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Equine - Eye Care - Caring For Urgent Horse Eye Issues

What are some signs and symptoms that my horse may have eye issues?

Horses' eyes are pronounced on the side of their heads, and so they're prone to getting eye problems. Trauma is a significant cause of that, but we also see horses with some systemic diseases that cause eye problems. And then horses self-injure their eyes occasionally. So there are all kinds of issues that can happen with horses' eyes.

When you see a horse that has a swollen eye; a horse whose eye is puffy, either on the upper lid or the lower lid; a horse that has excessive drainage, either clear tearing in the corner of the eye or copious mucus-type discharge coming from the eye; a horse that is squinting excessively; or a horse that is reluctant to let you touch near the eye; excessive redness ... There are many things can be going on, but any of those things should indicate, "Hey, there's an issue going on." Even maybe a tendency towards shying away from something on the right side or the left side of the head that might indicate a vision issue, so I think any of those things are the first indicators, "Hey, something's going on with this horse's eye that may need some attention."

Dr. Nathaniel Wright
Tennessee Equine Hospital

Should I bring my horse to see a veterinarian if I suspect an eye problem?

Yeah, I think that's the best thing to do. I believe that a veterinarian is the right professional to take a peek at an eye. We tell people that eye issues are emergencies. There are a few things that are big emergencies: lacerations; laminitis is a big emergency. Horse eye issues fit in the category of an emergency—on the weekends or at night— we're all happy to get out of bed to see those. And occasionally, it will seem like a wasted call because it will just be an itchy, red eye. But when they are a real deal where there's a laceration or a horse that has recurrent uveitis, like mood blindness, those things need to be addressed right away. And so we feel like it's justified to call a veterinarian out to come for a visit and see those things, and make a proper diagnosis, and put together a treatment plan quickly so that we get on the correct meds right away and don't waste any time. Because eyes can go bad fast, and we want to make sure we're on the right plan right away.

What is some preventative eye care that can help the health and wellbeing of my horse?

Keeping an eye on a horse's eyes is crucial. You need to be looking every day at your horse's eyes to be sure that they're open, that they're clear, that they're equal, that both eyes are open a similar amount, that there's not a bunch of drainage, a lot of stuff we talked about before.

Fly masks are beneficial to keep the bugs out of the horse's eyes for preventive care. Occasionally, when horses have runny eyes, it's helpful to rinse their eyes out with saline to remove some of the debris. Horses have big open areas around their eyelids that allow lots of trash to get in there, such as hay, dust, and debris., so anytime you can rinse those eyes out to get all the garbage out will help prevent scratches. But I think most important, preventative care is keeping a close eye on the situation and not ever ignoring horses' eyes; particularly during the time of year where they're wearing fly masks, because we have folks occasionally, that will go for several days without ever seeing the horse's face under a fly mask. So it's essential to look under that mask every day to make sure that both eyes look normal.

Why is it important to avoid self-diagnosing horse eye issues?

We all are guilty of trying to diagnose things on ourselves as well. Eyes are a different case for sure because, particularly, a lot of our customers have leftover eye meds from a prior eye injury. And it's really easy to feel tempted to go ahead and jump in and put some of those eye medicines in, but they're all diagnosed for particular conditions. And some of those can have disastrous consequences if you're incorrect. If a horse has a scratched eye and you put steroids in that eye, you can cause a big mess. And so it is far better to have a veterinarian come out, stain the eye, be sure there's not a scratch, and then make a proper diagnosis, so you end up on the right medication. You can cause some severe and potentially permanent damage to a horse's eye by not taking it seriously enough or by putting the wrong medications in at the wrong time.

If my horse has an eye issue, what are some treatment options that are available?

For simple situations like a scratched eye, we typically use ointment. We use many topical treatments with ophthalmic ointments for antibiotics to kill bacteria, antifungal drugs to kill fungus, drugs to dilate the pupil, which help with comfort and also help with the flow of the fluid through the eye, and occasionally we use drops if we're unable to get the ointments in the eye.

We have horses that have serious enough eye conditions that require hospitalization. Those horses are often on medications 10-12 times a day, which is an excessive amount to come in and wrestle with the horse to put meds in. We have a catheter called a subpalpebral lavage catheter, or SPL, that we insert through the corner of the eyelid. And it allows us to put liquid medication in the eye multiple times a day, without all the fighting associated with prying the lids open and putting meds in. The SPL kit is an excellent tool for using here in the hospital and, sometimes even on the farm, for the right patient and the right owner who’s comfortable with those sorts of things.

We use this mask called an eye-saver mask for horses prone to traumatizing their eye when it's itchy or irritated. It looks a lot like a racing cup to a blinder. But it is complete, and it covers the eye 100 percent so that the horse is unable to traumatize the eye and unable to traumatize that SPL catheter I was talking about so that we protect the eye and protect the horse from damaging themselves.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (615) 591-1232, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

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