Seeing-eye docs: Pet ophthalmologists see variety of patients

Robert Weitzman

The basset hound’s missing eye suggested he was a returning customer. With the dog’s long ears resting on the examination table, the nurse held him still while Dr. Dennis Donohue turned off the lights.

After shining several instruments into the eye, Donohue turned the lights back on and told the owner that with medicine and regular check ups, the progression of the dog’s glaucoma condition could be slowed. The owner looked relieved.

Donohue has provided relief like this to pets and owners alike for the last 10 years at his practice, Animal Eye Specialists in West Bridgewater.

Certified veterinary ophthalmologists are somewhat of a rarity. In the United States, there are approximately 340 of these specialty practices.

Diagnosing animal eye problems is a challenge, Donohue said in an interview at his office.

“They don’t always fit into a neat little package,” he said. “Many veterinarians will try medicine that doesn’t work and the problem will just get worse and they don’t know what to do.”

And while eye and vision problems can be hard to diagnose, it can be even harder finding a doctor qualified to look at them.

The scarcity of veterinary ophthalmologists has brought Donohue patients from as far away as Manhattan and Vermont, he said.

Besides cats and dogs, he has treated rabbits, chinchillas, birds, pigs and even a goat.

The eye problems he encounters are extensive and usually depend upon age and breed. He said eye problems in cats are usually viral, while problems in dogs are more varied.

“Optometry is so complex,” he said. “You’re dealing with an organ the size of an olive.”

He also sees animals that have suffered eye injuries. This can result from getting in fights, or even hanging their head out a car window.

Using custom-written summaries and hand-drawn diagrams, he maps the development of potential eye problems, which he shares with the pet’s owner and primary veterinarian. “My veterinarians rely on them,” he said.

Getting to be a veterinary ophthalmologist isn’t easy. It takes 12 years of school to call yourself one. This explains the row of college diplomas that lines the wall of the examination room.

“I was never one of those kids who didn’t know what he wanted to do,” said Donohue, explaining his decision to become a veterinary ophthalmologist. “If you asked any of the people who knew me growing up, they’d tell you I was always talking about being a veterinarian.”

He went to the University of New Hampshire for undergraduate and graduate studies; Kansas State for his medical and surgical internship; the University of Minnesota for veterinary school; and the University of Illinois for his residency and master’s degree. He also is a diplomat for the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, according to his office.

One of his patients on a recent visit to Donohue’s office said she had brought in her terrier in because his eyes were watering constantly.

“I figure if I don’t check it out, I’ll kick myself,” she told the doctor.

The Enterprise

Common pet eye problems

Animal eye problems vary, depending upon the breed and age of animal. Here are five common eye problems that pet owners may encounter:

Intraocular inflammation: Symptoms include tearing, blinking, redness and sensitivity to light; however, they are not always visible. Doctors will often prescribe medication and in worst cases, surgery is necessary.  

Glaucoma: It can be inherited (primary) or contracted (secondary). It causes swelling in the eye, and in some cases blindness. Often, doctors will drain excessive fluid from the eye to relieve pressure. 

Cataracts:  These can develop slowly over many years or  rapidly. They are often recognizable from the opaque coloring they give to the eye. Surgery is often necessary.

Uveal cysts: They can be free-floating or attached to the eye, and are most common in dogs, especially golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers and Boston terriers. They can cause glaucoma from blocking eye drainage.

Entropion: Common in shar peis, English bulldogs and chow chows, it is caused by contact between the eye and eyelashes, due to the eyelid folding inwards. In severe cases, it can cause blindness.