Any injury, swelling or change in an eye is an emergency. Even if it doesn’t appear urgent, the horse will rub it if it’s bothering him, possibly worsening things. You need to get the problem resolved quickly.
A clear discharge from an open eye on a horse who has been bothered by flies is one of the few “watch and see” situations. In that case, flush the eye with sterile eyewash and use a fly mask.
Some horses will “tear” a bit from heavy pollen, so in allergy seasons it may be worthwhile to flush your horse’s eyes daily if he is bothered by the pollen. This is also true if you ride in a really dry and dusty arena or have dusty turnout areas.
Any discharge other than clear is cause for concern. Pus like goop or bloody discharge means a call right away to your vet.
A squinted-shut, swollen or painful eye generally represents a bigger problem. This is also true if the eye itself is “cloudy” in appearance. Squinting can be a reflex from a foreign body caught in the eye or one that has come and gone but scratched the cornea while present.
A small corneal scratch can quickly turn into a nasty corneal ulcer. Your veterinarian will examine the eye gently, using a topical anesthetic in most cases. Then, a small amount of flourescein dye may be used to check the surface of the cornea. Any tears or injuries will show up bright green under the blue light attachment to the ophthalmoscope.
Any foreign item, like a plant seed, can be removed carefully or flushed out. Follow-up care generally consists of flushing with sterile eyewash and ophthalmic eye drops or ointment. Depending on the cause, your veterinarian might prescribe an antibiotic ointment or one with some steroid in it to reduce inflammation. Eyes may require medication six or more times daily. Don’t use an antibiotic or steroid-containing ointment or drops without your veterinarian’s OK.
A real corneal ulcer with damage below the most superficial layers of the corneal tissue may require removal of damaged tissue and sometimes temporary stitches to protect the tissues underneath. An eye with an ulcer is often cloudy and painful. Your horse may keep the eye squinted shut and resist any attempt to open it. If your horse acts this way, get your vet.
Many horses with a painful eye will resist bright sunlight. Be sure your horse can get to a shaded area. This is also true after a veterinary exam if the eye has been dilated. Fly masks can help, but only the Guardian Mask with protective eye covers (www.guardianmask.com, 512-756-0320) is recommended for injured-eye protection.
An eye may be swollen due to blunt trauma from running into a branch or catching a glancing blow from a kick. Compresses can help with the swelling, but it still needs to be examined right away.
A minor cause of swelling around the eyelid might be an insect bite. In those cases, the eyeball itself should appear normal. A horse with hives from an allergic reaction could have swelling by the eye as well. In this case, there will be hives on other parts of the body too.
Severe eye injuries or infections may lead to blindness, possibly even removal of the eyeball. Most horses learn to function quite well with just one eye. You hope to avoid that drastic outcome.
Preventing eye injuries means checking out your horse’s environment with a sharp eye (no pun intended!). Most eye injuries come from a horse catching his eye on a hook, protruding nail or other sharp object. Check out the holders or hangers for your feed and water buckets (even your bucket handles) as well as any hay nets.
If your horse tends to rub around those areas or stall doors, consider putting a scratching post (large, smooth sided-round post solidly in the ground) or a commercial product (Scratch n All, www.scratchall.com, or the Itchin’ Post, www.itchinpost.com, 877-482-4468) in your turnout area. These are designed for safe scratching.
Article by Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, Contributing Veterinary Editor