Corneal ulcers can do more damage than you think. One fall morning, my American Quarter Horse mare, Skips Satin Lark (aka “Lark”), didn’t seem to have the same bright eyes that she normally had. I also noticed significant tearing from her left eye. Thinking she just had something in it, I flushed her eye with artificial tears and applied a warm compress. Later that day, it was still bothering her, so I took her to our veterinarian, who diagnosed her with a simple scratch in her eye and gave me some ointment to put in her eye three times a day.
A week later, her eye wasn’t healing, and it began to look cloudy, so once again I hauled her to the veterinarian.
The diagnosis was that she was suffering from a corneal ulcer and needed to be treated by a veterinary ophthalmologist right away. After a two-hour haul to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Veterinary Teaching Hospital, she underwent extensive examinations and stains. If we had waited until the next day, she might have lost her eye.
Before that night, I had never heard of a corneal ulcer, which is surprisingly common in horses.
What Is a Corneal Ulcer?
Corneal ulcers stem from any trauma that occurs in the eye. In Lark’s case, a simple scratch became infected with a fungus. Trauma can be anything from scratches from hay or dust or running into a fence post. Other causes of corneal ulcers include parasites, viruses, eyelashes irritating the eye or lack of tear production.
The simplest signs of tearing, squinting and sensitivity to bright light are key to knowing something is wrong with your horse’s eye. When I went to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Erica Tolar was a second-year resident in ophthalmology there, and she saw many patients like Lark with eye problems, including corneal ulcers.
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Dr. Tolar says a horse owner who sees any of those symptoms needs to contact his or her local veterinarian for a specific diagnosis immediately.
“Corneal ulcers can deteriorate quickly, even in a matter of hours,” Dr. Tolar says. “It is best not to delay or self-medicate.”
Key factors in diagnosing a corneal ulcer are time and the right medications. Steroids should never be used, because they prevent the body from mounting a good immune response and allow infectious organisms to multiply, which will hinder healing.
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Photo: Check your horse's eyes frequently to ensure they are healthy. Journal photo.