Any dog breeder will tell you that when puppies first open their eyes it is a wonderful step in their development. Puppies are born with their eyelids closed. They open after about 10 to 14 days. The eyes will appear to be bluish/gray in color but that will change with time. The true adult color is often obvious by 8 weeks of age, but may not be fully apparent until older. Our Belgian Tervuren pups did not show true adult eye color until about 4 months of age.
Puppy vision improves with age. When the eyes first open, only rough shapes and movement can be discerned. By about 8 weeks of age, vision will improve to almost adult level.
This early on, there are only a few problems with puppy eyes. Rarely will there be an infection before the eyes totally open. You may notice a swelling of the eyelid or some pus or discharge leaking out. If so, go to your veterinarian immediately. The eyelid may need to be gently opened and the infection cleared out. Follow-up with antibiotic ointment may be recommended.
Much more common problems with puppy eyes are trauma and congenital (meaning present at birth) defects. Congenital defects may be inherited, a result of trauma or a development issue in the uterus.
Eye Problems Commonly Caused By Trauma
Trauma is not an unusual problem for puppy eyes. This is especially true of many toy and small breed puppies who have very round, prominent eyes with slightly shallow sockets. Pugs and Pekingese are good examples of this eye conformation.
Puppies have little sense of self-preservation. They run full tilt into brush or a field of weeds chasing a rabbit (which they will never catch!) and forget to close and protect their eyes. They gleefully roll in sawdust or any dust bunnies under your sofa. Those activities can lead to irritation or scratches on the cornea. Wrestling with littermates or bothering the family cat could lead to a claw scrape across the cornea.
Sometimes trauma can be subtle. Puppies are sometimes born with eyelashes or hairs that turn into or rub along the sensitive corneal tissues. This would fit with some Shih Tzu or Shih Tzu cross puppies. Other puppies have eyelids that roll in (entropion) or out (ectropion). Either eyelid conformation can cause corneal irritation as well. Entropion can be seen in dogs with short faces such as Bulldogs. Ectropion lids look droopy. Bloodhounds and Newfoundlands may have some degree of ectropion naturally.
If you notice your puppy squinting, holding his eye closed or a discharge coming from his eye, you need to visit your veterinarian. Eye problems can go from mild to severe quickly. If your pup has a corneal scratch, you want it to heal without any permanent scarring if at all possible.
To check for a corneal scratch, your veterinarian will put a drop of local anesthetic on the eyeball and then apply a drop or strip of fluorescein stain. A look at the eye with a special blue light will show bright glowing areas of green where the cornea has been scratched. If caught early, these injuries generally heal quickly and completely.
If eyelashes or eyelids are causing corneal irritation, these problems have the potential to become chronic. Your veterinarian may suggest surgery to correct the defect. Surgery may be needed to adjust the eyelid position or to remove some of the lashes.
Problems Present At Birth
The word “congenital” simply means present at birth. Many of these problems are genetic, but not all. A missing eye or very small eye — called microphthalmia — can be a developmental problem from in utero. Puppies born with these problems lead normal lives despite the smaller field of vision. Genetic problems can also show up early on.
CEA, or Collie eye anomaly, covers a set of genetic eye structural defects involving internal parts of the eye. A full set of defects include choroidal hypoplasia (underdevelopment of a layer of the eye), a defect around the optic nerve and potentially a detached retina.
While Collies get the label, this set of defects may show up in a variety of herding breeds and mixes. The defect can range from anatomical problems only noted on ophthalmologic exam that do not cause noticeable visual defect to severe vision loss. This condition is present at birth and will not progress. Many breeders of potentially affected breeds have their puppies evaluated at 5 to 7 weeks of age before they leave for their new homes. If you visit a veterinary ophthalmologist’s office, expect to see crates full of cute puppies in for their early exams. There are DNA tests that can be done on the sire and dam in some breeds to rule out the possibility of producing this problem.
Juvenile cataracts are puppy visual problems that can have genetic or environmental causes. Some cataracts are due to an inherited genetic defect. In Siberian Huskies, these cataracts generally show up at 6 to 12 months of age. Many breeds and mixed breeds can have these early-onset cataracts. In some cases there are DNA tests that can be done on a sire and dam prior to breeding. Often the cataracts are simply found on an ophthalmologic exam. In the past, some cataracts have been associated with poor formulas used to supplement puppies. Modern formulas with arginine reduced this problem.
Cataracts vary greatly in how they affect vision. Many dogs go through life just fine with a small cataract or two, while others suffer fairly severe vision loss. In some cases, cataracts will resorb or dissolve with medical treatment. For other dogs surgery is required to restore vision.
Be sure to have your puppy’s eyes examined on his veterinary visits. Luckily, puppies affected with genetic vision defects can usually lead normal lives as wonderful pets. Dogs use their senses of hearing and smell much more than vision. Even totally blind puppies and dogs can manage quite well in a loving home.