Free Eye Exams for Service Dogs in May

For the fifth year, veterinary ophthalmologists in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico will provide free eye exams for qualified service animals

Article Highlights:
  • Appointments are being scheduled in April for the 2012 ACVO/Merial National Service Dog Eye Exam event, put on by the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology.
  • During May, qualified service animals will have their eyes checked for free, ensuring their health and the safety of their human partners.
  • The article also includes general tips on maintaining eye health in dogs.
by Kathy Wechsler on April 17, 2012 - 6:00am

Update (June 22, 2012) — The American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (AVCO) announced today that, with the help of 250 volunteer board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists, nearly 5,000 service animals were examined in the May 2012 event. Guide dogs, handicapped assistance dogs, detection dogs, search-and-rescue dogs and other service animals, including horses and a donkey, received free exams. ACVO plans to hold the event again in 2013.


This May, the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmology (ACVO) will be hosting the 5th Annual ACVO/Merial National Service Dog Eye Exam event at participating veterinary ophthalmology clinics throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Thousands of qualified service dogs will receive free eye examinations by more than 200 board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists. More than 4,000 service dogs were examined last May.

Registration for the ACVO event began April 1 and runs through April 30. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.

Assistance dogs that help individuals with disabilities, therapy dogs and guide dogs for the blind are just a few types of service dogs served by the ACVO event. Public service dogs such as police dogs, detection dogs and search-and-rescue dogs also show up to have their eyes examined for free.

In addition to serving dogs that are valuable to the community, other qualified service animals, such as monkeys, miniature horses and even cats can qualify to receive the exam says ACVO’s executive director, Stacee Daniel.

One of the last year's participants was Henry, the therapy donkey from Young's Funny Farm in Berwick, Pa.

Crucial exams for valuable dogs

Volunteering for the ACVO event is a way for veterinary ophthalmologists to give back to these service dogs, says Bill Miller, a veterinary ophthalmologist with Advanced Animal Eye Care in Cordova, Tenn.

"All of these dogs are such a valuable commodity to the community that it just makes sense to take care of their eyes so that they can continue to productive and contribute," says Miller, who's the creator of the program and has been volunteering his services for the ACVO event since its inception in 2008.

During the exam, Miller, who's been practicing in the Memphis area for 26 years, checks for eye lid tumors, retinal damage, corneal injuries, early cataracts and other abnormalities.

"The ACVO event is so important because it gives people with service dogs the opportunity to get their service dogs' eyes examined every year so that problems can be caught early before they develop into vision loss, which might endanger the handlers," says Miller.

"We just want to make sure that these dogs have a good long service life and that if there is a problem, that we can correct it before we have to take this dog out of service," he says.

Identifying the problem early, even if it's not a serious problem, will allow service dog handlers to plan to have their dogs out of service for a while. If the problem can't be treated at all, early detection gives them more time to prepare for replacement animals.

Serving the community

Linzey Zoccola of Lititz, Pa, has two reasons to be thankful for the free veterinary examination. As director of the Phoenix Assistance Dogs of Central Pennsylvania, Zoccola, who has type 2 spinal muscular atrophy and uses a power wheelchair, takes the puppies-in-training to the ACVO event each May. (For more on Zoccola, see Trainer with SMA Turns 'Underdogs' into Winners.)

"The ACVO free service dog eye exam event is absolutely crucial for our program because the dogs-in-training must have perfect eye sight in order to perform the tasks necessary to be successful working dogs," she says. "Our program runs 100 percent on community donations, and without this event, we would struggle to get any of the funds."

In addition, many people "would not able to monitor their service dog’s eye health if they had to fund it themselves," she adds.

Zoccola, 27, attends the event with her 5-year-old service dog, Gretel. The yellow Labrador allows Zoccola to live independently, and eyesight is crucial to her work.

"She searches by sight not scent, because she is taught to find the closest person — not one specific person," she says. "She also uses her sight to locate and retrieve specific items like a phone or emergency alert button."

Qualifications and registration

To qualify for the free eye exam event, service dogs (or other service animals) must be considered "active working animals," which means they were certified by a national, regional or local certifying organization or a formal training program or organization. Puppies and dogs currently enrolled in a formal training program also qualify.

Registration for the May event runs April 1-29, at After registering you can choose from a list of participating veterinary ophthalmologists in your area, and contact a clinic to schedule a complimentary appointment in May. Appointment dates and times vary among clinic locations. All appointments are made on a space-available basis, so don’t wait too late to make your appointment.

Learn more about the ACVO/Merial National Service Dog Eye Exam on their website or find the event on Facebook.


Good veterinary care is key! Your vet should check your dog's eyes during the annual veterinary checkup. If problems are found, the vet may refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Clean eye discharge with a warm, wet washcloth. If discharge persists, consult your vet.

Consult the vet if your dog begins rubbing at its eyes or if change in vision or eye color persist.

Throw out old eye medications. Never use eye medications prescribed for one eye problem for another eye problem.

Don't let your dog hang its head out of the window when the car is moving.

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