Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Treatment for Cataracts Is Not Just For Humans Anymore!

Pet Column for the week of April 15, 2002

Related information:

Services - Ophthalmology

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

You may be aware of someone who has experienced the joy of the restoration of vision after cataract surgery, but what about animals that get cataracts?

In the past, cataracts could mean the end to playing catch with the dog. Even worse, it could mean the end of a productive career as a working dog or seeing-eye companion. Today, however, the very same cataract treatments available to humans are also available for animals.

Nevertheless, most animals can live normal lives without their vision, according to Dr. Paul Gerding, a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. "Before proceeding with cataract surgery for your pet, it is important to realize that while obscured vision or blindness in a human can be life changing, this condition in a dog or a cat will typically have less of an effect on their quality of life," he says. "I have a wonderful 16-year-old Labrador retriever who has been blind about 8 years. She plays, runs, and has even hunted without her vision!"

Most pets that lose their vision adapt quite well and can memorize the layout of a house, yard, and other familiar places. The best thing that can be done for animals that are visually impaired is to provide a safe, stable environment. Avoid moving furniture around in the house, keep the animal on a leash when outdoors, and watch traffic carefully. It is even possible to play with animals that have lost their vision using toys with bells in them.
Dr. Gerding says, "These animals seem to develop their other senses more acutely to compensate for their lack of vision."

Cataracts are defined as any opacity in the lens of the eye and are often detected when the eye looks cloudy. In general, once a cataract has developed, there is no way to eliminate it except for a surgical procedure in which the lens is removed. Once formation of a cataract has begun, most will progress to obscure vision completely, although it is difficult to predict how quickly that will happen. While of cataracts most often occur in older people and animals, it is possible for an animal of any age to develop them.
The causes of cataracts are numerous and include genetic predisposition, traumatic injury, diabetes, toxins, and radiation therapy for cancer. In addition, cataracts can occur in most animal species. Dr. Gerding says, "We have done cataract surgery on almost every animal you can think of, including cats, dogs, horses, birds, reptiles, ferrets, camels, and even lions and tigers!"

At the Veterinary Teaching Hospital at the University of Illinois uses the same type of machine that is used for removing human cataracts to treat cataracts in animals. This instrument uses ultrasonic sound waves to break down and remove the lens from the eye. New synthetic lenses are then implanted inside the eye to replace the original lens. "Even without the implant, an animal that has had the cloudy lenses removed will see much better than an animal with advanced cataracts," says Dr. Gerding.

The lens allows the eye to focus on objects, especially ones that are very close. "An animal without lenses may see the mailman walking down the street clearly but may have trouble focussing on the stairs up close," says Dr. Gerding. Because animals rely on their focusing ability much less than humans do, not having a replacement lens may not be a problem to them. However, it still makes sense to go ahead and put in the implants for optimum vision. In addition, since most pets will develop cataracts in both eyes, it is more cost effective to perform surgery on both eyes at the same time, because the bulk of the cost of surgery comes from the sterile equipment involved, which will be discarded after surgery. The cost difference between correcting one eye or both eyes is small.

While leaving a cataract in the eye is a choice, it is important to realize that the cataract can be a source of inflammation. As the cataract worsens, it can leak proteins. The body then recognizes these proteins as a foreign substance and mounts an immune response against them, causing inflammation. Animals with cataracts should be monitored carefully for signs of inflammation and may need to be medicated periodically for the rest of their lives.

Getting treatment for a pet's cataracts is a decision each pet owner must make. If your pet has cataracts and you think you may want to restore the animal's vision, it is best to do so early, while the cataract is immature. "We have the best success with cataract surgery when the condition is noticed and treated as early as possible," says Dr. Gerding.

If you think that your pet may have cataracts, or you would like more information on cataract surgery, please contact your local veterinarian or the University of Illinois's Veterinary Teaching Hospital at 217/333-5300.