Does your dog have an eye ulcer? Here are some signs.

August 3, 2023 - 5 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Dalmatian relaxing on a carpet. He has some conjunctivitis causing black run marks under his eyes. He is also looking soulfully out of shot.

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.

How Common are Dog Eye Ulcers?

“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."

What Causes Eye Ulcers in Dogs?

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

  • Trauma and injuries

  • Foreign bodies

  • Chemical irritations

  • Bacterial and viral infections

Pug breed dog biting a branch outdoors while standing on rock in front of mountains and trees

Eye ulcers can sometimes be 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. 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.

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 or ocular orbit shape,” says Dr. 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 diseases,” she adds.

Dog Eye Ulcer Symptoms

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

Common signs of an eye ulcer include:

  • Redness

  • Excessive tearing

  • Squinting

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Pawing or rubbing at the face or eye

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

yellow medium size dog pawing face and left eye while squinting and laying on ground

Dog Eye Ulcer Ruptures

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 a sudden loss of vision.

A ruptured eye ulcer 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 not wait if they have concerns regarding their pets eyes,” says Dr. Ronngren, DVM, MRCVS. “The sooner we intervene in cases of corneal ulcers, hopefully, the more likely it is that they 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!”

Dog Eye Ulcer Diagnosis and Treatment

First, 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 "fluorescein stain" that sticks to the damaged areas of the cornea, so that the ulcer can be seen under fluorescent light. The test is painless and can be done by your regular vet.

Veterinarian checking dog's eyes, diagnose corneal ulcers

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.

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 an E-collar or Elizabethan collar (sometimes dubbed the "cone of shame") 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 ruptures, your dog may even need to have the eye removed. This procedure is called an enucleation.

Dog Eye Ulcer Recovery

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

You’ll probably need to administer prescribed medication as well as stop 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 if the ulcer is healing properly.

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

Once your dog has 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?

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

At ManyPets, all our dog insurance policies offer coverage for the lifetime of the pet (as long as they are insured before they turn 14 years old). That means your dog would be covered year after year, even if they have recurrent eye problems, as long as they purchased the policy before they had any signs, symptoms, or treatment for the condition.

As long as you took out pet insurance before your dog developed their first eye ulcer or experienced an event that caused an eye ulcer, a ManyPets pet insurance policy may be able to help with the cost.

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.