Recognizing and Handling Equine Eye Issues

Recognizing and Handling Equine Eye Issues

Don't ignore wartlike growths around the eyes; they might be signs of squamous cell carcinoma.

Photo: Rana Bozorgmanesh, BSc, BVetMed, Dipl. ACVIM, MRCVS

The equine eye is a complex organ with a vital function. The horse is well-adapted for its existence as a prey species, with horizontally shaped pupils set within eyes situated toward the sides of its head that facilitate an almost 360-degree field of vision. The horse also possesses an exquisite ability to see movement, because of the high number of motion-detecting cells populating the equine retina. For the modern-day domesticated horse, vision might not be as critical for survival, but for peak performance it is very important. Eye injuries, infections, or inflammation not only cause severe pain but also might progress rapidly and affect vision permanently. Therefore, it’s vital that owners quickly identify issues or abnormalities and take appropriate action sooner, rather than later, for the best possible outcome.

Signs to Look Out For

Often the first and most subtle sign you will notice is a change in eyelash position. Look at your horse’s face from the front and at the eyes from the sides. The affected eye’s lashes might begin to point down slightly before the condition progresses to the more obvious squinting. You might notice increased blinking, or the eye could be completely shut. Other signs include swelling of the area around the eye, excessive tearing, or a change in the ocular discharge to a thick consistency that’s yellow or blood-tinged. Look for asymmetry: Horses often will have a condition only affecting one eye; compare the eyes to aid your evaluation. Rubbing an eye continually is another sign of discomfort that might need immediate attention. Pink, wartlike growths originating from any part of the eye could represent a type of cancer called squamous cell carcinoma that can spread if not addressed swiftly. 

Horses have extremely strong eyelid muscles and can keep their eyes shut tightly, often when you approach to investigate. They might also throw their head in the air or try to get away from you. If your horse won’t let you get a good look at his eye, your veterinarian can use sedation and potentially a local nerve block to temporarily numb the eyelid and facilitate detailed examination. If your horse does allow you to look at the eye more closely with a penlight, you might notice general reddening; a red, white, or yellow region; apparent cloudiness; or the eye might even appear blue. 

What to Do

If you see any abnormality in your horse’s eye, contact your veterinarian immediately. Never begin treating with an ointment you have left over from a previous issue or from a friend without talking to your veterinarian first. Some ointments can make certain conditions much worse. For example, if you apply a steroid ointment intended for treating uveitis (inflammation inside the eye) in an eye with a corneal ulcer, the ulcer will likely worsen, which could affect treatment success.

Although it might seem counterintuitive, do not remove any foreign objects embedded in your horse’s eye. Call your veterinarian. In some cases, surgery to delicately remove the object is the only way to save the eye.

Avoid putting pressure on the eyeball, and remember that your horse might suddenly move his head and cause further trauma if he anticipates that you are trying to touch the eye.

Be aware that horses with eye issues could have impaired vision (temporary or permanent) in the affected eye and might, therefore, be spookier than usual. Approach them from their “good” side, and try not to surprise them with sudden movements or noises.

Preventing Eye Injuries

Fly masks are a great way to protect your horses' eyes, but remove the fly mask at least twice daily.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Try to minimize dust in your horse’s environment, and inspect your horse’s stall and pasture frequently for any protruding objects or sharp edges that could cause injury. In particular, tape the J-shaped hooks on the handles of hanging water buckets to prevent eyelid tears.

Fly masks are a great way to protect your horses’ eyes, but remove the mask at least twice daily. Debris, flies, foxtails (brushlike flowering spikes from particular grasses), and other objects can easily get under the mask and injure your horse’s eyes, and there might be no obvious signs unless you remove the mask to check. Furthermore, masks that are ill-fitting, in disrepair, or have shifted can rub the face, eyelids, and even the eyes themselves, resulting in corneal ulcers or other trauma. 

Most of all, remember that eye conditions can progress rapidly and lead to permanent blindness. Consider them emergencies, and seek early veterinary intervention for the best outcome.

About the Author

Rana Bozorgmanesh, BSc, BVetMed, Dipl. ACVIM, MRCVS

Rana Bozorgmanesh, BSc, BVetMed, Dipl. ACVIM, MRCVS, is an associate veterinarian at Hagyard Equine Medical Institute, in Lexington, Kentucky.

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