Cataracts in Dogs

Written by Small Door's medical experts

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.

In This Article

What are cataracts in dogs?

A cataract is a clouding of the lens of the eye that creates a grayish blue or white discoloration, which can lead to blurry vision. As the disease progresses, the eye’s natural transparency becomes more opaque, which can ultimately result in blindness. However, not all dogs with cataracts will follow such a progression.

What dog breeds are prone to cataracts?

Certain breeds of dogs are more likely to develop cataracts

  • Afghan Hound

  • Bernese Mountain Dog

  • Boston Terrier

  • Chesapeake Bay Retriever

  • Cocker Spaniel

  • German Shepherd

  • Golden Retriever

  • Havanese

  • Labrador Retriever

  • Maltese

  • Old English Sheepdog

  • Pekingese

  • Samoyed

  • Schnauzer

  • Siberian Husky

  • Staffordshire Bull Terrier

  • Standard Poodle

  • Welsh Springer Spaniel

  • West Highland Terrier

  • Yorkshire Terrier

However, it’s possible for any breed of dog to develop cataracts.

Signs & symptoms of cataracts in dogs

Cataracts in their early stages have few symptoms. One of the more common signs is a change in the appearance of the eye.

A healthy eye has a clear pupil, while an eye with cataracts will have a film over the pupil, giving it a cloudy, grayish blue texture. In some cases, the surface of the pupil will appear to have a crackled, uneven look. As dogs age, their eyes may exhibit similar changes that could also be a result of nuclear sclerosis (a harmless haziness of the pupil associated with aging) or glaucoma. While these conditions are similar in appearance, a veterinary ophthalmologist will be able to make a definitive diagnosis and provide advice on the best course of action.

Dogs with cataracts often show signs of sight loss. Some of these include:

  • Clumsiness

  • Bumping into furniture, door frames, walls

  • Trouble finding the location of food or water bowls

  • Difficulty finding toys or treats tossed to them

  • Hesitant to walk down stairs

  • Walking with nose to the ground

  • Barking at inanimate objects

  • A weeping eye or a change in blinking pattern

  • Flinches when you pet near the eye

  • Anxiety, especially at night or in dim lighting

Some dogs may experience dizziness, which can result in vomiting or whining. If diabetes is the underlying cause of cataracts, a dog’s water intake, along with frequent urination, may occur. Some dogs may appear restless, while others slow down and move around a lot less than usual.

While these signs can be indicators of cataracts, they can also be a result of other issues.

Since there are few symptoms in the early stages of cataracts, it can be easy to miss the signs. Be on the lookout for behavioral changes that may indicate vision problems, and pay attention to any changes in the appearance of your dog’s eye, especially as they age.

What causes cataracts in dogs?

Different factors can contribute to the development of cataracts in dogs. Some of the most common causes are:

Diabetes: Diabetic cataracts, possibly due to blood sugar abnormalities, is the leading cause of blindness in both humans and dogs. Diabetic dogs have a 75% chance of developing cataracts, and 75% of those that do will lose their vision within 6–12 months if left untreated. In terms of timing, the majority of dogs with diabetes develop cataracts within six months of diagnosis, and 80% do so within 16 months. 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.

Aging: As dogs get older, vision-related problems, such as cataracts, can naturally develop. Certain age-related illnesses may also put a dog at higher risk.

Nutritional Imbalance: 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. Nutritional cataracts have a good chance of improving with age, and they will usually not interfere with vision.

Trauma: 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.

Diagnosing cataracts in dogs

Cataracts can be detected just by looking into a dog’s eyes, but a veterinary ophthalmologist can make an accurate diagnosis. This may involve a physical examination to determine walking capabilities, the ability to focus on objects, and external changes in the eye, including foreign particles that could cause damage.

Other tests can include:

  • Eye pressure test

  • Internal examination of the eye lens

  • Complete blood count test

  • Electroretinography

  • Ophthalmic ultrasounds

The four stages of cataracts in dogs

Each cataract is unique. Some cataracts progress at a slower pace than others, and not all follow the four stages.

Incipient: Also known as an immature cataract, an incipient cataract is a tiny cloud or opaque pocket in a dog’s eye that doesn’t require surgery. Because it’s small, an incipient cataract has minimal impact on vision and can be managed with routine care and follow-up visits with a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Immature: At this stage, a dog may need surgery due to some clouding of the lens. This condition affects 15% to 99% of lens coverage. Depending on the severity, visual impact may range from minimal to near-blindness.

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.

Hypermature: 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. 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.

Immature, mature, and hypermature cataracts can be removed only by surgery (if your dog is a candidate); however, not all dogs with cataracts will need to go the surgical route. Some dogs may develop a cataract in only one eye, and these dogs can often avoid surgery altogether. Other dogs with cataracts can get around fine until the cataracts fully obstruct vision.

But here are some things to consider if your pup has cataracts:

Watch for injuries: Be on the lookout for changes that appear out of the ordinary. No matter how minor the injury may be, consult your veterinarian before it leads to a full-blown emergency.

Routine care: Just like humans who visit their primary doctor for regular check-ups, it’s important for pets to follow the same regimen. When it comes to cataracts, reversing them in an advanced stage is not only difficult, it can also be painful and expensive.

Home care: A nutritionally balanced diet can help keep your pet healthy in general—and that includes his eyes.

Surgery: Surgery is one of the most common treatments for cataracts. The first two weeks after surgery are the most critical time for healing; dogs need to wear a cone collar to prevent scratching and irritating the eye. Drops may also be required to prevent infection.

Corrective surgery is typically a very successful way to remove cataracts and restore vision.

What happens when cataracts in dogs go untreated?

When a cataract is left untreated in a dog, it’s possible they will go blind as the cataract completely blocks light from entering the eye. A cataract may still be treatable with surgery in the early stages after a dog loses their sight. If the cataract remains untreated after the dog becomes blind, it can eventually develop into glaucoma

Glaucoma is a condition where the eye receives too much pressure, which leads to damage to the optic nerve. At this point, your dog will become permanently blind in that eye. 

Other conditions that can be caused by leaving cataracts untreated are lens luxation and cataract dissolution. Lens luxation is a condition where your dog’s lens can float out of place. Cataract dissolution is a condition where your dog’s cataracts dissolve on their own but cause deep inflammation inside the eye, which can then result in uveitis (painful inflammation of the part of the eye known as the uvea) or glaucoma.

Luckily, not all cases of cataracts lead to blindness, glaucoma, or other medical conditions. However, in all cases  it’s important to see your veterinarian for a full assessment of your dog’s condition and prognosis.

Are cataracts in dogs contagious for humans or other pets?

Cataracts are not contagious for other dogs, animals, or humans.

What is the cost of treating cataracts in dogs?

The cost of surgery depends on the veterinary ophthalmologist you choose, your geographic location, and the complexity of the situation. On average, the cost can run to several thousand dollars, but could be less. Talk to more than one specialist for a quote.

Additional costs for follow-up care may include pills to relieve discomfort, eye drops, ointment, and veterinary visits to ensure that surgery was a success and the eye is healing correctly.

Recovery and management of cataracts in dogs

A dog’s first two weeks after surgery are the most critical, and the recovery process can take some time. There will be some swelling and discomfort; you will need to manage this inflammation with eye drops several times a day, and the dog will need to wear a cone or Elizabethan collar to protect the eyes. Walks will need to be kept to a minimum. Active dogs will have a hard time staying calm; when going for a walk, use a harness instead of a leash to minimize pressure on the neck. Ensure you follow your veterinarian’s post-care instructions, and schedule follow-up visits as needed.

How to prevent cataracts in dogs?

Cataracts can be managed but not completely prevented. However, some basic precautions will help keep your dog healthy:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle and body weight in accordance with your dog’s breed and age.

  • Incorporate supplements with antioxidants that support healthy eye function.

  • Keep your dog active with daily exercise, which helps prevent eye diseases.

  • 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 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.

Is there a vaccine for cataracts in dogs?

There is no vaccine that prevents cataracts.

Summary of cataracts in dogs

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.

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