Before specifically discussing how to recognize eye pain in pets, it is interesting to note that recognizing and treating any pain in animals was not addressed in veterinary teaching schools in the United States, until 1989.

The debate and tardy recognition of pain in animals was confounded by the evolutionary drive that animals have to mask pain. There was a time when only the strong survived and although “Fido” no longer has to survive the prey-predator threats of his ancestors, the drive to diminish displays of pain still remains in pets. This creates a problem for caregivers by preventing the recognition of pain.

I work as a veterinary ophthalmologist at VRCC, a multi-specialty veterinary clinic in Englewood, Colorado. My job is to diagnose, and treat eye disease in animals thereby eliminating pain and preserving vision whenever possible.  Many times a day, the caregivers I meet are surprised and saddened to learn that their pet is experiencing pain from their eye disease because they saw no sign of the pain in their beloved pet at home. When we discuss their pet’s behavior further, the only sign their pet exhibited for eye pain, that went unrecognized by their caregiver, was subtle increase clinginess or reclusiveness.  Typically, pets do not cry out from eye pain. They do not squint. They do not guard their eye. They simply sleep or are underfoot a little more than normal. Understandably, it is challenging then to pick up on these subtle cues of eye pain.

What causes eye pain in animals?

There are various sources for eye pain in animals. The eyelids, the conjunctiva, the cornea, the soft tissues within the orbit all have pain receptors. Humans describe eye pain from the surface of the eye (cornea) from diseases like dry eye or eyelid inversion as feeling like a constant gritty feeling. The pain from glaucoma (a group of disease that culminate in high fluid pressure within the eye) is described as a constant migraine headache with intermittent, random moments of sharp pain in the eye. Like many others, I have transiently experienced the pain from spasm of the iris experienced with inflammation in the eye (called uveitis) when I leave a matinee in the afternoon and I emerge from the dark theatre into the bright light of day. My pupils close rapidly (iris spasm). I squint as a reflex and I begin searching for my sunglasses. That transient discomfort is transformed into chronic pain with uveitis.

So, how do you know if your pet is experiencing eye pain? Look for signs of eye disease not signs of pain. Signs of eye disease include increased discharge from one or both eyes, squinting, increased or decreased size of an eye, cloudiness in the eye, a bloodshot appearance to the whites of the eye (also known as the conjunctiva and sclera) and any asymmetry between the eyes.  If you see any of these signs in your pet’s eye, call or seek immediate help of your veterinarian or a veterinary ophthalmologist. With the help of an early diagnosis, most eye diseases in animals can be treated with medication, many can be permanently cured and vision and comfort preserved.

My team and I are rewarded on a daily basis by wagging tails and delighted caregivers when the source of their pet’s eye pain is addressed. Although, I described at the beginning of this article that I speak with many individuals who had no idea that their pet was experiencing eye pain, I have never met a client who could not see improvement in their pet’s behavior and enjoyment for life when the source of eye pain is diagnosed and removed.  To learn more about VRCC Ophthalmology, please click here.