Glaucoma in Dogs: Causes, Signs & Treatment

Just as with humans, canines can sometimes suffer from a condition of the eyes called glaucoma. This is an increase of pressure that has built up inside of the eye. This type of pressure is called intra-ocular pressure, or IOP for short.

What is Glaucoma in Dogs?

Humans as well as dogs have a normal IOP of 10-20 mmHg. With glaucoma, 30 mmHg and sometimes even higher than 50 mmHg in pets is common, although human numbers are quite a bit less. When humans suffer from glaucoma, it’s usually at pressures ranging from 20-28 mmHg.

A healthy eye produces a clear fluid that is designed to nourish the tissues of the eye and help maintain its shape. This clear fluid is not the same thing as tears, which provide moisture and circulate around the surface of the eye to flush out debris.

The clear fluid is called aqueous humor, and is located ‘inside’ the eye, entirely separate from tears and their functions. In a healthy eye, aqueous humor fluid drains as if through a sieve, back into the bloodstream.

There is a balance required between the production of this fluid and its drainage in order to normalize eye pressure and sustain it within acceptable limits. When this balance is upset due to a blockage, pressure begins to build, eventually causing damage to the internal structure of the eye.

If the pressure isn’t relieved, the eye may stretch, enlarge, cause severe pain, and even result in loss of vision for your pet. This vision loss may be partial or total, and could wind up as permanent blindness.

Types of Glaucoma in Dogs

There are really only two types of glaucoma, primary and secondary. Primary glaucoma usually occurs because of physical or physiological traits that a dog has been predisposed to based on genetics. This means that the disease is inherited. The closer another dog is in the family tree that has suffered from glaucoma, the more likely it is that your dog will also suffer from glaucoma at some point.

Physical traits such as narrow angles or small pores that allow fluid to drain can also cause a blockage within the eye.

Glaucoma is not an exact science, and causes can vary from breed to breed. As a dog matures, clinical signs of glaucoma may occur in one eye or the other, though rarely at the same time or with equal pressure. Sometimes one eye can be affected months or years before the second eye is affected.

In secondary glaucoma, the disease is related to or triggered by something else, such as a wound that pierces the eye. Bleeding, swelling, and inflammation can occur, scar tissue may form, and drainage of fluid is hindered, if not blocked entirely.

Sometimes the tiny attachments that hold the eye in place are broken or weak, causing the lens to move out of its normal position and rest against the iris abnormally, hindering the eye’s ability to drain properly. This is called luxation/subluxation, or ‘lens instability,’ although even without a luxation or subluxation, the lens and iris can still attach together and cause fluid to be blocked. Sometimes scar tissue can build between the iris and lens as well, resulting in blockage.

Tumors, infections, advanced cataracts, cancer of the eye, inflammation, chronic retinal detachment are a few of the myriad of conditions that can trigger secondary glaucoma in dogs. However, the end result is the same – an inability of the eye to properly drain fluid and keep the pressure balanced, which is required for healthy vision.

Treatment will be different depending on the type of glaucoma, and will entail treatment of the root cause if it is secondary glaucoma, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis from your vet from the start.

Symptoms of Glaucoma in Dogs

Pain in dogs with glaucoma is more severe than pain in humans with glaucoma. However, animals don’t show pain the way humans do, and sometimes it can be hard for us to detect when our pet may be hurting. They won’t typically squint or rub their eye like you might do, although sometimes squinting or a slight fluttering of the lid is visible. If they do rub their eye, it may be against your leg or the furniture, but this is also a sign that’s easily missed.

Your pet may press their head against something in an attempt to relieve a headache, and may experience disinterest in normal activities as well as loss of appetite.

They can’t come out and tell you their head hurts or their eye hurts, so recognizing that something is wrong can be tricky. Also, when pets lose vision in one eye for any reason, they compensate so well that you may never even realize they are half-blind.

Optic nerve tissue is similar to brain tissue in that when it is damaged, healing is hard, if not impossible. Pressure damages to the optic nerve, along with stifled blood flow to the retina causes vision loss, and the longer the pressure remains without relief, the more damage and the greater the risk of permanent blindness. Permanent blindness in the first eye is common simply because it can be so easy to miss.

Rarely can you know your pet has increased pressure in their eye just by looking at them. Sometimes signs like red or bloodshot eyes may be visible, or the cornea could look ‘cloudy’.

Sometimes the pupil will look larger, or one eye may seem to protrude slightly. More often than not, everything looks normal, and even a vet can have a difficult time discerning something is wrong just by outward appearance.

The only reliable way to know early on if there is increased pressure in the eye of your animal is to have the IOP’s (intra-ocular pressures) measured by your vet. This can be tough if your dog is in pain or anxious. By the time the eye stretches and enlarges enough for you to visibly detect signs of glaucoma, it’s too late, and permanent blindness results.

Risk Factors for Glaucoma in Dogs

There are some breeds of dogs with a genetic predisposition for glaucoma. Namely Cocker Spaniels, Chow Chows, Samoyeds, Poodles, Beagles, Jack Russell Terriers, and other terrier breeds, as well as Siberian Huskies, Dalmatians, Chihuahuas, Alaskan Malamutes, Great Danes, Schnauzers and Basset Hounds.

Other breeds can suffer from primary glaucoma as well, although it’s not as common. Despite medical and surgical remedies, 40% of dogs who get glaucoma will end up blind in the affected eye within the first year.

Glaucoma doesn’t typically manifest before a dog is 2 years old, but can be seen at any age. It most commonly occurs in dogs aged 3-7 years old and up.

Dogs who have had primary glaucoma in one eye are almost guaranteed to get it in the other eye, and dogs with a close family history are at a much higher risk for the disease.

With secondary glaucoma, depending on the trigger, once a dog has it in one eye, it is more likely to develop in the second eye as well.

Preventatives for Glaucoma in Dogs

You can prevent secondary glaucoma by keeping your pet safe, avoiding injuries and accidents, and making sure to treat infections, especially those that afflict the eye, as quickly as possible.

Primary glaucoma however, is not preventable, as the condition is a result of genetics and physical traits that are malformed and can’t really be altered outside of surgery once glaucoma is detected.

In either type of glaucoma, prevention of the progression and the resulting blindness can be sought using holistic and conventional treatments and remedies. Just remember that such treatments are really only slowing things down, not truly ‘preventing’ the disease.

Treatment of Glaucoma in Dogs

It is helpful to think of treating glaucoma like a major medical emergency. The faster and earlier you address the problem, the least likely your pet is to suffer maximum, sustained damages. The top three goals are to reduce pain, drain excess fluid, and reduce how much aqueous humor the eye produces.

Most treatments are geared toward pain management to help ward off the headaches associated with glaucoma, and in delaying or preventing the disease from happening in the second eye. Your vet may recommend performing a gonioscopy to determine your best shot at saving the remaining eye.

  • Reduce aqueous humor fluid: Some treatment options seek to decrease the amount of fluid the eye produces, since draining the eye and keeping it drained can be tough, if not impossible in animals. There are pills and eye drops used for these purposes, and although they are helpful, they aren’t that great as a long-term option, and are ineffective in an emergency. The medications are most useful as a Band-Aid method until surgery of the affected eye is possible. This combination of treatment methods is usually the pet owner’s best chance at saving their dog’s vision.
  • Reduce stress: As with humans, stress can be very detrimental to a dog’s health. The immune system cannot do its job and the body cannot fight off oxidative damage if stress levels are high.
  • Use a harness: Harnesses are recommended for walking dogs, as collars can create unnecessary and detrimental pressure on the jugular veins. The pressure on the veins can lead to increased pressure in the eye, and result in glaucoma.
  • Avoid treating a blind eye: Medical treatment of an eye that’s already blind is not recommended. There’s no point in paying for expensive drugs and therapies to try to recover sight that is impossible to recover. In some cases, it might just be best to remove the blind eye entirely in order to mitigate pain and discomfort. It’s cheaper than the cost of medications and ongoing visits with the vet for eye exams.
  • Consider chemical ablation: Sometimes a chemical ablation may be appropriate if general anesthesia isn’t recommended due to your dog’s health or age. If vision is still possible, there are also laser surgeries successful in controlling IOP.

Deciding on the procedures and treatments that are best for your dog is a highly customized situation, dependent upon a variety of factors. Cost, cosmetic preferences, vision potential, and type of glaucoma all play a role in what treatment path you will decide to take. There are no guarantees with any option, so it’s important to carefully weigh the costs with the potential gains. The journey can be frustrating.

The best chances of success at saving your dog’s vision means early detection is key, as well as strict compliance with prescription instructions, stress control, regular ophthalmic exams, and specific antioxidant vision supplements.

When it comes to treating secondary glaucoma, addressing the root cause is necessary as well, whether that’s antibiotics for an infection, repair of an underlying injury, or removal of a tumor that may be causing trauma. If the underlying cause isn’t treated too, any attempts to stave off glaucoma will fail.

At the end of the day, all treatment options hinge upon whether there is still an eye worth saving. If there is not, it is better to save your money and just love on your pet.

Remove the eye if it’s in the best interests of your dog to do so, and consider an intra-ocular prosthesis if aesthetics are important to you, provided your pooch isn’t experiencing pain or infection. In most cases, your dog will adjust to any loss of vision just fine, and compensate for that loss in a variety of other ways, some of which just might surprise you.

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