Veterinary ophthalmologists focus on animal eye health

Eyes may be the window to the soul, but they are also prone to their own set of unique diseases and can be a key organ involved in severe systemic illness.

While general practice veterinarians have training and experience with treating common eye diseases, sometimes specialists are needed for complex cases. Within the veterinary community, there are some who choose to specialize in particular areas, much like physicians who treat people.

Ophthalmologists are one of these specialties. Their focus is on the diagnosis and treatment of eye disease in a range of animal species. For the most part, their services tend to be used for dogs, cats and horses. They may also work on exotic animals and various production animal species as the need arises. A potential application in production animals would be the investigation of a hereditary condition in a purebred herd.

To specialize as an animal eye doctor, vets undergo rigorous post-secondary education. This starts with at least two years of pre-veterinary studies that typically include the basic sciences of biology, chemistry, biochemistry, math statistics, as well an English course or two.

Next, students must gain admission into the competitive doctor of veterinary medical degree programs, which are currently four years long. Veterinarians need to practise as veterinarians for at least one year after graduation to apply to ophthalmology programs.

The vast majority of aspiring ophthalmologists will undertake one or more rotating clinical internships, often in specialized small animal veterinary practices or at veterinary schools.

During these internships, vets are exposed to a variety of specialties.

Next comes the application for admission into an ophthalmology residency, which is highly competitive and may take a few tries.

Once in a residency, these vets do a rigorous three-year training program and must pass a certifying examination. Board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists are known by the fancy title of Diplomates of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists.

Vet ophthalmologists use some of the same tests general practice vets use, including fluorescent stain and blue light to check for corneal ulcers, the outer most portion on the front of the eye than can be easily scratched. Paper strips measure tear production. Using slit lamps, they can peer into the depths of the eye checking for signs of disease. They also measure pressure within the eye to check for glaucoma.

Veterinary ophthalmologists also have probably the coolest tool kit in the profession with many high-end gadgets to make their work easier. These tests come with similarly nifty names such as gonioscopy and electroretinography.

What might you need a specialist eye doc for? Their expertise shines for any eye condition but may be especially helpful for unusual conditions, eye diseases that aren’t responding as expected to routine treatment and also if you are involved in purebred breeding.

A common example is horses that suffer damage to their cornea. An ulcer can form and become seriously infected, which can progress to loss of vision and the eye itself if not treated aggressively. Surgery to the outermost part of the eye is sometimes required and this is an example of where a specialist would come in handy.

For many purebred dog breeders, eyes of breeding animals are checked by veterinary ophthalmologists before breeding to reduce genetic diseases. Dogs are certified and registered with the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals. For example, border collies are prone to a genetic condition called collie eye anomaly. Affected dogs have abnormal retinas that progressively deteriorate leading to blindness.

Breeding dogs can be screened by vet ophthalmologists and given a genetic test to reduce the chances of passing this condition along.

Eye diseases can crop up and become serious quickly. When this occurs, we are lucky to have the help of these eye specialists with their deep knowledge and understanding of the intricacies of the eye.

You can access the services of an ophthalmologist by referral from your primary veterinarian or you may wish to suggest a referral if you have concerns about your animal’s particular eye condition. While veterinarians in general practice have broad knowledge, the help of a specialist is always worth considering.

Specialists such as ophthalmologists will work with your regular veterinarian to ensure you have the best care for your animal. There are a handful of these specialists in Western Canada based in cities like Saskatoon, Calgary and Edmonton.

Dr. Jamie Rothenburger, DVM, MVetSc,PhD, DACVP, is a veterinarian who practices pathology and is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Twitter: @JRothenburger

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