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Cataracts in dogs: Signs, causes, treatment, and prevention

Dog squinting

If your dog appears to have a cloudy-looking substance in their eye, they may have a cataract. In many cases, the cataract will progressively take over more of your dog’s eye until they go completely blind. It is important to contact your veterinarian immediately to learn more about your dog’s cataract and how it can be treated. 

Table of contents 

What is a cataract? 

A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye that creates a grayish blue or white discoloration. Inside the eye is a structure called the lens. When light enters the eye, the lens focuses the light on the back of the retina. When a cataract forms, the lens becomes opaque. 

As a cataract progresses, the eye’s natural transparency becomes more opaque, which can ultimately result in blindness. A mature cataract looks like a white disk behind your dog’s iris. The part of the eye that usually looks black will now look white.  

Symptoms of canine cataracts 

In addition to being able to see cloudy spots in your dog’s eyes, there are several other symptoms for cataracts that dogs commonly exhibit: 

  • Vision loss 
  • Clumsiness, bumping into walls and furniture 
  • Hesitancy around stairs 
  • Trouble locating toys, food and water bowls, etc. 
  • Walking with nose to the ground 
  • Barking at inanimate objects 
  • Changes in blinking patterns 
  • Increased stress and disorientation, especially at night or in dim lighting 

In addition to vision loss, chronic cataracts can cause excruciatingly painful, unmanageable secondary issues within the eye. These secondary complications may require enucleation, or surgical removal of the eye. These secondary issues include lens-induced uveitis, glaucoma (increased intraocular pressures), and lens luxation (dislocation of the lens). Cataracts can also cause retinal detachment, which can result in blindness. 

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Losing their vision, either gradually or suddenly, can be disorienting and stressful for dogs. Fortunately, ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA chews, soft gels, and oils can help their stress levels decrease and return to a normal state of balance. CBD and CBDA truly calms without sedating, which is key to allowing dogs to handle stressful situations like learning to navigate the world without their sense of sight.    

As always, consult your veterinarian if your dog shows signs of stress. For any questions about ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA products or how CBD can help your canine friend live their best life, give us a call (844-673-7287) or send us an email ([email protected]). We are here to help. 

Causes of cataracts in dogs 

Cataracts in dogs are most commonly hereditary. Dogs can inherit the gene mutation responsible for cataracts from one or both of their parents. However, dogs with these genes should not be used for breeding and responsible breeders screen their dogs for this mutation. 

Some cataracts in dogs are age related and may appear to occur spontaneously. As dogs get older, vision-related problems, such as cataracts, can naturally develop. 

Cataracts from nutrient imbalances usually show up within the first few weeks of a puppy’s life, and result in the loss of clear transparency in the lenses. This is most common in orphan puppies who are fed with a milk replacement product. Nutritional cataracts have a good chance of improving with age, and they will usually not interfere with vision. 

For active pups that love to run and play, especially outdoors, there is the risk of potential eye trauma. The lens of the eye can rupture, which can lead to inflammation and leakage from the lens into the surrounding areas. If you suspect your dog has had trauma to the eye, see your veterinarian immediately. 

High blood sugar levels change the balance of water in the lens and cataracts often form. In fact, almost all diabetic dogs develop cataracts within a year of diagnosis. Often, diabetic cataracts appear very rapidly, with a dog losing her sight within a day or two of having any trouble at all. Because cataracts in diabetic dogs can progress rather quickly, seeing a veterinarian as soon as possible is essential to avoid eye damage and loss of sight. 

Breeds prone to cataracts 

Any breed of dog can develop cataracts, but some dog breeds are more likely to develop the condition than others. Hereditary cataracts can affect many dog breeds, including: 

  • Boston terrier 
  • Cocker Spaniel 
  • Labrador retriever 
  • Poodle 
  • Schnauzer 
  • Shih Tzu 
  • Welsh Springer Spaniel 

If your dog is one of the above breeds, you should closely monitor your pup’s vision. Consult your veterinarian as soon as possible if you notice visual or behavioral signs of cataracts. 

Stages of canine cataracts 

There are four different stages for canine cataracts. Cataracts will sometimes progress through all four stages, while others will stay static and not significantly impact a dog’s vision or quality of life. The four stages of canine cataracts include: 

  1. Incipient – Also known as an immature cataract, an incipient cataract is a tiny cloud or opaque pocket in a dog’s eye. These involve less than 15% of the lens and cause minimal vision issues for the dog or none at all. Incipient cataracts may even require magnification to diagnose and typically do not require surgery. Instead, they can be managed with routine care from a veterinary ophthalmologist. 
  2. Immature – At this stage, cataracts involve greater than 15% of the lens and often involve multiple layers of the lens or different areas. Depending on the severity, visual impact may range from minimal to near blindness. 
  3. Mature – This advanced stage of cataracts affects the entire lens with complete or nearly complete clouding. The eye is considerably damaged, and surgery is not always an option. Surgery is determined on a case-by-case basis because of the possible complications that can arise post-surgery.   
  4. Hypermature – At this point, the eye is in the most advanced and final stage of degeneration, and surgery might not be an option. As the cataract worsens from mature to hypermature (which can take months or even years), it causes a wrinkling of the lens, and the contents become solidified and shrunken. Lens-induced uveitis (inflammation within the eye) often occurs at this stage. Vision loss is common in this final stage. Although the affected eye can become completely cloudy, there may also be clear spots, which will allow for some level of vision.    

Treatment options 

Unfortunately, no eye drop or pill can reverse changes in your dog’s lens.  The most common and effective treatment option for canine cataracts is surgery, which involves removing the cloudy lens and restoring sight. This surgical procedure, known as phacoemulsification, includes an artificial lens being placed into your dog’s eye. If surgery is an option, having it sooner minimizes the difficulty and risks. Surgery has about an 80-90% success rate and helps to avoid secondary issues.  

Surgery is not a good option for all dogs, however. Occasionally, a dog will have inflammation in the eyes, glaucoma or damaged retinas, making it unlikely that surgery will be successful. In addition, sometimes a dog will have another illness (e.g., kidney or heart disease) that is bad enough to make anesthesia too risky. 

If surgery is not an option for your dog, anti-inflammatory eye drops may be prescribed long-term to help control inflammation. Medication can delay or prevent lens-induced glaucoma. Getting your dog on the right medications will help minimize associated complications. 

Preventing cataracts in dogs 

Cataracts can be managed but not completely prevented. And unfortunately, there’s no way to prevent cataracts that have a hereditary component. If you decide to adopt a dog, choose a breeder who screens for cataracts or have your veterinarian investigate at the first sign of any eye abnormalities or vision trouble. Here are some basic precautions to help keep your dog’s eyes healthy: 

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle and body weight in accordance with your dog’s breed and age.  
  • Talk to your veterinarian about supplements with antioxidants that support healthy eye function.  
  • Keep your dog active with daily exercise.  
  • Schedule yearly eye exams, especially as your dog ages.  
  • If your dog suffers any trauma to the eye area, have it checked out immediately. 

It’s important to stay alert to potential injuries and illnesses that can affect the eye and to feed your dog a healthy, well-balanced diet that is rich in vitamins and nutrients that promote healthy vision. If you own a breed that’s prone to developing cataracts, be sure to have their eyes checked regularly by your veterinarian.  

Cataracts that form as a result of diabetes may be preventable. The key is to keep your dog at a healthy weight by feeding them a balanced food with all the proper nutrients and to follow any advice that your veterinarian gives you. 

Bottom line 

Cataracts in dogs are a greyish blue or white clouding of the eye, which leads to vision loss. The prognosis depends on the severity of the cataract; some dogs are good candidates for surgery and can regain full vision, whereas others will ultimately lead to blindness in the affected eye. As there may be few symptoms initially besides a change in the appearance of the eye, owners should ensure they get their dog’s eyes checked by your veterinarian regularly.