How Our Pets Benefit From the Expertise of Veterinary Ophthalmologists


Vet ophthalmologists are working hard to ensure our pets continue to see their world. By: Alexas_Fotos

We are so lucky to have veterinarians who specialize in eye disorders (ophthalmology).

Ocular emergencies and serious eye disorders are unfortunately all too common in our pets. Treatment of painful and blinding eye disorders has improved so much because of advances made by board-certified ophthalmologists.

Time is of the essence when a pet has an acute eye problem. Get to your vet or an emergency hospital to assess the problem. Once your pet is stabilized, it may be necessary to get an expert opinion and final diagnosis and treatment from a specialist. This can mean the difference between sight and blindness, between saving or losing an eye.

Veterinary Ophthalmologists

A veterinary ophthalmologist is a highly trained veterinarian who has completed 4 years of veterinary school, 1 year or more of an internship or general practice, and 3–4 more years as a resident in ophthalmology. These resident programs are few, and the competition is steep.

After a minimum of 8 years of training, a candidate must pass rigorous ophthalmology boards. Once this 4-day exam is successfully concluded, the person is admitted into the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. These gifted doctors are highly trained and proficient at medical and surgical management of eye disorders.

Some treatment and surgery for our pets’ eyes can only be done by ophthalmologists. By: Weevinz

Why We Need Them

The specific interests and training of your hometown veterinarian will dictate what eye cases they may manage and which ones they will want to refer. Your vet may feel completely comfortable treating certain eye problems, while others will require a specialist.

Some diagnoses, treatments and microsurgery can only be done by an ophthalmologist. Your veterinarian will refer you to an ophthalmologist for a number of reasons.

An Initial Diagnosis

Without the advanced equipment and expertise of a specialist, your primary care vet may not be able to make an accurate diagnosis of a complicated eye problem.

Many times, I will refer a problem eye case that baffles me for the initial diagnosis. I may want verification of my own preliminary diagnosis and a treatment plan, or I may not be able to make a diagnosis at all without the ophthalmology consult.

Once a pet has been seen by an ophthalmologist, a diagnosis has been made and a treatment plan established, it’s very likely your veterinarian will feel comfortable monitoring the pet’s follow-up care. The patient may need to see the ophthalmologist once or twice a year. This will vary case by case and vet by vet.


Amazing advances have been made in ophthalmic surgical techniques. Many of these procedures can only be performed by an expert with highly advanced equipment. More on that later.

Ophthalmic Drugs

Drugs to improve the outcome of many ophthalmic conditions are always improving and evolving. Borrowing frequently from the human market, veterinary ophthalmologists are up to date on the newest and best ophthalmic medications.

Your Visit to a Veterinary Ophthalmologist

Think of the difference between your annual physical with your primary care doc vs. a visit to your eye doctor. You wouldn’t expect to see all the specialized instruments needed to examine your eyes in the middle of your regular doctor’s office. Walking into a veterinary ophthalmologist’s office is much the same.

Referrals to ophthalmologists are much more common now because so many more ocular conditions can be successfully treated by experts using advanced techniques and technology. The list of services is really mind-boggling. Just take a look at the procedures available at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Penn Vet Ophthalmology offers:

Advanced Ocular Imaging

Now it is possible to visualize retinal detachments in severely compromised eyes, intraocular tumors and all the anterior structures of the eye in greater detail.

Cataract and Corneal Surgery

State-of-the-art procedures include removal of cataracts by high-frequency ultrasound (phacoemulsification), placement of artificial lenses, microsurgical techniques to repair delicate corneas, thermokeratoplasty and cryotherapy.

Electro-Diagnostic Procedures

Ophthalmologists can evaluate pets for cataract surgery to make sure vision will be restored and diagnose retinal diseases that cause acute blindness (SARDS).

Other Procedures

  • Glaucoma surgery
  • Laser eye surgery
  • Gonioscopy, retinoscopy, skiascopy

These veterinary ophthalmologists love their job:

Ophthalmologists Are Helpful Colleagues

My patients are lucky to have a board-certified ophthalmologist very close by, both geographically and as my resource. My colleague will consult with me on cases over the phone, and I can call her in emergency situations to make sure I am doing all I can to stabilize a pet’s eye when in crisis.

When I was a young veterinarian, the term “end-stage eye” came up all too often, meaning we had run out of medical or surgical options and had to surgically remove a pet’s eye. It is highly gratifying to see the major advances in the last 30 years that have led to more eyes saved and less vision lost.

Thank goodness for the dedicated veterinarians who work hard to become ophthalmologists and use their talents to help our pets continue to see their world.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Feb. 28, 2018.

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