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Meet the Veterinary Specialist: The Ophthalmologist


Pet Column for the week of February 26, 2007

Related information:

Services - Ophthalmology
Services - Veterinary Profession

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

A veterinary ophthalmologist specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the eye. Companion animals, specifically dogs, make up the majority of a veterinary ophthalmologist's case load. However, an ophthalmologist is by no means limited to cute and cuddly house pets. A specialist in this field can have anything from dogs to horses to birds of prey as patients.

The science behind veterinary ophthalmology is very similar to that in human medicine. According to Dr. Carrie Breaux, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, Ill., the majority of diagnostics, procedures, and treatments used by veterinary ophthalmologists are directly patterned after human ophthalmology. However, unlike human ophthalmologists, veterinarians can not simply ask their patients to sit in a chair and tell them exactly what the problem is.

The equipment used and the techniques used for handling veterinary ophthalmology patients can be most closely compared to human pediatric ophthalmology. "Our patients generally will not hold still for long and they cannot tell us what they do or do not see," explains Dr. Breaux.

Advances in the field of veterinary ophthalmology generally mirror those of the human medical field. As a result new technology and procedures are constantly introduced to the complex field of veterinary ophthalmology. Advancements in the field include retinal reattachment surgery, a complicated procedure that only a handful of specialists in the nation can perform. Dr. Breaux is one of a small number of veterinary ophthalmologists trained to perform this procedure.

Although retinal detachment is not as common as other diseases of the eye, such as cataracts or glaucoma, it is a problem that can lead to partial or complete blindness if left untreated. Studies suggest that a successful retinal reattachment can restore functional vision to those animals that undergo the surgery. While complete vision may never be regained, the ultimate goal of the surgery is to enable the animal to move comfortably in its environment and maintain the animal's quality of life.

According to Dr. Breaux, many years ago performing cataract surgery on pets was relatively uncommon. Today it is the single most common intraocular surgery that veterinary ophthalmologists perform. It is her hope that retinal reattachment surgery will follow this trend.

"I have a special interest in diseases of the retina, and I am hopeful that someday soon the University of Illinois will be able to offer retinal reattachment surgery to the community," states Dr. Breaux.

There are a variety of reasons why owners bring their animals to a veterinary ophthalmologist and not all will require surgery to repair. Many general practice veterinarians are simply not equipped or trained to deal with the more complex diseases of the eye. As a result, the majority of the cases seen by veterinary ophthalmologists are referral cases. It is not uncommon for an animal to return to the referring veterinarian for continuing care once the initial diagnosis has been made, explains Dr. Breaux.

While ophthalmologists specialize in diseases of the eye, they will often see patients with eye problems that result from systemic diseases such as diabetes, blastomycosis, tick-borne diseases, and high-blood pressure, among others. Such diseases often have symptoms that manifest in the eye; however, once the diagnosis is made the patient is referred to a veterinarian that specializes in that particular disease. Accordingly, it is important for veterinary ophthalmologists to work closely with other specialists in the field of veterinary medicine.

While many diseases and problems of the eye can be the result of either the natural aging process or trauma there are some breeds of animals, dogs in particular, that are more likely to develop eye problems. Some breeds that are predisposed to eye disorders include the Cocker Spaniel, Basset Hound, Collie, as well as bracycephalic breeds like the Bulldog, Pug, Pekinese, and Shi Tzu. However, breed alone will not determine whether an animal will have healthy eyes all its life. Routine check-ups with your veterinarian are an important part of ensuring your pets eye health.

For more information on the veterinary ophthalmology specialty, or to locate an ophthalmologist in your area, visit the Web site of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology at www.acvo.org.