Every horse owner knows this feeling. You find a problem with your horse ask yourself, “Do I need to call a vet? Will he get better by himself? Can I treat this myself?” It can be a hard question to answer. However, if the problem you noticed is with the eyes, most likely the answer is to call the vet. In this article common eye problems will be addressed, along with an explanation of why it needs to be seen and treated immediately.
Scratched eye aka Corneal ulceration
Horses are curious creatures and frequently stick their heads where they don’t belong. Therefore, it isn’t surprising that they sometimes scratch the front of their eye. The front, clear part of the eye is called the cornea. This part of the eye has lots of nerves, making it very painful for the horse when it is scratched. A horse with a scratched eye will frequently have their eyelids held partially or completely closed, the eyelids can be swollen, a blue tint to the cornea may be seen, and the eye is usually tearing a lot. A scratched eye is very painful and has the potential to become infected. An infection on the eye can cause anything from a little delay in healing, to large parts of the outer surface of the eye essentially liquefying and coming off the eye. Horses who experience this melting are lucky if they don’t have to have the eye removed. If your horse’s eye is scratched, the pain and infection can be treated, but the sooner treatment is started the better. A veterinarian needs to use a special stain, called fluorescein, to see if the cornea is scratched. When a horse has a scratch on the eye it is important not to use any eye medications containing steroids. This is a reason not to use any eye ointments you already have until after your horse has been examined.
Uveitis is infection or inflammation in the eye. This disease can be caused by outside causes like bacteria or viruses, or can be a result of the horse’s own immune system taking aim at the eye. Uveitis can cause a range of symptoms including swelling of the eyelids, holding the eyelids shut, tearing excessively, a bluish tint to the cornea, or areas of yellow, red, or white in the front of the eye. You may notice that many of these symptoms are the same as a corneal ulcer. That is why it is so important to have a veterinarian examine the eye to determine the cause. Uveitis is treated by giving strong anti-inflammatory drugs, usually including Banamine and topical steroids. The consequences of leaving uveitis untreated include eye and head pain for the horse, the formation of cataracts, scar tissue forming between the iris and the lens preventing the horse from opening or closing the pupil, or blindness.
Horses are less likely to develop glaucoma compared to other species. However, it does happen and it’s a medical emergency. The signs you would likely notice is one eye appearing larger than the other (sometimes described as a bug-eye appearance on one side) and a bluish or white tint to the eye. In order for vision to be saved, the horse needs immediate examination and to be treated with topical drugs. The horse will otherwise lose vision because the eye becomes so big that the lens slips out of place or the retina can detach. The lens is needed to focus an image and the retina must be functional in order to have the image sent from the eye to the brain where the horse actually perceives and “sees” the image.
Red, tearing eyes aka Conjunctivitis
Horses sometimes have excessive tearing and the eyelids become red. Although there are many causes for this, commonly it is a result of allergies or dust getting into the eye. Although this isn’t as threatening to the horse’s vision, it is still recommended to treat this promptly. Itchy eyes can be painful for your horse. Also, what can start at itchy eyes can end up being a scratch on the eye if your horse is left to rub his face, trying to relieve his itching
Finally, the one thing all these eye conditions have in common is pain. Horse’s don’t always show eye pain as clearly as they would show you pain in another area like the foot where they might show lameness. Even if they don’t appear outwardly painful there is a good chance they are hurting. Sometimes a horse with an eye problem also has a headache to go with it. So in the interest of saving your horse from a headache, as well as preserving his vision, you should have any eye issues examined and treated as soon as you notice them.
If you come across a laceration on your horse, first stop any bleeding which you may see by applying pressure (safely), call your veterinarian right away, and do not apply any ointments, sprays, or liniments to the lesion until instructed to do so by your veterinarian.