by Anne Jones RN, BSNE
All breeds of dogs have inherited eye diseases, some more severely affected than others. The primary eye disease found in Bichons is inherited cataracts. These cataracts may be unilateral (one eye) or bilateral (both eyes) and may or may not cause blindness early in life. It is important that any dog with cataracts not be used for breeding! An affected dog will pass along the gene 100% of the time and all the pups will also be in danger of going blind.
A cataract is an opacity of the lens of the eye, which means that the vision is dimmed and eventually the dog will lose sight in the eye. Cataracts can occur in only one eye but often both are affected. Onset of the cataracts can be as early as 6 months or as late as 7 years of age. Bichons have the third highest incidence of inherited cataracts. Surgery to remove the cataract(s) can be performed but the surgery is costly and will sometimes have complications. The owner may choose to operate on only one eye if both are affected. These issues should be discussed with the veterinary ophthalmologist prior to making the decision to operate.
What can the pet owner do to avoid buying a puppy that may eventually have cataracts or other eye disease? Responsible breeders* will have the potential breeding pair, both sire and dam, screened by a veterinary ophthalmologist to determine if eye diseases are present in the breeding pair. The dogs will then be registered with the Canine Eye Registration Foundation (CERF) and the dogs will be assigned a number that will include the year of screening. It is important that the year be current because eye screenings have to be repeated each year to maintain registration. Because the cataract may not appear until well into breeding age, it is especially important that several generations of ancestors also have CERF numbers as evidence that the gene is not carried by the breeding pair. These numbers will be on the dog’s pedigree and can only be placed there if such screening has been done.
Only a veterinary ophthalmologist can examine the eye to determine if cataracts are present unless the dog has mature cataracts and is clearly blind. It takes special equipment to examine deep into the eye to look for the presence of cataracts and some other eye diseases. A harmless condition called nuclear sclerosis may make the dogs appear cloudy or have a bluish cast to the eye. This condition occurs with aging and is harmless.
While cataracts occur in more than 11 % of Bichons, a greater percentage will be carriers of the gene and can pass this inherited disease to any puppies they produce. We again urge that all dogs be screened for the presence of eye disease and that no dog be used for breeding unless several generations have been assigned CERF numbers, indicating they are free of genetic eye disease.
Another eye disease that sometimes (but rarely) occurs in Bichons is Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome, called SARDS for short. While surgery may correct the vision of a dog afflicted with cataracts, nothing will restore sight to a dog with SARDS. This condition happens suddenly and with little prior warning. As the name implies, degeneration of the retina causes loss of sight. The pupils appear normal but do not react to light and are dilated. This condition is a sudden death of the cells (rods and cones) that enable the eye to see.
The dog with SARDS has a tough time adjusting to blindness because it happens quickly, unlike the dog with cataracts which usually develop more slowly, allowing time to adapt to failing eyesight. With the sudden impact of SARDS, she may be fearful, anxious and disoriented for some time. The owner must be patient and understanding while she adapts to the circumstances. SARDS does not appear to be an inherited condition. It occurs more often in females and may be associated with the illness known as Cushing Syndrome, which can be inherited.
Many blind dogs can live good lives so long as they are kept in familiar surroundings. They should never be outside alone because they have no way to have warning of a dangerous situation. Inside the home, once the dog becomes familiar with the placement of furniture, the location of her bed, her water and food bowls and the area she normally inhabits, she will be comfortable. Small children have to be taught not to tease and to keep her area uncluttered for her safety. House training will be critical and the owner needs to watch for signs the dog needs to be taken out for elimination.
SARDS is similar to but not the same as the condition called Progressive Retinal Atrophy or PRA, a condition that first affects night vision and eventually causes blindness. It is hereditary. Like SARDS, PRA affects the rods and cones that enable the eye to see but the progression may be much slower and may also involve uveitis, an inflammation of the iris and the ciliary body of the eye. Increased pressure within the eye causes the eyeball to be swollen and there is pain. There may be the development of secondary cataracts with PRA.
Again diagnosis must be made with special equipment, requiring an examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist. Such specialists may require that the appointment be made through your own veterinarian who will tell you how to find an ophthalmologist. Treatment will concentrate on controlling pain and the pressure within the eye, using eye drops and sometimes oral medications. Failure to treat will always result in blindness, which may eventually happen even with treatment.
Redness, pain, tearing and a cloudy looking eye can indicate any of several eye conditions but one that must have early treatment to avoid blindness is Glaucoma. Glaucoma is an increase in pressure inside the eye because of a buildup of fluid within the eye. This fluid is called aqueous humor and there is a defect in drainage that prevents normal flow so that this fluid builds up much the way river water would build up behind a dam that had no means of releasing water. Inside the eye, without release of pressure, the pain becomes intolerable. The condition may be inherited and/or it may be associated with other eye disease. Regardless of the cause, without medical intervention, the dog will become blind. Prescription eye medications, oral medications and surgical treatment are possible solutions. If these treatments do not work, it is possible that the eye itself will have to be removed. As with other serious eye disease, diagnosis and treatment will be done under the care of a veterinary ophthalmologist. Screening the ancestors for this disease is again the best way to avoid passing the genes to puppies.
Keratitis sicca, also called dry eye, seems to show up fairly often in Bichons but may not be reported as often as other eye diseases unless there are complications. For various reasons, the eye may not supply sufficient tears to keep the surface moistened. This can lead to redness, a discharge and possibly scarring or ulceration of the cornea. It can be painful and it can result in infection. Diagnosis is made by your veterinarian with a simple and painless procedure called a Shirmer tear production test. This involves inserting a dye embedded paper beneath the lower eye lid to measure the amount of tears produced. The test is inexpensive and takes little time.
Treatment consists of the use of artificial tears for temporary episodes. However dogs with chronic keratitis sicca may require special medication and your veterinarian will advise you as to the need of antibiotics or other drugs.
While there are other diseases of the eye that may affect your Bichon, the ones listed here are the primary conditions that you may encounter as a pet owner. Breeders need to be aware of other inherited diseases of the eye and should continue to screen their dogs at least as long as they are of breeding age. Again we would stress that those who are unfamiliar with inherited diseases in the breed should never consider casual breeding. There is no logical reason for pets to produce puppies that may carry genes that cause disease, whether eye disease or other conditions that can be passed to puppies.
* As a footnote, the term “responsible breeder” indicates that the person who chooses to put two animals together for the purpose of making puppies has learned everything possible about the breed. A responsible breeder has used all possible means to predetermine the likelihood of genetic faults and disease genes in the parent dogs. There can be no good result unless the breeder is familiar with several generations of ancestors and their long term health. If you want puppies, go to the pound, to a pet shop or to a responsible breeder. There will be lots of dogs out there for you to find and who need a home. If you could read the sad stories that are related to the BFCA Health Committee, you would understand our concern about casual breedings that result in some terribly sick but much loved Bichons. Some of those dogs are not only blind but have other painful diseases as well. Please think about what you are doing and remember that a spayed or neutered dog can have a very good life as your pet.