause of eye ulcers is unknown. In such cases, it is called indolent ulceration, and the ulcers are called spontaneous chronic corneal epithelial defects (SCCEDS). This type of ulcer is likely to occur in older dogs (over six years of age). It is also known as Boxer ulcers because it is most common in members of the breed.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Dog Eye Ulcer?

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of a Dog Eye Ulcer

From increased blinking to eye discharge to behavior changes – many symptoms can indicate pet owners for eye ulcers. Here are the most common dog eye ulcer signs:

  • Blinking: Blinking is one of the first symptoms of defects of the corneal surface. Over time, the blinking can progress into squinting (as the damaged cornea becomes sensitive to light).
  • Excess Tearing: The irritating process results in increased tear production. This will give the eye a wet and teary appearance.
  • Eye Discharge: As the condition progresses, instead of increased tearing, the eye will make discharge. The eye discharge can be cloudy, yellow, or green.
  • Eye Pawing: Corneal ulcers in dogs are painful. Therefore, they can make dogs paw at their eyes (in an attempt to get rid of the source of the pain).
  • Elevated Third Eyelid: Sometimes, the presence of corneal ulcers can make the dog’s third eyelid on the affected eye elevated.
  • Eye Inflammation: Redness and swelling are common symptoms of eye problems and occur when the eye is inflamed. Also, the blood vessels in the whites of the eye can be visible.
  • Behavior Changes: A dog in pain is likely to refuse to eat. More often than not, appetite loss is accompanied by lethargy and disinterest in everyday activities.

How is Eye Ulcer in Dogs Diagnosed?

To diagnose a dog eye ulcer, the vet will perform a full body examination and then a more specific ophthalmic exam. If necessary, the regular vet may refer the dog to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Here are some of the diagnostic procedures the vet may perform:

  • Fluorescein Stain: This is the diagnostic procedure of choice for corneal ulcers. The vet will put yellow-greenish dye in the dog’s eye, and then the dye adheres to the ulcerated tissues. For superficial ulcers, the entire ulcer will change color. In deeper ulcers, only the rims around the defect will be dyed.
  • Bacterial Culture: The vet may take a corneal cell sample (swab the surface of the eye) and incubate the sample to check for bacterial growth. This test is recommended for dogs with non-healing, deep, and chronic ulcers.
  • Schirmer Tear Testing: This simple and non-invasive test measures tear production and are vital for diagnosing dry eye (one of the most common causes of corneal ulceration in dogs).
  • Tonometry: Simply put, measuring of the intraocular pressure is a test the bet will perform to determine the pressure. The test indicates glaucoma, but will not be performed if the ulcer is too deep, as it can aggravate the situation.  

What Is the Treatment for Eye Ulcers in Dogs?

What Is the Treatment for Eye Ulcers in Dogs

The treatment options for dog eye ulcers are classified into two groups – medical and surgical. Both groups involve various approaches. Let’s take a look at them:

  • Medical Dog Eye Ulcer Treatment: Medical treatment includes the use of antibiotic eye drops and pain meds (such as atropine). In more severe cases, the topical treatment can be boosted with systemic medications (oral antibiotics and anti-pain medications).
    To protect the lens during the healing process, some vets suggest contact lenses. Pet owners are also instructed to use e-collars (ulcers are painful and itchy, and dogs can easily make the situation worse by rubbing or scratching their eyes).
  • Surgical Dog Eye Ulcer Treatment: When it comes to surgical procedures, there are different options. For example, for indolent ulcers, most vets recommend diamond burr debridement or keratotomy. This removes the dead cells beneath the ulcer and helps the blood vessels invade the defect, thus promoting healing.
    Another option is conjunctival grafts – where part of the conjunctiva is transposed over the defect to provide nourishment and support healing. To protect the healing defect, the third eyelid can be temporarily sutured over the eye (tarsorrhaphy).
    Same as with the medical treatment, following surgery, the dog should wear an e-collar to avoid self-inflicted injuries that will delay the healing process.

Can Eye Ulcer in Dogs Heal on its Own?

Superficial corneal ulcers in dogs may heal on their own. However, it is still recommended to treat them with topical antibiotics to reduce the risk of eye infections and speed up the healing process.

On the other hand, deeper corneal ulcers cannot heal on their own. Instead, if left untreated, they progress and worsen. In severe cases, they can result in irreversible eye damage and vision loss.

What is the Prognosis for Dog Eye Ulcer?

Usually, the prognosis for a dog eye ulcer is excellent, and dogs are expected to make full recovery. Dogs are checked by a vet every 5-7 days for simpler ulcers or every 1-2 days for deeper ulcers.

However, the prognosis can vary based on the depth of the ulcer and how promptly the treatment was initiated.

Can I Prevent Eye Ulcers in Dogs?

Yes, some types of ulcers in dogs can be prevented. Pet owners should take proper care of their dogs’ eyes. Also, some traumatic events that result in corneal ulcers are preventable. Additionally, regular check-ups at the vet can help catch eye problems early on.