Surgery Offers Sight for Dogs with Cataracts
Was Nikki Begg seeing things? While cuddling with Jakob, her eight-year-old Tibetan terrier, she noticed a cloudiness in his right eye. At a visit the next morning, her veterinarian didn’t have good news. Jakob had developed a cataract, an opacity in the lens that prevented him from seeing. “Jakob had gone blind in one eye overnight,” says Nikki, “just weeks after he was diagnosed with diabetes.”
A common complication of diabetes, cataracts are also often inherited and tend to occur in young to middle-aged dogs. Nikki was asked to return to the hospital when Dr. Ken Abrams, a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist from Rhode Island, would be visiting for consultations.
A few weeks later, the ophthalmologist confirmed the diagnosis. “Jakob had a mature cataract in his right eye,” Dr. Abrams recalls, “but he was also losing vision in his left eye.” Unfortunately, there is no medical treatment for cataracts. Although most dogs adjust well to not being able to see, a cataract can cause inflammation in the eye and lead to painful glaucoma. Surgery is the only option to restore vision.
Nikki was anxious to have the surgery performed, even though it meant flying Jakob from Bermuda, where they live, to Rhode Island for the procedure. However, because it was summer and airlines wouldn’t allow dogs to fly due to the hot temperatures, they had to postpone the trip for four months.
During the long wait, Jakob lost sight in his left eye. “When he became completely blind, it was so incredibly sad,” says Nikki. “My crazy, quirky dog became a cautious, hesitant dog. Instead of living, he merely existed.”
While Jakob adjusted to a sightless world, Nikki suppressed the impulse to carry him everywhere. “I wanted to give him as much dignity as possible,” she recalls. “To help him into the car, I’d pat the step, then I’d pat the car seat, and he would follow the sound of my hand.” Still, when she’d take him for walks, he’d bump into trees. “He would walk like he was drunk because he couldn’t anticipate what was ahead of him.”
In September, Nikki and Jakob flew to Rhode Island. Dr. Abrams performed an ultrasound and an electroretinogram to confirm that Jakob’s eyesight would be restored once the cataract was removed. The results were normal (indicating that the retina was functioning properly), so the procedure was scheduled for the following day.
“Considering the enormity of trust that Jakob put in me, it made such a difference that I could put my trust in Dr. Abrams,” says Nikki. “He was very patient and explained everything. Before I arrived, he even put me in touch with another owner whose dog had undergone the same procedure.”
The following morning, Jakob was placed under general anesthesia and both cataracts were removed by phacoemulsification, the same ultrasonic method that is used in human surgery to break up the cataract and suction out the pieces. An artificial lens was then inserted into the lens capsule. For most dogs, the procedure is successful and they recover from anesthesia with their vision restored.
Nikki returned to the clinic that afternoon. When the door to the reception area opened, Jakob recognized her immediately and bounded down the hallway. “The fact that he saw me was brilliant,” says Nikki. “After months of watching him fall off the bed and walk into walls, it was so powerful and humbling to see that the surgery had worked perfectly.”
Nikki and Jakob remained in Rhode Island for a week of postoperative care. “I cannot speak more highly of Dr. Abrams, both as a professional and an individual,” says Nikki. He not only examined Jakob daily, but he invited the two of them to dinner with his family, where Jakob tumbled across the lawn with Dr. Abrams’ two golden retrievers.
“A lot of people advised me not to go through with the surgery; they thought Jakob would adjust to being blind,” says Nikki. “When you add it up, there was the expense of the flight, a week at the hotel, and the surgery. But having Jakob regain his sight . . . You can’t put a price on that.”