What is a veterinary ophthalmologist, and what do they do?
A veterinary ophthalmologist is a vet with extensive advanced training. This enables them to diagnose and treat eye conditions in dogs and cats, as well as other pets and livestock. A vet ophthalmologist must complete veterinary college, an internship, a vet ophthalmology residency and a national board exam.
These veterinary specialists play a key role in addressing problems that can harm animal vision. Animal vision differs from human vision. But people and pets share one thing in common: a reliance on eye care professionals for eye and vision health.
What conditions do animal ophthalmologists treat?
A veterinary ophthalmologist may treat any eye condition or problem in a dog, cat, horse or other animal.
Examples of conditions treated by a vet ophthalmologist include cataracts in dogs and cats as well as feline and canine glaucoma. A veterinary ophthalmologist can also treat eye injuries and emergencies, such as partial retinal detachment.
A veterinary ophthalmologist is also trained to perform eye surgeries. Some examples of pet eye surgeries that may be performed include:
Eyelid corrective or reconstructive surgery
Laser surgery for cysts or masses in the eye
A veterinary ophthalmologist can also diagnose and treat chronic or progressive pet eye conditions.
What to expect during a visit to a veterinary ophthalmologist
First, most veterinary specialists require a referral from your regular vet before they will see your pet. Most general veterinary practitioners are happy to provide a referral.
A vet ophthalmologist visit typically begins with the doctor observing the animal. They will perform a thorough physical examination of the eyes. This will include the eyelids, sclera (whites of the eyes), cornea, lens, iris, fundus (back of the eye) and vitreous humor.
The veterinary ophthalmologist will administer this exam using a number of tools, techniques and eye tests. These may include:
Slit lamp biomicroscopy – uses a special tool with light to examine structures in the eye
Fundoscopy – uses a special lens to examine the back of the eye
Tonometry – measures eye pressure
Tear measurement – checks the amount of tear production
Corneal staining – uses a special stain to see corneal scratches or ulcerations
Depending on the pet’s condition and the reason for the visit, the animal ophthalmologist may also perform other eye tests. They can then make a diagnosis and go over treatment options with you.
When to see a veterinary ophthalmologist
Your regular veterinarian has training in pet eye problems and will check your pet’s eyes during a preventive vet care visit. They also may be able to treat minor eye issues, such as an eye infection that requires antibiotic drops.
More serious cases may require a visit to a vet ophthalmologist. For example, your pet may need to see a specialist for the following eye conditions:
Cataracts in animals form when changes in the eye cause the lens to become cloudy. Cataracts can lead to other issues such as glaucoma and a higher risk of uveitis (inflammation) in the eye.
Diagnosing and treating an animal’s cataracts early can help prevent these problems. A pet with cataracts may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist for an eye exam and treatment. Treatment options include medications or cataract surgery.
Chronic or severe uveitis
Uveitis is the inflammation of the uvea. The uvea includes the iris, ciliary body and choroid of the eye. Symptoms may include tearing, photophobia (light sensitivity), pain and redness. A dog or cat with chronic or severe uveitis may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist. They can provide treatment to lessen inflammation and reduce the risk of vision loss.
Glaucoma in dogs and cats can cause pain and blindness. It is more common in dogs, and certain breeds of dogs may be more likely to develop glaucoma. These include: Akitas, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Chow Chows and Shih Tzus. Glaucoma in pets may be treated with medication or surgery.
Retinal disease is a group of diseases that cause retinal deterioration that can lead to blindness. Retinal problems in dogs and cats include retinal detachment, in which the retina pulls away from the back of the eye.
An inherited form of progressive retinal atrophy occurs in many breeds of dogs, including: Akitas, Cocker Spaniels, Labrador Retrievers, Miniature and Toy Poodles and Miniature Schnauzers. It’s important to see a veterinary ophthalmologist for retinal diseases to prevent vision loss if possible.
Severe corneal ulcers
Corneal ulcers in dogs and cats have a variety of possible causes, including an eye injury or infection. Corneal ulcers can range from mild to severe. In some cases, a corneal ulcer can be treated with antibiotics and an Elizabethan collar.
More severe cases may require surgery or even eye removal. If your dog or cat has a severe corneal ulcer, they may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist.
Your pet may also need to be referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist if they:
Have a serious eye injury.
Have a tumor in or around the eye.
Need specialized eye testing in order to diagnose a problem.
Need eye surgery.
How to find a veterinary ophthalmologist
If your pet needs to see an eye specialist, your veterinarian should be able to refer you to a nearby vet ophthalmologist.
Or you can use the search tool from the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists to search by location. You should find a list of board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists near you.
Just as you care for your own eyes, it's important to provide regular pet eye care to your dog, cat or other pet. Your pet should receive regular eye check-ups as part of their annual veterinary exam. And they should see a veterinary ophthalmologist if necessary.
So you want to be a veterinary ophthalmologist? American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. Accessed August 2022.
Veterinary ophthalmology. Royal Veterinary College. Accessed August 2022.
Ophthalmic examination made ridiculously simple. World Small Animal Veterinary Association. May 2005.
Basic eye examination of dogs. Dr. Phil Pickett. January 2019.
When should pets see us? Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Accessed August 2022.
Cataracts in dogs: the importance of early detection and management. Today's Veterinary Nurse. May 2020.
Canine and feline uveitis. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Small Animal Practice. March 2008.
Glaucoma in dogs and cats. Veterinary Partner. September 2018.
Disorders of the retina, choroid and optic disk (ocular fundus) in dogs. MSD Manual Veterinary Manual. October 2020.
Disorders of the retina, choroid and optic disk (ocular fundus) in cats. MSD Manual Veterinary Manual. October 2020.
Page published on Tuesday, October 4, 2022
Medically reviewed on Monday, August 29, 2022