01/02/2014 01:00 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2014

The Eyes Have It: Recognizing the Signs of Glaucoma in Pets

Carl Pendle via Getty Images

A few weeks ago, I shared the story of Tilly, my mother's adopted senior Yorkie mix, and how she'd not only inspired my mother to start living better, but had also inspired me to reflect on the gifts older pets can give us. Well Tilly is at it again, this time calling my attention -- and therefore yours -- to a condition that can be very painful to our pets: glaucoma.

Poor Tilly has just been diagnosed with diabetes, and as an added complication is also showing signs of cataracts. If left untreated (which hers likely have been since she hadn't been receiving comprehensive health care before her adoption), cataracts can lead to glaucoma. So it's off to the veterinary ophthalmologist we go.

As it turns out, January is Glaucoma Awareness Month, and although the efforts at educating the public about the disease are centered around human patients, I'd like to present a little primer on the problem in pets. We were lucky to catch the predisposing factors early in Tilly, before things could progress to the point where she'd be in unbearable pain. For your own aging pets, here's what you need to know:

Glaucoma can be an inherited condition.
Your pet's breed may play a part in whether your furry friend will develop primary glaucoma. If you have a Beagle, Cocker Spaniel, Basset Hound, Chow Chow, Shar Pei, Jack Russell, Shih Tzu or Siberian Husky, you should keep an eye out for signs and symptoms. Fortunately, hereditary glaucoma is rare in cats, but our feline friends aren't totally off the hook: Secondary glaucoma, which develops as a result of other eye diseases, is more common in cats, who often suffer from chronic inflammation of the eye. Any condition that interferes with the normal circulation of fluid in the eye can result in glaucoma.

The first sign of glaucoma can be subtle.
One of the first clues your pet may be developing glaucoma is usually an enlarged pupil that doesn't constrict in bright light. Because blood vessels in eye are often inflamed or bloodshot, the problem is sometimes mistaken for conjunctivitis or an eye allergy. Your vet should check the pressure of your pet's eye if there is even a slight suspicion that the problem might be more than simple conjunctivitis -- early detection is the only hope for preventing total vision loss in the affected eye.

Glaucoma is incredibly painful, and should be treated like an emergency.
This point is the most important one in my book -- and I'm sure any pet parent's book -- as we would never want our pets to suffer needlessly. Glaucoma causes the pressure in the eye to increase rapidly, eventually destroying the retina and optic nerve. Your pet can lose his or her vision from sudden onset glaucoma in less than a day! If you notice your pet pawing at his eye or rubbing his head along the floor, if there's a cloudy or bluish tint to your pet's eye, or if you notice that your pet seems bothered by bright light, get to your vet for treatment immediately.

Glaucoma could require surgery to treat.
Even if you catch it early, and in spite of your veterinarian's best efforts, glaucoma can cause your pet to lose his sight altogether. Unfortunately, by the time most cases are diagnosed, many pets have already lost their vision in the affected eye. Your best chance at avoiding this is watching for early warning signs, being vigilant about following your vet's treatment plan and keeping up with regular ophthalmic exams. If your pet does go blind in the affected eye, your veterinarian may recommend surgically removing it to make your pet more comfortable. Don't despair! Your pet will feel so much better after the procedure, and luckily, our four-legged loved ones are incredibly adept at adapting to blindness.

There is light at the end of the tunnel.
There are some things you can do to help slow age-related deterioration of your pet's eyes and reduce the risk of glaucoma. First, if you walk your dog on a slip leash, martingale or other tight collar, switch to a harness that fits around his torso instead. This will help relieve pressure to his neck and eyes. Second, giving your pet certain antioxidants like beta-carotene and Vitamins C and E can help support eye health and slow cellular damage, so ask your vet to suggest an appropriate supplement. And finally, if your pet is growing into his golden years, of it he is a breed with a hereditary predisposition to the disease, be proactive about asking your vet to monitor your furry friend's eye pressure. The earlier you detect changes to your pet's eyes, the better chance you'll have at keeping them healthy!

As for Miss Tilly, my mother is keeping up with vet visits and daily injections since Tilly's diabetes diagnosis, and Tilly has an appointment with a veterinary ophthalmologist to help us understand what's going on with her eyes. One thing is for sure: Whether the future holds brightness or blindness, Tilly will come out on top! If she has taught us one thing in her time with us it is that it doesn't really matter what something looks like when you see it with your heart.