Eyesight is crucial for all animals, as it’s one of the ways in which we understand and eventually interact with our surroundings. While humans have a number of options when our vision begins to recede, horses aren’t always so lucky.
Horses that begin going blind, whether through disease or external damage, will often have one of their eyes removed, greatly diminishing their field of vision. Though there is no way to prevent blindness entirely in horses, there is new hope. As The Clarion-Ledger reported, veterinary specialists at Mississippi State University have developed an enhanced method that greatly improves the horse’s surgical experience.
The current method
The most common eye ailment for horses is equine recurrent uveitis (ERU). Often referred to as night or moon blindness, this inflammatory disease can be quite painful, causing tenderness and runny eyes, before eventually leading to total blindness. According to the Chronicle of the Horse, ERU affects 12 percent of horses worldwide, and 25 percent of the Appaloosa breed. Additionally, many breeds are susceptible to congenital cataracts, in which the eye becomes cloudy or murky.
As noted, vets will primarily address the issue by removing the eye outright in a process called enucleation, which removes the eye itself but leaves the orbital bone and eye muscle intact. Speaking to the Clarion-Ledger, Dr. Caroline Betbeze, assistant clinical professor of ophthalmology at MSU, said that horses experience almost no pain after the procedure. However, they are left with one permanently closed eyelid, and while there’s little medical risk, this can prove detrimental to many show horses.
A new approach
According to Betbeze, doctors routinely offer a cosmetic solution for horses who have undergone enucleation. An an orbital prosthesis is implanted to give the horses a sense of symmetry that is often more appealing to breeders and competition judges alike. The procedure, however, comes accompanied by a number of risk factors, including those relating to cleanliness and reactions to anesthesia. To help improve the experience, Betbeze and her colleague, equine surgeon Dr. Robin Fontenot, developed several new protocols:
- New rules for cleaning the operating room as to ensure more sterility
- Instead of traditional anesthesia, their procedure utilizes medicine that simply blocks pain receptors
- The horses now stand during the surgery. The research has demonstrated that this method helps improve recovery time
So far, the team at MSU has performed a few of these retooled operations. Not only are they proving much more cost effective for trainers and owners, but the horses also display less signs of post-surgical discomfort and grogginess.
Taking preventative measures
Horses need their eyes for more than just basic vision. A 2014 study published in the journal Current Biology found that horses, much like humans, used their eyes as a means of expressing emotion and intent. In fact, their eyes help them develop complex social bonds, similar to those of chimps, elephants and dolphins.
Given how important eyes are to horses, they must be protected as best as possible. To that extent, there are certain signs to watch out for regarding a number of potential diseases and impairments:
- Swollen eyelids
- Cloudy eyes
- Red or inflamed sclera (the white of the eye)
- White film on the eye itself
- Continually runny tears, which may be a sign of tear duct blockage
In foals especially, upturned eyelids can also be problematic. Oftentimes, the eyelashes will then rub against the eye and cause trauma.
A note on supplements
In addition to being ever watchful, trainers and breeders alike may also want to look into supplements as a means of aiding better overall eye health. Total Control® Plus promotes stronger capillaries. MSM Pure contains a compound (methylsulfonylmethane) that has demonstrated potential as an anti-inflammatory agent.