The eye is a complex structure.

But, for all of its complexities, the eye tends to react to almost every insult in more or less the same way. A cat with a herpetic ulcer, a dog with glaucoma, a horse with a wound to the surface of the cornea, they’ll all have some combination of a red eye, pain (e.g., holding the eye partially shut), and drainage.

What this means for owners is that when your pet has these symptoms, your veterinarian really can’t tell you what is going on without performing an exam (we’re really not just trying to get you to come in so we can charge for our time). To make matters worse, we also can’t determine over the phone how serious the situation might be. Do I need to stay after hours or send you to the emergency clinic, or can you wait for an appointment that’s at a more convenient time for everyone? Hard to say.

I perform a little over-the-phone triage on eye problems. If it’s a chronic but stable issue, we can probably wait for the next appointment slot that works for you, but if this is a problem that you just noticed or something that you’ve been ignoring and is now getting worse … get your pet in ASAP no matter the inconvenience or extra cost that might be involved.

I don’t mess around with red, "angry" eyes for two very important reasons:

  1. They can "head south" in a hurry. For example, a dog with severe and rapidly progressing glaucoma can become permanently blind in the affected eye within 12 to 24 hours of the onset of symptoms. A melting ulcer can perforate the cornea leading to a ruptured eye. I’m okay emphasizing the negative on the phone and then being able to give you good news after an exam. I’m not okay with missing the potentially very short window of opportunity to effectively treat a sight-limiting condition.
  2. Eye injuries and diseases are often excruciatingly painful. I’m sure any of you out there who have suffered from a corneal ulcer, acute glaucoma, or even something as relatively benign as an eyelash stuck under a lid can attest to that. Pain is the body’s way of saying, "Do something about this before anything worse happens"; and that’s wise advice.

Under most circumstances, an ophthalmologic exam and a few relatively quick and cheap tests (e.g., a Schirmer tear test measuring tear production, a corneal stain to look for wounds/ulcers on the surface of the eye, and a check of eye pressure) will produce a diagnosis and treatment plan. There really is no benefit to taking a wait and see approach when it comes to eye problems in animals, and in people too, I suspect.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Photo Credit: The National Eye Institute

Image: Alila Sao Mai / via Shutterstock