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

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When the Eye Has Left Its Orbit

Pet Column for the week of July 10, 2009

Related information:

Services - Ophthalmology

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

Source - Mitzi K. Zarfoss, DVM
It's one of those things you hope you never have to see, except maybe on Halloween as part of someone's costume. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for veterinary emergency and specialty clinics to deal with a dog whose eye is out of place. Proptosis, or eye dislocation, simply means that the eyeball has been displaced from its normal position and is now entrapped outside of the socket by the eyelids behind it.

Dr. Mitzi Zarfoss is a veterinary ophthalmology resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana. She says, "the most common cause of proptosis is trauma." For example, it is likely to occur when a dog is hit by a car, or in a dogfight where the animal has been shaken.

Interestingly, certain breeds of dogs are much more prone to proptosis than others. "The eyes of brachycephalic breeds, or dogs with prominent eye conformation, are much more exposed and susceptible to proptosis," notes Dr. Zarfoss. Therefore it takes less force to cause proptosis in pugs or shih tzus versus collies or shelties, two breeds with relatively deep set and sheltered eyes.

Proptosis is a medical emergency, so it is imperative that you get your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible. Although seeing a dog displace its eye may be very alarming, Dr. Zarfoss stresses that, "it is really important that owners try to remain calm." Because eye displacement usually goes hand-in-hand with severe trauma, a veterinarian will first have to make sure that the animal is systemically stable before treating the eye.

The treatment for proptosis is relatively simple: put the eye back where it belongs, and temporarily suture the eyelids over the eye to keep it in place as it heals. But to do so, the patient must first go under general anesthesia. Determining whether vision will be present in the eye when the eye heals depends on several factors, such as severity of trauma, breed, and how quickly the animal was treated. About one third of patients will regain sight in the eye after it has been replaced.

The prognosis for vision varies on a case-by-case basis, and depends on the amount of trauma that the eye has sustained. In many cases, the globe can be saved but will be blind. "Owners are usually very attached to their pet's eyes," notes Dr. Zarfoss, "it is understandably very upsetting for people when they hear that their animal may not regain vision in the displaced eye."

Although owners are very concerned when their pet loses vision in one eye, dogs do very well with only one visual eye. In fact, pets care most about spending time with their owner, and it doesn't take two eyes for a Pomeranian to curl up in your lap to watch a movie. Animals that are visual in one eye can still do almost everything they used to do with two. Exceptions to this rule include horses with one visual eye, which should be ridden with caution, and animals that are unsupervised outdoors (i.e. roaming cats) that may be more susceptible to injury with only one visual eye.

In the end, with swift veterinary care a proptosed eye alone won't stop your pet from living a full life. However, "it is an emergency," says Dr. Zarfoss, so get Fido to the nearest veterinarian as soon as safely possible.