Deep brown, caramel, sparkly, soulful, or begging --- our kerries’ eyes are windows into their souls – or at least, according to Stephanie Pumphrey, DVM,
DACVO and assistant professor, Veterinary Ophthalmology at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, they are windows into their health.
“I am consistently struck by, and fascinated by, how often the eyes are the first outward clue into what’s going on metabolically with a dog,” Dr. Pumphrey says. “If you see a change in your dog’s eyes, see a veterinarian as soon as possible.”
Among the most common eye issues in dogs are physical injuries – scratches, scrapes, and bits of plants or dirt that find their way into the eyes and aren’t flushed out by normal tear production – or, by the dog having a nice face-rub on the couch – which can make the issue worse. For aging dogs, eye issues can be more chronic, or more severe.
“In older dogs, we automatically want to be on the lookout for cataracts, dry eye, endothelial degeneration (cloudy cornea), and eyelid masses,” says Dr. Pumphrey.
Among these, cataracts and eyelid masses are usually managed surgically; dry eye generally responds well to medical management.
A hallmark of the traditional kerry trim is “facial furnishings,” or the kerry’s fall of silky blue hair down the center of the dog’s face, and many kerry owners ask whether this can affect their dog’s vision. For most kerries, their fall affects them no more and no less than having long hair in your eyes would affect you yourself. However, not being able to see well interferes with training, as a dog needs a clear field of vision to help with eye contact with his or her trainer, and an unmanaged fall can affect the health of a kerry’s eyes.
Explains Dr. Pumphrey, “If the coat is kept long around the eyes to the extent that hairs can contact the cornea, it causes discomfort and can lead to corneal ulceration, scarring, and pigmentation.”
But do dogs rely on vision, with their other highly articulated senses of smell and hearing, to the same extent that humans do? For Dr. Pumphrey, this is a complicated question.
“It depends on the breed and what they were meant to do,” she offers. Sight hounds and herders, for instance, rely on sight more than, perhaps, a bloodhound for whom scent is a primary driver.
“But visual acuity in most dogs is not quite as good as in humans, and dogs have limited color vision compared to humans -- they do see color but not as vivid a palette. In addition, dogs have greater capabilities than people when it comes to some of their other senses, particularly the sense of smell. So, vision is very important to dogs, but the context is a little different.”
While a dog owner may never get tired of gazing into their furry friend’s eyes, Dr. Pumphrey feels the same way from a professional point of view.
“What I enjoy the most about ophthalmology is that we make a lot of pets feel better and we can often do so fairly quickly. I enjoy the combination of medicine and surgery, and I also like that we see a wide variety of animals - cats, dogs, horses, birds, rabbits, and all sorts of other pets and wildlife.”
And the profession continues to surprise her with how much there is to be learned from eye health.
“When I started out, I didn't realize how often systemic disease manifests in the eyes. We regularly diagnose pets with diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and other serious illnesses based on what we find in their eyes.”
What does Dr. Pumphrey want any dog owner to know about their dog’s eye health?
“Eyes are delicate and can reach a point of no return quickly. At the same time, we can often manage even very serious eye problems if we intervene early and aggressively. On the other hand, I also think it's crucial for pet owners to know that blind pets generally do very well and can lead happy, active lives.”