The Eye: A Window for Humans & Animals

By Dr. Kathryn Wotman,
DVM, DACVIM, DACVO (Ophthalmology)

Some say the eye is a window to the soul but realistically it is a filter used by both people and animals to relate to the outside world. As humans, we rely on all of our senses simultaneously to relate to the world around us, including sight. Animals are no different.

The eye in our pets and other animals, as in humans, serves the important function of taking light information from the outside world, and keeping that information organized in order to transform it from light energy to electrical energy. This information is then transmitted to the brain for processing to create pictures and reference points.


Animals have specific ocular adaptations depending on the environment in which they live as well as factors such as time of day of most activity and feeding behavior. If any portion of the eye is not functioning properly, this may affect an animal’s ability to obtain necessary food and remain safe.

As humans, we have the benefit of strong supporting senses if our sight is diminished such as touch, hearing and taste, or other aids, for example, for us to find our way to a grocery store and to live active, full lives without sight! For animals in the wild, the loss of sight may be catastrophic. Pets are at an advantage because their people are able to support them appropriately to live happy lives.


Our pets, through the help of their owners, often have the benefit of a veterinarian’s care when problems arise. Just as with human ophthalmologists (human specialty doctors who treat eyes), veterinary ophthalmologists are specifically trained in diseases of the eyelid (the protective covering of the eye found in all species) and the eye itself.

Following four years of veterinary school and one year of internship, a veterinary ophthalmologist completes a rigorous three-year residency program under the supervision of a board-certified specialist in which they train to be competent in treating both domestic and exotic animal species for medical and surgical ocular conditions. Human ophthalmologists treat one species – man; but a veterinary ophthalmologist may treat dozens of animal species.

A veterinary ophthalmologist uses many tools to determine if an animal’s eye is healthy. Equipment used to test the animal eye must be portable, as most of our patients won’t keep their head in the chin rest. A portable microscope allows the veterinary ophthalmologist to closely examine layers of the cornea, and lens as well as front and back chambers of the eye. Special lenses are also used to evaluate the retina and optic nerve. Special stains are used to evaluate the health of an animal’s tears and cornea. And the animal’s eye pressure, intraocular pressure, will also be measured with small handheld devices. Most animals tolerate the exam very well, particularly if treats are involved.


There are many signs that ophthalmologists, and animal owners, can monitor for at home to alert an owner to a possible eye problem.

Things to watch out for at home include signs of squinting, or closing the eyelids. Excessive tearing from the eyes is not normal as well. The eyes can also show color changes, which indicate a problem. A veterinary doctor should check any redness or cloudiness in or around the eye.

Common conditions that may cause these signs include a corneal ulcer, or abrasion or scratch, which is a trauma to the outside portion of the eye. Dogs such as a Boston Terrier, Pug, Pekingese or Shih Tzu notoriously are prone to scratches due to the pronounced position of their eyes. Other common conditions that can be treated include dry eye (keratoconjunctivitis sicca, KCS). Dry eye can cause red irritated eyes with excessive discharge that might look green or yellow.

A change in vision can be due to many causes but some of the more common problems treated by veterinary ophthalmologists include cataracts, which look like a white or blue color change in the inside of the eye in the lens. Just like with humans, cataracts can occur over time when the lens of the eye becomes thicker and less flexible. Like looking through eyeglasses smeared with petroleum jelly, sight becomes cloudy and objects are less defined. The retina acts as the “film” for the camera and is important for giving the correct information to the brain. If there is any problem with the retina, signals to the brain become fuzzy and unrecognizable.


A pet owner can help keep their pet’s eyes healthy at home in a variety of ways. Paying attention to changes in how the eyes look may clue you in to a problem sooner rather than later. Any change in vision should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention immediately as diseases of the eye are sometimes very painful for pets and might also indicate problems in other parts of the body.
Some tips:

  1. If your pet enjoys swimming or time at the beach or running in tall grasses, a daily over-the-counter lubricant may be useful to rinse the eyes of any debris that can collect on the eye.
  2. Your pet’s head should stay inside the car while you’re driving, to protect from drying wind damage and particles.
  3. If you see squinting, tearing or a pet trying to swipe his eye with his paw, call a veterinarian immediately.


Sight is a very important sense for all animals – humans or otherwise. However, our pets tend to adapt to diminished sight fairly well. If your pet has suffered loss or diminishment of sight, try to keep your furniture and other household items in familiar locations.

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Dr. Kathryn Wotman is board-certified in both veterinary ophthalmology and veterinary internal medicine. She completed a veterinary ophthalmology residency at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Veterinary Medicine in conjunction with the Veterinary Specialty Center of Delaware, and ultimately joined VSCD as an associate in ophthalmology in 2011. Prior to her residency, Dr. Wotman completed a residency in internal medicine, also at Penn Vet’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, PA. She is originally from the Chicago area and graduated from Purdue University with a degree in animal sciences, then obtained her DVM degree from the University of Illinois. Dr. Wotman has published articles and provided presentations on subjects concerning internal medicine as well as management of corneal pain, corneal infections, and inherited retinal diseases in both companion animals and large animals. Her specific interests include ocular manifestations of systemic disease, eyelid blepharoplasty, corneal surgical repair, surgery of the lens, inherited retinal diseases and management of ocular infections, and ocular pain. Dr. Wotman is a Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology and of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. She is a member of the International Equine Ophthalmology Consortium, American Veterinary Medical Association, and Delaware Veterinary Medical Association, and currently serves on the Delaware Lyme Disease Task Force.
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ABOUT VSCD — The Veterinary Specialty Center of Delaware (VSCD) is a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital offering advanced and urgent care to companion animals. The main hospital receives specialty and emergency patients and is located just off of US I-95 in New Castle, DE, with a satellite location in Dover, DE, which sees only specialty appointments. Both buildings sit just off major highways and are easily accessible to Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and New Jersey clients and patients. VSCD specialists are trained in the world’s most advanced treatments and techniques in the specialized areas of cardiology, 16-slice CT imaging, critical care, internal medicine, oncology, ophthalmology, pain management, anesthesia, acupuncture, physical rehabilitation therapy, radiology/ultrasound and surgery. 24/7 emergency staff veterinarians are highly skilled to treat and manage all emergencies from trauma to chronic ailments. Our collaborative care approach ensures that the owner, referring veterinarian and VSCD team work together to provide the most specialized and compassionate care for our patients and their families.

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