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Common Eye Injuries for Hunting Dogs

How to recognize and prevent foreign objects from ruining your bird dog's season.

Common Eye Injuries for Hunting Dogs

Remember that in all cases it is important for the dog to receive proper veterinary examination and care within hours, not days, to avoid permanent damage. (Photo By: Jackson Walker, DVM)

It’s been an interesting spring for eye injury cases at our hospital. Two uncommon, yet not rare, conditions arose within ten days of each other. Thankfully, they came to my attention within hours of occurrence. The first was my father’s beloved Deutsch Drahthaar, Cotton, and the second, Dolly, an English cocker from another area in the Southeast. Both dogs were hunting upland game when they incurred injuries from foreign objects in the eye. 

Cotton, true to her breed, has a high prey drive—this makes her more susceptible to eye injuries due to her desire to rush into things like briar thickets to find game. Flushing breeds, like Dolly, also fall into the high-risk group as their job is to purposely go into cover to flush birds.


Here’s what happens: The dog closes its eyes too late when rushing in to find/flush game or wind blows broomstraw, dust, and debris into the eye. Cotton’s case was more severe and appeared to be created from broomstraw ends penetrating the cornea (the outer clear layer that you would feel if you touched the center of the eye), while Dolly’s case was caused by straw stuck onto the eye rather than penetration. In each case, however, the outer layer of the eye became broken, creating what is known as a corneal ulcer. In these instances, the offending agent was still in the eye. 

Eye scratches and objects hurting the cornea can become ulcerations with infection within hours, so the symptoms of a corneal ulcer are important to recognize and require quick action, as what is assumed to be “only a scratch” can have serious implications if not handled promptly.

common eye injuries for hunting dogs
Serious cases of penetrating injuries and foreign objects stuck in the eye are going to require veterinary intervention. (Photo By: Jackson Walker, DVM)

Recognizing Eye Injuries and Treatment

In both above cases, the owners noticed their dogs squinting during and after a hunt. Along with squinting, the eye began to water profusely. It is not uncommon in instances like these for the dog to paw at one eye as well, increasing the likelihood of worsening the injury. You may also notice that one pupil is constricted, as with Dolly. This is the eye’s response to letting less light in to lessen pain.

When Cotton came in for examination, it became clear that she would require a corneal flap under general anesthesia and surgery to remove the foreign object. This procedure resembles Lasik eye surgery in a person, although I'm just creating the flap to remove something penetrating and stuck in the top eye layer. She also received centrifuged blood (serum) placed in the eye. Her owner then medicated the eye with antibiotic eye drops and ointment every two hours for the next 48-hour span. 

Dolly’s case required heavy sedation and removal of the foreign object with a cotton-tipped swab. She, too, was prescribed antibiotic eye drops, ointment, and pain medicine. Both dogs made a full recovery due to both owners' attentiveness, promptness in obtaining care, and following post-procedure instructions precisely.


Preventing Canine Eye Injuries

Remember, all eye injuries require care by a veterinarian, but there are a few steps that the owner can take to ease the dog’s discomfort. First, using a saline solution can help flush debris from the eye. I pack and recommend a small, 4 oz. bottle of sterile saline eye solution. This can be obtained from most drug stores on the contact lens care aisle. Second, if the object is large enough to be visualized and grasped, the owner should remove it from the eye by hand if it is large enough and with forceps if not. Often, however, the offending item is too small to see or too deep and painful to grasp safely. Lastly, the third eyelid should be examined as this is also a place where debris can become lodged. You can do this by rolling a clean packed cotton tipped swab under the lower eyelid and the third eyelid to see if it's clear down there. This is the big flap at the bottom inside the lower lid. A gentle roll will not hurt the eye itself and can allow you to get a glance down in there. Remember that in all these cases it is important for the dog to receive proper veterinary examination and care within hours, not days, as to avoid permanent damage. 

common eye injuries for hunting dogs
Although canine eye injuries may not be entirely preventable, there are some safety measures you can take to reduce the chances of your hunting dog ending up at the vet's office for an emergency visit. (Photo By: Jackson Walker, DVM)

While eye injuries are uncommon occurrences during a hunt, there are a few tips to help avoid this injury. First, try to stay away from thickets and train the dog on staying away from them as well. Second, do not be reluctant to try goggles. The recent invention of field goggles, when worn properly to the dog's enjoyment, offers almost 100 percent protection. That said, many great dogs are not good candidates for goggles due to their nature. And finally, quick use of an eye flush can help reduce the severity of injury. If you notice that squinting resolves after the flush, further intervention may not be necessary. However, if there is any squinting, discharge, or any doubt at all, heading to the vet for follow up is always the best course of action.

Jackson Walker, DVM, practices veterinary medicine and surgery in Anderson, South Carolina and has a special interest in gun dog health and safety. He enjoys hunting upland game with family, friends, clients, and patients. 

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