Pet Connection

Eye Spy

Vision problems a common concern in older pets

Andrews McMeel Syndication

Whoever said that getting old isn't for sissies knew what she was talking about. All of us, including our dogs and cats, find that as we age, our bodies just don't work as well as they used to. Eye diseases are among the most commonly seen problems in older dogs and cats.

One change you may notice is a condition called lenticular sclerosis, or nuclear sclerosis. That bluish haze you may see in a pet's eyes isn't cataracts, as is often suspected, but the result of a normal aging of the lens. The good news is that it doesn't affect vision and doesn't require any treatment.

Cataracts are cloudy spots on the normally transparent lens of the eye. They look like a milky gray film behind the pupil. Cataracts may start to appear when dogs are 6 years old to 8 years old and can eventually lead to blindness. Dogs rely more on scent than sight, however, and they can get around very well simply by using their noses -- as long as you don't move the furniture. If your dog's cataracts are so bad that he's running into things, ask your veterinarian about cataract surgery.

Older cats rarely develop cataracts. They are more likely to suffer vision loss from retinal diseases, uveitis (a painful inflammation of certain eye structures) or glaucoma. Like dogs, cats adapt well to vision loss. They compensate by relying more on their hearing or their whiskers.

Other age-related vision problems, such as keratoconjunctivitis sicca, better known as dry eye, require aggressive treatment. Tears, which are produced by the lacrimal glands, lubricate, protect and cleanse the eye. Tear production tends to decrease with age. If that happens, the eye becomes dry and irritated. It starts to produce more mucus, causing a goopy discharge. Dry eyes are itchy, and dogs may scratch at them or rub them on the carpet in an attempt to relieve the itch. Dogs with dry eye are also more likely to develop corneal ulcers.

Dry eye is diagnosed with a Schirmer tear test. The veterinarian places a tiny paper strip at the inner corner of the eye, where the tears pool, and holds it there for one minute to see how much of the strip becomes wetted with tears. If the result indicates that tear production is below normal, the animal likely has dry eye. Dry eye is less common in cats than in dogs.

Depending on the condition of the eye, your veterinarian may prescribe artificial tears (not saline solution), antibiotic eye drops or an immunosuppressant drug that stimulates tear production. This helps to keep the dog comfortable and the cornea healthy. The medication may need to be compounded at a special pharmacy.

Glaucoma is an increase in pressure within the eye. It can develop quickly and is extremely painful. If your pet is squinting and the eye is tearing and feels harder than normal, consider it an emergency. A dog or cat with an acute case of glaucoma can lose his eyesight within 48 hours if the condition isn't treated immediately.

Take your dog to the veterinarian for an eye exam any time you notice the following signs:

-- Redness

-- Cloudiness

-- Discharge

-- Opaque or whitish film over the eye

-- Tearing, squinting, pawing at the eye or other signs of pain

-- Sensitivity to light

-- An unusually soft or hard eye

-- A swollen, crusty or itchy eyelid

-- A bulging or sunken eye

If you notice that your pet's vision is not as keen as it used to be, don't simply chalk it up to old age. Oftentimes, medication or other treatment can help, especially if the problem is diagnosed early.

Q&A

New climate calls for

changes in dog's lifestyle

Q: My dog and I just moved from Southern California to Wisconsin, and it's starting to get a lot colder than we're used to. What should I do to make sure my dog is prepared for winter? -- via Facebook

A: Having lived in Idaho all my life, I know just what kind of weather you're facing. Brrrr!

First things first: Provide protective gear as needed. Lots of people object to dogs wearing clothes, but shorthaired or thin-skinned dogs such as greyhounds or pugs don't have much fur or fat for insulation, and it's a real kindness to provide them with a warm coat or sweater to protect them from the elements. Not every dog needs a winter coat. Nordic breeds like Alaskan malamutes and Siberian huskies love the cold and snow and will happily dig themselves a snow cave to relax in.

Whether your dog needs booties depends on similar factors. If he walks on streets or sidewalks that have been treated with salts to melt ice, booties will protect his feet from chemicals. And longhaired dogs often get snow or ice balls between their foot pads. They may need booties as well, or you can try clipping the hair so there's less opportunity for ice balls to form.

When he plays outdoors, make sure your dog has a sheltered area where he'll be protected from wind and snow. How long should your dog stay outside? Once he's accustomed to the new climate, he can stay outdoors as long as he wants if he has a place where he can retreat from the elements.

Finally, never let your dog off-leash in an unfenced area. One hazard dogs face in winter is being hit by a car because the driver's vision is limited by snow piled on the sides of the road. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Look and sniff to keep

canine ears healthy

-- To keep your dog’s ears healthy, check them weekly. First, give a good sniff. They should never smell bad. Then lift up the ear flap -- known as the pinna -- and examine the skin beneath it and at the entrance of the ear canal. The skin should be smooth, not sensitive or red. If your dog frequently scratches at the ears or shakes his head, he may have an infection or ear mite infestation. Ears normally contain some wax, which is part of the natural cleaning system, but if you see debris or excess wax, clean ears with a product recommended by your veterinarian. Avoid alcohol-based cleansers, which may sting the inside of your dog’s ears and cause unnecessary dryness. Wipe around the opening of the ear, but go no deeper than that. Leave deeper cleaning to your veterinarian. Always check with your veterinarian before putting anything in your dog’s ears. Many drops and flushes should be not used if there is damage to the eardrum.

-- A dog's dietary needs are based mainly on activity levels. Unless your dog is out cross-country skiing with you or pulling a sled, he probably needs to eat less in winter because he's less active.

-- How intelligent are parrots? It depends on their social structure. A study published in the journal Animal Cognition looked at problem-solving abilities in four parrot species: spectacled parrotlets, green-winged macaws, sulphur-crested cockatoos and rainbow lorikeets. An article on Wired.com reports that researchers Anastasia Krasheninnikova, Stefan Brager and Ralf Wanker at the University of Hamburg in Germany gave the birds five different string-pulling tasks to test whether they understood a cause-and-effect relationship. Spectacled parrotlets outperformed the other species, an ability that was best explained by their complex social relationships. They live in large groups that offer opportunities for many different social interactions. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.

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