Most diabetic dogs will develop cataracts and go blind. This web page is arranged as an FAQ to assist the owners of diabetic dogs in knowing what to expect and in decision-making regarding cataract surgery.
A cataract is an opacity in the lens of the eye. The entire lens may be involved or just a part of it. The patient will not be able to see through the opacity.
The lens of the eye is round, hard, and normally as clear as glass. Looking at the lens it is hard to believe it is a piece of living tissue. The lens is suspended by fibers which can adjust its position so that one can focus. The lens is encased in a capsule and depends on the fluids of the eye for nutrients. The lens does not receive a direct blood supply.
Normally, the lens absorbs glucose from the eye fluids, using most of this for its own energy needs. Some of the excess is converted to another sugar called “sorbitol.” When there is excess sugar in the eye fluids, there is excess sorbitol produced. Sorbitol pulls water into the lens which in turn disrupts lens clarity and causes the cataract. Fructose is also produced from the excess glucose and also contributes to this water imbibition.
The presence of cataracts does not necessarily imply poor diabetic control. Even well controlled dogs still can get cataracts.
Generally the cataract has matured and the dog is blind in a matter of weeks.
A cataract’s “maturity” is determined by how much visual impairment is felt to be present. Since we cannot as a dog to read an eye chart, we must determine this by visual inspection of the eye. A light is used to look into the eye and view the colorful area at the back of the eye called the “tapetum.” (This is the area that flashes or appears colored in certain lighting.) When less than 10% of the tapetum is obstructed is very young and does not significantly change vision. When 10-50% of the tapetum is obstructed this cataract is called “early immature.” When 51-99% is obstructed the cataract is “late immature.” The “mature” cataract obstructs the entire tapetum. Ideally a cataract is removed in the “early immature” stage for the lowest surgical complication rate.
When a cataract is “hypermature,” it is starting to actually liquefy and dissolve. While this can actually lead to the restoration of vision which sounds like a positive turn of events but the dissolution process is quite inflammatory.
All cataracts do not progress all the way to hypermature and may stay static or progress at changing rates; however, diabetic cataracts are notorious for reaching hypermaturity and creating inflammation.
Uveitis is inflammation of the “uveal tract” of the eye, which consists of the vascular tissues of the eye. In simpler terms, uveitis is the inflammation that results when the hypermature cataract begins to liquefy. Uveitis is painful and tends to cause the eye to become reddened and the pupil to constrict. When uveitis is present prior to surgery, success (pain-free vision) is present in only 50% of cases 6 months after surgery as opposed to 95% of cases for whom there was no uveitis preoperatively.
Not at all. Dogs do not depend on vision the way humans do. A blind dog can get a long very well as long as the furniture isn’t moved and the dog is properly supervised.
For tips on helping the blind dog adapt:
For a listserv for owners of blind dogs:
There are many medical conditions that render a dog blind and as long as the condition is not painful, the dog can live a normal life as a successful and happy pet.
The first step is a consultation with your regular veterinarian. Your dog’s diabetes must be well regulated before surgery is considered. If pre-operative lab tests show nothing to preclude anesthesia, the next step is referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist. Your regular veterinarian can do this or you may search on your own at
(web site of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists).
A regular veterinarian is not qualified to perform cataract surgery.
It is necessary to determine if the eye is going to be visual after cataract surgery. There is, after all, no point to performing this surgery if the eye is going to be blind anyway. The most important test is called an “ERG” (an electroretinogram). This test checks the retina for electrical activity which, if present, indicates the eye should be able to see after the cataract in front of it is removed.
In addition to performing the ERG, the ophthalmologist will be checking for uveitis. Uveitis should be treated prior to surgery to minimize the inflammation that is inevitable after surgery.
WHAT KIND OF SURGICAL PROCEDURES ARE DONE?
Human eye receiving phacoemulsification.
There are two types of surgery: lens extraction and phacoemulsification. With lens extraction, the incision tends to be larger, the post-operative inflammation is greater, and the potential for leaving bits of lens behind is also greater.
With phacoemulsification an ultrasonic instrument is used to liquefy the lens and a special vacuum cleaner is used to suck the lens away. This procedure is more difficult if the patient is older (and the lens is thus harder in consistency). This is the preferred method for diabetic patients.
After either surgery an artificial lens is usually placed for optimal post-operative vision.
The patient will need to wear an Elizabethan collar after surgery to protect the eye. Cortisone eye drops are needed for probably several weeks. Oral anti-inflammatories will be needed for weeks to months after. Drops to keep the pupil dilated will also be used.
Complications to consider are:
- Long term uveitis (probably of most concern for diabetic patients)
- Opacification of the lens capsule (usually correctable with laser)
- Corneal clouding (can be managed with 5% saline eye drops 4-6 times daily)
- Bleeding into the eye
- Retinal detachment (particularly if the cataract is hypermature)
It is important to remember the old saying that the one-eyed man is king among the blind. A dog need only have one cataract removed to have vision restored. Doing both eyes is an option to discuss with the ophthalmologist as some dogs need all the vision they can get.
Cataract surgery requires committed patient care both in the hospital and at home. Surgery also requires a financial commitment (which varies regionally and between different practices); your regular veterinarian can get a sense for average costs in your community when you are ready to consider restoration of your dog’s vision.
Page last updated: 6/4/2012