Meet the Specialist: Veterinary Ophthalmologist

Although you've probably never seen a horse or dog wearing glasses, animals do have their own ophthalmologists. Not to be confused with optometrists, who test and fit people for glasses and contacts, ophthalmologists are doctors with medical or veterinary degrees who specialize in diseases and disorders of the eyes.

Keeping eyes healthy is important for all species, since untreated eye problems can lead to vision loss and health problems that affect the rest of the body. Ralph Hamor, DVM, Dipl. ACVO, veterinary ophthalmologist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, explains that eye problems can also indicate systemic diseases such as diabetes.

Basic ophthalmology is taught in veterinary school, so most general practitioners treat minor eye problems such as conjunctivitis, or pink eye, and perform surgeries to treat superficial conditions such as rolled-in eyelids. However, for problems that are serious or require special diagnostics, treatments, or surgeries, veterinarians typically refer patients to ophthalmic specialists, who have three additional years of residency training on the eye.

According to Hamor, veterinary ophthalmologists frequently see some conditions that are similar to those seen in human patients, such as cataracts, glaucoma, and ingrown eyelashes. Unlike humans, who only have two eyelids, many species have a third eyelid, and this eyelid can turn inside out, resulting in a condition called cherry eye. Veterinary ophthalmologists can correct this problem with surgery.

Common problems in horses include corneal disease and chronic inflammation, which are sometimes caused by bacterial or fungal infections. These conditions may require aggressive medical and surgical therapy.

Veterinary ophthalmologists work with a wide range of species, from companion animals and horses to wildlife species. Ophthalmologists must be well versed in superficial and intraocular surgery to treat glaucoma, cataracts, corneal ulcers, and eyelid diseases.

Ophthalmologists don't work solely with the eyes. Eye health is connected to other disease, and the eyes give clues as to what is happening in rest of the body. Ophthalmologists work with internists, cardiologists, neurologists, and oncologists. For example, an ophthalmologist may work closely with a cardiologist on cases involving hypertension, which can predispose dogs and cats to retinal hemorrhage and detachment.

Like most veterinary specialties, veterinary ophthalmology is a growing field. Although many general practitioners have experience with the eyes and keep themselves educated on advances in ophthalmology, they may still refer serious cases to specialists who have specialized training, experience, materials, and equipment.

Currently, there are over 250 veterinary ophthalmologists board certified by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology, and about 35 veterinary ophthalmology residency programs in the world. The University of Illinois veterinary ophthalmology program has trained 13 board-certified specialists.

For more information on the veterinary ophthalmology specialty, or to locate an ophthalmologist in your area, visit the Web site of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology at

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth,

About the Author

Kim Marie Labak

Kim Marie Labak is a veterinary student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign College of Veterinary Medicine. As a fourth-year student, she is completing her education through rotations at the school’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, which treats both small and large animals.

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