Cataract Surgery for Dogs: Risks and Benefits

cataract surgery for dogs

Cataract surgery for dogs can be a life-changing treatment, bringing them from almost complete blindness to normal levels of vision. Canine eyes are similar to human eyes. The clear tissue over the front of the eye is the cornea. The next visible part of the eye from front to back is the iris, which is the colored part of the eye. Just behind the iris is the lens of the eye.

The lens is normally transparent. The purpose of the lens is to focus the light entering the front of the eye onto the retina at the back of the eye so your dog can see clearly. When the lens in a dog’s eye becomes cloudy, we call it a cataract. Cataract surgery is where the veterinary surgeon gently removes the clouded parts of the lens to return it to a clear state. The process is known as phacoemulsification or phacofragmentation.

Causes, Symptoms & Solutions

Cataracts may be so small they are hardly noticed by the dog. These are called incipient cataracts. This type is usually not visible without special equipment.

A mature cataract is diagnosed when the lens is so cloudy your veterinarian can’t see the back of the eye, or retina. A dog with a mature cataract may have a bluish or whitish appearance to the pupil of the eye. Dogs with mature cataracts have some degree of diminished vision all the way to complete blindness if both eyes are affected.

Not All Cloudy Eyes Have Cataracts

Pet owners frequently assume that an older dog with cloudy eyes has cataracts. Cataracts can be confused with a normal aging change in dogs known as nuclear sclerosis. Nuclear sclerosis starts around age 7 in dogs. It’s a mild to moderate cloudiness in the eye’s lens that does not interfere with vision until it is quite advanced at ages 12-15. Your veterinarian will be able to differentiate nuclear sclerosis from a true cataract with an eye exam.

Causes of Cataracts in Dogs

While many diseases can cause cataracts in dogs, hereditary cataracts are the number one cause. More than 150 different breeds are predisposed to genetic cataracts. They include the American cocker spaniel, bichon frise, shih tzu, golden retriever, Labrador retriever, miniature poodle and Siberian husky. This type of cataract can show up at any age from birth to middle age.

The second most common cause of canine cataracts is diabetes mellitus. When a dog is diabetic, the lens of the eye is exposed to high glucose levels for an extended period of time. Prolonged high levels of glucose cause the lens to swell. Glucose is then converted by enzymes into sorbitol, which leads to the lens becoming opaque or cloudy. Most dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts within about 16 months of diagnosis.

Cataract Surgery for Dogs

Your general practice veterinarian can usually make a diagnosis of cataracts. If you research the condition online, you’ll find lots of vitamins and drops claiming to cure cataracts. According to veterinary ophthalmologists, none of these products can produce a cure for cataracts in dogs.

At this time, there is no recommended treatment for cataracts other than surgery. Cataract surgery is done by a specialist called a veterinary ophthalmologist due to the need for special equipment and surgical skills. Your general practice vet will give you a referral to the nearest specialist.

How does cataract surgery for dogs work?

The goal of cataract surgery is to restore vision by removing the cloudy lens material. Removing the diseased tissue also decreases the likelihood of inflammation inside the eye that occurs when a mature cataract disintegrates.

Cataract surgery for dogs involves a procedure called phacoemulsification (sometimes called phacofragmentation). The procedure was introduced for use in human patients in 1967 by Charles Kelman. By the late 1980s, veterinary ophthalmologists considered phacoemulsification the best technique to use to treat cataracts in dogs.

Criteria for Cataract Surgery for Dogs

Just because your dog has a cataract doesn’t mean he should have surgery.

Major criteria needed to make your dog a candidate for cataract surgery include:

  • Good retinal function (the neurological part of vision)
  • No inflammation inside the eye (or well-controlled with meds)
  • Normal pressure inside the eye (no glaucoma or well-controlled with meds)

Dogs with mature cataracts may develop problems with any of these criteria the longer the cataractous lens is left in place. The lens blocks the transmission of light to the retina and over time, the retina degenerates and loses function. Mature cataracts often start to disintegrate. When that happens, inflammation within the eye can cause pain and increased pressure (glaucoma).

Dogs who are not good candidates for surgery are those with:

  • Hypermature/disintegrating cataracts
  • Retinal degeneration (vision will not be restored even if the cataract is removed)
  • Poor overall health that makes anesthesia/surgery risky
  • Behavior issues that prevent the owner from medicating eyes

Phacoemulsification Procedure

The procedure involves small incisions made in the cornea through which an ultrasound-producing instrument is introduced. Ultrasound vibrations are used to break up the cloudy lens. The lens fragments are suctioned out of the eye, leaving only part of the lens capsule. Next, the ophthalmologist will insert an artificial lens into the remaining space so that your dog has better focusing ability.

If there is damage to the lens capsule, it might not be possible to place the artificial lens. Dogs are still able to see without the new lens but have less ability to focus.

Nearly there!

Finally, the small incisions in the cornea are closed with suture. Sometimes the surgeon will temporarily suture the eye closed as a protective measure. Cataract surgery for dogs takes about an hour from the beginning of anesthesia to recovery. Patients are discharged a few hours after they recover from anesthesia. An Elizabethan collar (cone) is used to protect the eyes from being rubbed by the dog.

Dog Cataract Surgery Success Rate and Complications

Veterinary ophthalmologists have improved the procedure for cataract surgery for dogs over the last 40 years. The long-term success rate for dogs to have vision after surgery is 80-90 percent. Most dogs have functional vision within a couple of weeks after surgery.

Complications of cataract surgery for dogs include inflammation inside the eye that can’t be controlled with medication. There is also potential for infection, posterior lens capsule becoming cloudy over time, retinal detachment, glaucoma, bleeding inside the eye and the lens implant moving out of place.

Dog Cataract Surgery Cost and Time Investment

Cataract surgery for dogs obviously comes at a price, but one that most owners feel is well worth paying. After the initial diagnosis by your regular veterinarian, you will have a consultation with the veterinary ophthalmologist. They will confirm the diagnosis and perform other tests to evaluate the eye.

These tests usually include ultrasound imaging of the eye and an electroretinogram (ERG) to determine if the retina is still healthy. A pre-op blood panel will be done to rule out serious diseases that might make anesthesia risky. You might need to visit the veterinary ophthalmologist once for diagnostic testing and a physical exam and again on the day of the surgical procedure.

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Recovery after cataract surgery for dogs

Most pets recover from anesthesia grogginess within a day or two, but full dog cataract surgery recovery time is about six weeks. Dog cataract surgery aftercare requires pet owners to apply drops into the eyes several times a day in addition to giving oral medications. You will need to take your dog to the clinic for recheck exams several times each month for a couple of months after surgery. Total follow-up time is usually about 12 to 18 months.

Cost of cataract surgery for dogs varies depending on your location. In a major metropolitan city in the U.S., costs are around $600 to $1000 for pre-operative testing plus $3600 to $4800 for the surgery. Smaller towns will usually have lower costs. Most veterinary ophthalmologist’s offices will gladly give you a price estimate if you call and ask.

cataract surgery for dogs

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  1. From the vet we went to a couple of weeks ago, we were told that my Labrador needs to undergo cataract surgery. However, since the vet does not offer surgical services, we decided to look for a new veterinary nearby. I like that you said how most pets recover from anesthesia grogginess within a day or two, but full dog cataract surgery recovery time is about six weeks.