Dog eye exams might seem peculiar because, obviously, dogs can’t talk. But during the month of May, veterinary ophthalmologists in Wichita, and around the country, give free eye exams to service animals.
Rustin Sturgeon, veterinary ophthalmologist at Eye Care for Animals, estimates he sees about 200 assistance dogs for free each May. He is based in the Kansas City area but travels to Wichita twice a month.
The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, which sponsors the exams, says it has offered exams to more than 45,000 assistance animals across the country since the program started in 2008.
The animals include guide dogs, service dogs, detection dogs, search and rescue dogs and other assistance animals, including horses and therapy animals.
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To test the dogs’ eyes, Sturgeon and Mandi Holsten, a registered veterinary technician, used a hand-held microscope to look inside each eye. The device works like the one used in human eye exams, where people place their chin on a chin rest.
“But our patients aren’t very cooperative with resting their chins on a chin mount, so our version of this is hand-held,” Sturgeon said.
Sturgeon and Holsten then put drops in the dogs’ eyes to dilate their pupils. Once they’re dilated, Sturgeon uses another device to look at the retina, or the back of the eye.
Holsten also tested eye pressure with a device called a Tono-pen – about the size of a marker – that she placed on the dog’s cornea.
Humans have more focusing power in their lenses than dogs, so dogs tend not to have as many problems with near-field changes when they age, Sturgeon said.
Holsten said dogs rely more heavily on sound and smell than humans, so eye problems tend not to be quite as troubling.
Sturgeon said humans are believed to have more near-field vision problems as they age than dogs, but those can become noticeable for working dogs.
“Their dogs are working and expected to perform to a certain level, and so you pick up on little subtle changes that the average pet owner might not see with their dog at home resting on the couch,” he said.
One appointment reveals issue
Danny Ayres, 41, was born with spina bifida, a condition that causes mobility issues, leg weakness and orthopedic abnormalities.
He got his 8-year-old service dog, Willie, six years ago.
Ayres walks with a cane and holds onto a handle on Willie’s back for added support. Willie also knows how to brace Ayres’ weight as he gets up and sits down.
Last year, Ayres brought Willie to the free eye exam for the first time. But it wasn’t a great visit for the two of them.
Sturgeon diagnosed Willie with Golden Retriever Pigmentary Uveitis.
“It’s minor, but it’s something we need to watch closely, because it could become a problem,” Sturgeon said.
If it advances, it can lead to painful glaucoma and loss of vision.
“It wasn’t a good appointment for me,” Ayres said.
He said he knew of the event prior to last year’s visit, but didn’t get around to making an appointment.
I came last year and got this bombshell. It’s like, ‘Crap, I’m doing a disservice to my buddy, you know?’ He’s my lifeline. I got really emotional last year, and I’m still emotional.
Danny Ayres, service dog owner
“I came last year and got this bombshell. It’s like, ‘Crap, I’m doing a disservice to my buddy, you know?’ ” he said. “He’s my lifeline. I got really emotional last year, and I’m still emotional.”
But Sturgeon found that Willie’s eyes were unchanged from the previous year – a great prognosis for Ayres.
“They’re a big part of your life, and they help you in many ways, so your bond is very strong,” Sturgeon said of the dogs.
“Everybody is impacted when something happens to their pet, but when it’s a pet like this, that helps you lead an active life, it’s maybe just a little more significant,” he said.
Everybody is impacted when something happens to their pet, but when it’s a pet like this, that helps you lead an active life, it’s maybe just a little more significant.
Rustin Sturgeon, veterinary ophthalmologist at Eye Care for Animals
Willie and Ayres now visit Sturgeon every six months because of the condition. Ayres puts drops in Willie’s eyes twice a day to help with inflammation.
Without the free program, Ayres said he wouldn’t be able to afford Willie’s eye exams.
Sturgeon said the exams typically cost between $150 and $200.
Most of the dogs come from the Kansas Specialty Dog Service, a nonprofit in Washington, Kan., that breeds and trains dogs and then donates them to the disabled at no cost. The service gives each litter a theme and names the dogs based on that theme.
The dogs that recently received eye exams from Sturgeon bore names from their respective litters – Aladdin from the Aladdin litter, Seville from the Cadillac litter and Ferrari from the fast car litter.