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Corneal Ulcers in Pets

Friday, December 29, 2017

Michele L. Edelmann, VMD, DACVO
Garden State Veterinary Specialists


Corneal ulcers are among the most common eye problems diagnosed in pet dogs and cats.

The front, outer surface of the eye is called the cornea. This tissue should always remain clear to maintain optimal vision. It is composed of several layers. Ulceration occurs when the thin, outermost layer, called the epithelium, is damaged or wounded.

What causes corneal ulcers in dogs?
In some cases, a scratch to the eye is witnessed, for instance after rough play with another animal or after the dog rubs its own eye. In other cases, eye examination reveals abnormal eyelash hairs, abnormal eyelid conformation, or eyelid masses that rub on the cornea, leading to ulceration. In many cases, however, no history of trauma is known and eye exam is otherwise normal. In these situations, we suspect breaks or cracks in the corneal epithelium arise spontaneously. A major risk factor for spontaneous ulcers is dry eye disease.

What causes corneal ulcers in cats?
The most common cause of corneal ulceration in cats is Feline Herpesvirus infection. Almost all cats harbor this virus in their bodies latently throughout life. Signs develop during times of stress when the virus becomes activated. This is similar to when people develop cold sores. Stressful situations for cats may include new individuals (children, adults, or pets) in the household, travel, hospitalization, or other illnesses. During stress, the virus replicates in the cornea and can create ulcers by causing breaks in the epithelium. Aside from herpesvirus, cats can also develop ulcers from abnormal eyelid conformation or eyelid masses that rub on the cornea.

What are the signs of corneal ulcers?
Squinting, tearing, and redness of the white of the eye may be present as corneal ulcers are typically very painful. Some animals may try to rub or paw at the affected eye. Occasionally, pet owners notice cloudiness of the cornea.

What is the treatment?
In all cases, a topical antibiotic eye drop or ointment must be prescribed to prevent bacterial infection during healing. Additionally, a plastic, protective Elizabethan collar should be placed on your pet to prevent rubbing. If infection develops, the ulcer could progress to involve deeper layers of the cornea and cause the eye to rupture (“corneal perforation”). In these cases, emergency graft surgery with an ophthalmologist may become necessary to save the eye.

If an underlying cause like abnormal eyelid conformation, abnormal eyelash hairs, or eyelid mass is diagnosed, surgical correction may also be recommended.

When should I see an ophthalmologist?
You should see your primary veterinarian immediately at the first sign of any ocular discomfort. If a simple corneal ulcer is diagnosed and is still present after one week, you should consult with an ophthalmologist. Simple corneal ulcers should heal within seven days. If the ulcer has not healed naturally, there may be a treatable underlying cause, there may be a wound-healing problem, or the ulcer may be infected.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be used as a substitute for the professional advice of your veterinarian.

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