By Karon Warren
Photography Courtesy of Greg Belz and American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists
Keeping an eye on your pet’s vision helps to ensure they maintain healthy eyes for years to come.
As a veterinary ophthalmologist, William Miller, D.V.M., M.S., DACVO, of Memphis Veterinary Specialists in Cordova, Tennessee, has examined many service dogs through the years.
“Veterinary ophthalmologists have been seeing service dogs for years all across the country,” he says. “We would see them anytime during the year, and [most ophthalmologists] didn’t charge anything for it because the dogs are doing a great service for everybody.”
However, it occurred to Miller that veterinarians’ efforts were not enough.
“We realized there’s probably a lot of service dogs out there that we’re not reaching, he says.
So, in 2008, he enlisted the aid of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists and founded the ACVO’s annual National Service Animal Eye Exam event, which takes place each spring with registration in April for appointments in May.
During this event, veterinary ophthalmologists nationwide provide free routine eye exams to service animals of all kinds: dogs, horses, miniature horses, donkeys, alpacas and cats. These animals serve both private individuals as well as many law enforcement agencies with hearing assistance, seizure alerts, handicapped assistance, diabetic alerts, search and rescue, drug detection, as cadaver dogs, and more.
Since its inception, more than 68,000 service dogs have received free routine eye exams through the program, saving service animal owners more than $2.6 million.
At his office in Cordova, as well as his sister office (Arkansas Veterinary Emergency & Specialists) in Little Rock, Arkansas, Miller has seen approximately 80 or 90 service animals each year as part of the event.
According to Miller, feedback on the program has been positive.
“Some people look forward to it every year and get their dogs eye exams,” he says. “They seem very pleased with it, and they tend to come back year after year.”
However, Miller would love to see many more dogs taking advantage of this free event.
“There are a bunch of great dogs out there that are doing a great service to the public that we’re not seeing,” he says. “And with dogs such as police dogs and drug detection dogs, communities have a lot of money invested in these dogs.
“If we can pick up an eye problem and resolve it before it takes that dog out of service, that’s good for the dog and good for the community. And we’ve been able to do that. That keeps these dogs in service longer. It’s quite an investment in the communities that have them.”
Not only are these routine eye exams free, they also are quick. Miller says, at most, the appointments take approximately 20 minutes. If an eye problem is detected, the veterinary ophthalmologist will discuss follow-up treatment. There could be an additional charge, but that’s up to the individual veterinary ophthalmologist and his or her office. Miller says there are instances when additional treatment could be covered by the administering veterinary ophthalmologist.
Registration for the ACVO/StokesRx National Service Animal Eye Exam event takes place every April from April 1-30 with exams following in May. To qualify, all service and working animals must be “active working animals” that have completed a formal training program or are currently in a formal training program. Details on full qualification are available on the event website at ACVOeyeexam.org.
The website also includes a list of all participating veterinary ophthalmologists nationwide, so it’s easy to locate a nearby office.
Miller hopes the number of dogs he sees each year will continue to increase.
“I’ve been pretty amazed at what these service dogs can actually do, and I am very pleased to be able to help these guys out over the years.”
As important as it is for service animals to have their vision checked each year, personal pets also should have their vision checked every year.
“Most owners are pretty attuned to vision problems in their animals,” Miller says. “If they see redness or discharge in an eye or see a change in eye color, they probably want to at least alert their primary care veterinarian.”
Surprisingly, animals share many of the same vision problems as their owners.
“Like humans, cataracts and dry eye would be the two big things we see on a routine basis,” Miller says. “We see quite a few cornea ulcers in dogs, because they stick their faces in places that they don’t need to be sticking their faces.”
In most cases, the primary care veterinarian can treat vision problems. However, if there’s an eye problem that does not resolve quickly, they may provide a referral to an ophthalmologist.
By keeping an eye on your pet’s vision, you can help ensure they maintain healthy eyes for years to come.