Eye ulcers in dogs: What you need to know

3 August 2023 - 5 min read

The information in this article has been reviewed by Team ManyPets on 3 August 2023 . Although it may provide helpful guidance, it should not be substituted for professional veterinary advice.

Vet dog eye exam

Eye ulcers are relatively common in dogs, but they can be serious and costly to treat.

They’re also known as corneal ulcers as they are wounds that affect the cornea – the clear, front surface of your dog's eye.

The cornea plays a crucial role in your dog's vision, acting like a clear window that lets light into the eye. When an ulcer forms on the cornea, it can cause discomfort, pain, and even vision loss if left untreated.

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How common are corneal ulcers in dogs?

“Corneal ulcers are seen pretty frequently in practice,” says ManyPets’ vet Dr Kirsten Ronngren DVM MRCVS. “I see a lot of cases from regular run of the mill trauma, like dogs that have run and played in the bushes and scratched the surface on a branch or thorn.

At ManyPets we dealt with 1,130 claims for corneal ulcers in dogs in 2022, making it the 20th most common canine illness.

What causes eye ulcers in dogs?

As Dr Kirsten describes, eye ulcers in dogs can be caused by:

  • Trauma and injuries

  • Foreign bodies

  • Chemical irritations

  • Bacterial and viral infections

Eye ulcers can are sometimes a symptom of another condition such as:

  • Congenital or inherited issues of the eye, or tissues. surrounding the eye, (the eyelids – ectropion or entropion)

  • Chronic dry eye (also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca or KCS)

  • Neurologic issues

  • Certain endocrine diseases like diabetes or Cushing’s disease

“I tend to see corneal ulcers more often in smaller breeds with associated diseases such as KCS (dry eye), or in any patients that have underlying allergies. They tend to rub their faces, causing self-trauma to the cornea,” says Dr Kirsten Ronngren DVM MRCVS

Some breeds are particularly susceptible to corneal ulcers. In fact, one-in-five of the claims we had for this condition in 2022 were for French Bulldogs.

Highest first, these are the breeds with the most claims for corneal ulcers in 2022:

  1. French Bulldog

  2. Pug

  3. Shih Tzu

  4. Staffordshire Bull Terrier

  5. Cocker Spaniel

  6. English Bulldog

  7. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

  8. Boxer

Several of the breeds with the highest occurrence of corneal ulcers are brachycephalic, or flat-faced breeds.

“Corneal ulcers are common in brachy breeds because of their skull/ocular orbit shape,” says Dr Kirsten Ronngren DVM MRCVS. The shape of these dogs’ skulls makes their eyes bulge so they’re more susceptible to damage.

“You'll notice the other breeds are ones that commonly get allergic skin disease,” says Dr Kirsten.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of an eye ulcer can vary depending on its severity and location.

Common signs include:

  • Redness

  • Excessive tearing

  • Squinting

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Pawing/rubbing at the face or eye

You may or may not notice a cloudiness or visible defect on the surface of the eye.

In severe cases, your dog’s eye could actually rupture.  If that happens you might be able to see a visible hole in the eye and your dog will be in severe pain, and have sudden loss of vision.

A ruptured eye is a veterinary emergency. Your dog will need to see a vet immediately, even if that means taking them to an emergency vet if it’s out of hours.

“I absolutely recommend owners do not wait if they have concerns regarding their pets eye,” says Dr Kirsten. “The sooner we intervene in cases of corneal ulcers, hopefully the more likely it can be successfully treated without complication.

“Ulcers left alone have the potential to progress through the layers of the cornea and if severe, can lead to either surgical intervention to aid in healing or even globe rupture. Not to mention, corneal ulcers are painful!”

How will my vet diagnose an eye ulcer?

Your vet will need to perform a physical exam and run tests to diagnose your dog with an eye ulcer.

Vets use a special dye called a ‘a fluorescein stain’ that sticks to the damaged areas of the cornea, so that the ulcer can be seen under a fluorescent light. The test is painless and can be done by your regular vet.

Your dog might need some additional tests to identify the underlying cause of the ulcer, such as a Schirmer tear test to check for dry eye or a bacterial culture for suspected infections in cases of complicated ulcers.

Treatments for eye ulcers

How your vet treats your dog depends on the severity and cause of the ulcer.

Minor ulcers are commonly treated with antibiotic eye drops or ointments to combat infection. Your dog may also be given pain relief medication.

Your vet might issue your dog with a 'cone of shame' or Elizabethan collar to stop them from scratching or rubbing the eye.

Severe or non-healing ulcers might need surgery. This can involve procedures to remove dead or infected tissue, or in extreme cases, surgery to graft tissue over the ulcer.

If the eyeball is ruptured your dog may even need to have the eye removed. This procedure is called an enucleation.

Recovery and prevention of eye ulcers in dogs

Your dog will need a bit of extra care to help them to recover from a corneal ulcer, whether or not they’ve had surgery.

You’ll probably need to administer prescribed medication, as well as stopping your dog from scratching their eye.

Make sure your dog has a safe and clean environment for recovery. And attend all after-care check-ups with your vet so that they can check the ulcer is healing properly.

If you think their symptoms are getting worse, contact your vet immediately.

Once your dog’s had an eye ulcer, it’s really important to be on the lookout for similar clinical signs in the future.

Be alert to environmental risks and take extra care to protect your dog from irritants, such as wind, dust, and harsh chemicals.

For example, avoid walks on the beach on very windy days and take care while bathing them not to get shampoo near their eyes.

If your dog has a breed-specific predisposition to eye issues, such as cherry-eye in Bulldogs, make sure they have regular vet check-ups and look out for any changes in their eyes.

Does dog insurance cover eye ulcers?

As long as you took out pet insurance before your dog first had an eye ulcer, your policy should be able to help with the cost.

Eye ulcers can be a recurrent condition and they can be ‘eye-wateringly’ expensive to treat if surgery is needed.

The average pet insurance claim for corneal ulcers in dogs in 2022 cost £521.70. If your dog needs surgery treatment costs could be a lot higher than this.

At ManyPets, all our dog insurance policies offer lifetime cover which means your annual vet fee limit will refresh each year when you renew your policy. That means your dog would be covered year after year, even if they have recurrent eye problems.

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Derri Dunn
Content marketer

Derri is a personal finance and insurance writer and editor. After seven years covering all things motoring and banking at GoCompare, Derri joined ManyPets in 2021 to focus on pet health. She has fostered cats and kittens for Blue Cross and Cats Protection and is owned by tabby cat Diggory and two badly behaved dogs.