Free eye exams for service dogs

Veterinary ophthalmologists are offering free eye exams to certified service animals through May; simple eye care tips also are recommended

The eye exams ensure service animals can continue doing a safe and reliable job for their owners and also are a small way to say "thanks" for the assistance these animals provide.
Article Highlights:
  • Throughout the month of May 2011, all qualified service animals may receive a free eye exam from participating veterinary ophthalmologists.
  • Five simple eye-care tips can keep eyes healthy in both service animals and pets.
  • The free exams are offered in the United States, Puerto Rico and Canada. Registration opened April 1; appointments are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
by Kathy Wechsler on April 4, 2011 - 12:00pm

The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO) is hosting the 4th Annual ACVO/Merial National Service Dog Eye Exam Event this May.

Thousands of service dogs will receive free eye examinations at participating veterinary ophthalmology clinics throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico. Last May, more than 3,200 service dogs participated in the event. Registration is now open; appointments are given on a first-come, first-served basis.

The event serves assistance dogs that help individuals with disabilities, as well as guide dogs for the blind, detection dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.  Other service animals, such monkeys and miniature horses, are welcome to participate in the event as long as they meet the qualifications (see below).

If service dog vision problems are identified early, treatment is usually successful.

“These dogs do so much for us — they protect us, find drugs and explosives, assist us, guide us, soothe us, make us laugh,” says Nancy M. Bromberg, veterinary ophthalmologist with SouthPaws Ophthalmology in Fairfax, Va., who has participated in the event for four years.

“Because of the work these animals do, it's important to make sure that their vision remains as good as it can be.

These exams are just a small ‘thank you’ to them, and it gives a great feeling of ‘giving’ to these wonderful animals."

Sight-saving exams

During the free ocular exams, more than 180 board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists will look for retinal damage, scratched or cloudy corneas, early cataracts, red eye, dry eye and other abnormalities.

If canine eye problems are identified early, they usually can be treated successfully, Bromberg says.

The exams also ensure that the dogs and their handlers stay safe in their unique activities, she says. For example, if a guide dog has vision problems, it may endanger its owner, or if a search-and-rescue dog's night vision is failing, it would endanger a handler using the dog at night.

Cost saving for individuals with disabilities

Nancy Lagasse of Amissville, Va., has multiple sclerosis and uses a scooter for long distances. Lagasse, 61, has been attending the free eye exam event ever since receiving her service dog, Arkin, in 2008. Canine Companions for Independence had recommended that the golden retriever/yellow Labrador get a yearly ocular exam because of a corneal scratch in puppyhood.

Arkin is Lagasse’s constant companion. Thanks to his ability to open and close doors, drawers and cupboards; turn on and off lights; and retrieve dropped items, she says she feels more independent and has found a new purpose in life. A retired nurse, she now volunteers for Habitat for Humanity, Lions Club International and a local hospital.

“I don't need to ask people for assistance now, and I feel like a whole person," says Lagasse. “Because I live on disability [income] alone, I could never afford this type of care for my precious Arkin without the free program afforded to me by ACVO. 

"This dog means everything to me, and I just want him to have the best care possible.  Because of ACVO, he is getting it."

Service dog providers also benefit

Also participating in the eye-exam event is Canine Assistants, a national organization that trains and provides service dogs for children and adults with disabilities.

The organization sends emails announcing the ACVO eye exam event to its working team members.

"It takes a lot of effort to perfect that working relationship, and we want it to last as long as possible,” says Kent Bruner, who has been the staff veterinarian with Canine Assistants for 16 years. "This is just another way to keep our dogs out working, and finding problems before they become big problems that might threaten the working career.

“It's very comforting to our clients to know their dog's eyes are OK, and it’s well worth the time to have them examined.”

Five tips for healthy eyes

ACVO offers five tips for keeping eyes healthy in all dogs, whether service animals or pets.

  1. Clean ocular discharge with a warm, wet wash cloth.
  2. Do not use eye medications prescribed for a previous eye problem for a new eye problem.
  3. When buying a pure bred dog ask if the parents have had their eyes certified by an ophthalmologist.
  4. If you suspect vision loss or eye discharge persists for more than a day, see your veterinarian.
  5. Don't let your dog hang its head out of the window when you are driving.

Qualifications and registration

Registration opened April 1 for the May event, at www.ACVOeyeexam.org. There you’ll find a list of participating veterinary ophthalmologists in your area, and can contact a specialist to schedule an appointment. Early registration is recommended bacause appointments may are fill up.

To qualify for the free eye exam event, service dogs must be certified by a national, regional or local certifying organization or a formal training program or organization. They also qualify if they’re currently enrolled in a formal training program.

For more information and to register for the ACVO/Merial National Service Dog Eye Exam Event, visit www.ACVOeyeexam.org or find the event on Facebook.

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