Corneal Ulcers in Dogs

A corneal ulcer, also referred to as ulcerative keratitis, is an inflammatory condition of the cornea, which is the clear surface on the outside of the eyeball. A healthy cornea is important for proper vision, so any damage to it should be taken care of immediately.

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The cornea has three layers:

  • Epithelium: the outermost layer, consisting of a very thin layer of skin cells

  • Stroma: the main supportive tissue of the cornea, located beneath the epithelium

  • Descemet’s membrane: the deepest layer of the cornea

Corneal ulcers can either be superficial, which involves damage to the epithelium, or deep, extending into or through the stroma, resulting in severe scarring and corneal perforation.

Signs and Symptoms of a Corneal Ulcer in Dogs

Corneal ulcers are painful, and if left untreated, they can cause permanent vision loss. If you notice a change in one or both of your dog’s eyes, or your dog begins showing some of the following physical signs, contact your veterinarian immediately:

  • Keeping the eye shut

  • Excessive tearing

  • Squinting

  • Cloudy cornea

  • Rubbing of the eye with their paw or on the carpet

  • Redness in the whites of the eye

  • Discharge (if there is an infection)

How Did My Dog Get a Corneal Ulcer?

Corneal ulcers are one of the most common eye diseases in dogs, with various possible causes. Physical trauma is the most frequent cause – because the cornea is the outermost layer of the eye, it is prone to damage. Some ways a dog can develop a corneal ulcer include:

  • Contact with sharp objects like plants, thorns, or bushes that can cause a laceration

  • Scratches from another animal

  • Chemical irritants such as shampoo

  • Any foreign object that becomes stuck under the eyelid, causing a scratch

  • Breed predisposition: “flat-faced” dogs like Boxers, French Bulldogs, and so forth can be more susceptible to corneal ulceration due to the shape/construction of their facial folds and eyelids, and because their eyes tend to protrude more than the eyes of longer-nosed dogs

Although not as common, corneal ulcers can also develop due to bacterial and viral infections, as well as other diseases that either originate in the eye or as a secondary disease elsewhere in the body. These may include:

Diagnosing Corneal Ulcers in Dogs

Not all corneal ulcers are easily visible to the naked eye, so specialized testing is necessary. One of the most common tests involves a fluorescent stain placed directly on the cornea. If there is damage, the stain will turn green and stick to the surface of the damaged area under fluorescent lighting.

In cases where the ulcer is either acute or superficial, this will result in a diagnosis. If the ulcer is chronic or deeper, samples may need to be taken from the cornea for cell study prior to applying the stain or other medication.

Treating Your Dog for a Corneal Ulcer

Superficial corneal ulcers should heal rather easily. There is always a risk of infection, so a topical antibiotic is usually prescribed. In addition, your vet may also prescribe something to help ease your dog’s pain.

In some cases, procedures or surgical intervention may be necessary in order to remove dead or poorly healing layers of corneal tissue to promote healing. (There are many techniques, but the current best-in-class option is called the Diamond Burr Debridement.) Another potential procedure would be a corneal graft.

The extent of the damage and depth of the corneal ulcer, as well as the speed of healing, will guide your vet in choosing the best procedure for optimal results.

Is There a Cure for Corneal Ulcers?

With proper treatment and care, corneal ulcers are curable in all but the most extreme cases.

What Is the Cost for Treating Corneal Ulcers?

In addition to the fees associated with a vet office visit and diagnostic testing, the cost to treat corneal ulcers depends on a variety of factors, including the size of the ulceration and breed of animal. Boxers, for example, are notorious for coming down with very stubborn ulcers. Costs can vary from a few hundred dollars to $1,000 to $2,000 if more advanced procedures or surgical interventions are required, or if the ulcer progresses from a simple ulcer to a more chronic one (also known as an indolent ulcer).

Keep in mind that costs will also vary by geographic location. Bigger cities have higher costs of living, which extend to veterinary care.

Recovery and Management of Corneal Ulcers in Dogs

Healing time depends on factors such as the cause of the ulcer, the size, the location, and depth. Once treatment has begun, the healing process usually takes between one and two weeks, but in more difficult cases can be as long as several months. A follow-up visit to check on the eye should be scheduled. Your vet may need to re-stain the eye to determine if it has fully healed.

Some dogs will naturally want to rub or paw at their eyes; to prevent any additional trauma, an Elizabethan collar (cone) may need to be worn until the ulcer has fully healed.

Preventing Corneal Ulcers in Dogs

Many corneal ulcers are simply caused by accidents, as when the eye is scratched during play or on a walk; therefore, they can be difficult to prevent. But you can keep a close eye on your pet when he’s playing with other animals, and avoid areas that contain low brush or thorns when you go on walks. Fast intervention, as soon as you notice anything wrong with your pet’s eyes, is the best approach to a speedy recovery.

Try to avoid letting dogs stick their heads out of car windows, as flying debris can damage their eyes. Finally, if allergies or other factors are causing your dog to scratch or rub his eyes, take him to a vet; self-trauma is a common cause of corneal ulcers.

Is There a Vaccine for Corneal Ulcers?

There is no vaccine that prevents corneal ulcers.

Summary of Corneal Ulcers in Dogs

Corneal ulcers are painful, and if not treated promptly, they can cause permanent vision loss, so it’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms. Whenever you notice something amiss with one or both of your dog’s eyes, you should get them checked by the vet straight away. To minimize the risk of an eye injury, try to avoid outdoor areas with low branches, and thorns, and do your best to make sure your dog doesn’t scratch or rub at his eyes.

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