Written by Dr. Marcelle Landestoy, DVM
Few ailments cause more significant disruptions to a dog’s quality of life than those related to sight and the eyes.
While dogs have keen senses of hearing and smell, eye issues related to, and including the loss of sight, can still wreak havoc on the canine life.
What are the most common German Shepherd eye problems?
German Shepherd’s eye problems include pannus, glaucoma, and corneal dystrophy. Many of these conditions are specific to the breed, though other dog breeds may experience them too. GSDs may also develop cloudy eyes and excess tear production, just like other dog breeds.
Some of these issues are more common than others, some are easily treatable, and some have depressing results.
However, nearly anything condition manageable, so it’s essential to get things checked out if you think your dog’s health is declining in any way.
As a veterinary doctor, I’ll guide you through some of the most common GSD eye problems.
General Eye Problems in German Shepherds
Just about any dog can develop glaucoma, get cataracts, suffer an eye scratch, or even endure a retinal detachment.
No matter the breed of dog you have, any of these problems warrants a trip to the vet.
But if you’re a German Shepherd owner, your dog may be more prone to some ocular issues than others.
Still, be on the lookout for symptoms of developing eye problems:
- Cloudy eyes
- Sudden difficulty negotiating stairs or other obstacles
- Excessive tear production
- Obvious discomfort in bright light
Not necessarily harbingers of impending blindness in your dog, these symptoms should nevertheless serve as a clarion call to take them to the vet because once eyesight is compromised, there’s usually not much of a chance for repair.
Perhaps the one eye malady most German Shepherd owners are wary of is pannus, also called Chronic Superficial Keratitis.
Pannus is thought to be an autoimmune-related ailment.
It manifests itself when blood vessels and scar tissue invade the dog’s eye.
Most vets believe that something makes the German Shepherd’s immune system think there’s an invader in the dog’s eyes and then attacks the cornea as if it were foreign or transplanted tissue.
As it’s primarily found in dogs living at higher elevations, common practice holds that there’s a direct correlation.
Not surprisingly, the first cases were diagnosed in Colorado.
Pannus also has a genetic element and is also thought to have additional roots in high exposure to ultraviolet light.
Pannus can affect nearly any dog breed, but German Shepherds and Border Collies seem to be the most commonly afflicted breeds.
A slightly raised pink mass will form on the dog’s cornea, and while both eyes are usually affected at the same time, one eye can look worse than the other.
As it progresses, pannus will eventually turn the pink mass black as it spreads over the cornea, and this pigmentation will obscure the dog’s vision.
The dog’s third eyelid — the nictitating membrane beneath the outer lids — usually exhibits some swelling as well and often develops lesions of its own.
Any of these symptoms should be cause for alarm.
Obvious vision impairment isn’t a symptom, so owners noticing the telltale pink mass shouldn’t discount it just because the animal seems to be seeing fine.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In general, a veterinarian will diagnose pannus by looking at the dog’s symptoms and reviewing medical history.
While there are tests to be run — ocular pressure, corneal staining, and the like — these, if used, are for ruling out other issues.
Once diagnosed, treatment will be ongoing. Because pannus is immune-related, it’s incurable.
However, with treatment, it can be managed well.
Vets may prescribe immunosuppressant drugs, steroids injected into the eye or lids, and even surgery to remove the darkening scar tissue in severe cases.
Because of the ultraviolet light aspect, your dog may be prescribed sunglasses like the NVTED Dog Sunglasses.
For real. If left untreated, pannus will almost certainly blind your dog.
Glaucoma can affect nearly any breed of dog. Even though it isn’t peculiar to German Shepherds, nor is it more common to the breed than others, it merits a spot on this list because it is — in all cases — an emergency.
Glaucoma occurs when the fluid pressure in the eye becomes elevated.
This pressure causes damage to the dog’s retina and optic nerve, creating instant visual impairment.
Some cases of glaucoma are inherited, although hereditary glaucoma isn’t common to German Shepherds.
Other eye disorders and general illnesses in Shepherds can lead to the condition, especially if it’s something like a detached retina.
If you see swelling of your dog’s eye, chances are good there’s some problem.
Pair this with the eye clouding over or taking on a blue tint and discharge from the eye, and you need to get to the vet.
Other symptoms include pain in the eye, which may manifest in dogs turning their heads away from a petting hand.
There may even be some lethargic changes to a glaucomatous pup.
Diagnosis and Treatment
Your vet will look at the dog’s symptoms and perform an eye examination if glaucoma is suspected.
Once glaucoma is diagnosed, treatment will involve medications engineered to lower the ocular pressure.
Glaucoma is another canine disorder that is treated and not cured.
Severe cases may require surgery, but any glaucoma diagnosis presents a future of medical management to ensure minimal visual disturbance.
Untreated, the dog will eventually go blind. Treated, the dog may eventually go blind, but no matter how early glaucoma is detected or how well it’s treated, some visual impairment will be involved.
I cannot overstate that glaucoma is an emergency.
If you suspect its presence in your dog, do not finish reading this. Go to the vet now.
Corneal dystrophy results from deposits building up on the cornea. It’s generally a hereditary condition.
As the cornea has three layers, three different types of corneal dystrophy affect each of the outer, middle, and inner layers.
Corneal dystrophy occurs when fluids leak into the cornea (causing a blue or milky cast), sometimes bringing in fat or even calcium, which builds up in deposits on the cornea. These can result in lesions or ulcers.
In all three types, and in addition to having genetic causes, corneal dystrophy usually occurs due to age.
A long list of breeds fall prey to this, and German Shepherds are one of those breeds, though they don’t usually fall victim to corneal dystrophy until later in life.
That’s unlike Shetland Sheepdogs, which can develop this problem as early as six months of age.
Many of the symptoms are similar to those of other optic ailments, but as with any medical condition, if you suspect a problem, get it checked out.
If you see an ulcer on your dog’s eye, it needs immediate treatment.
It’s a symptom, but even if it’s just a scratch that doesn’t presage corneal deposits, it still needs a vet’s attention.
The calcium and fat deposits that can occur with corneal dystrophy will be visible and, in German Shepherds, will usually be oval-shaped.
Eye pain, inflammation of the eyelids, and bleeding are all symptoms, as well.
Diagnosis and Treatment
A veterinarian can usually diagnose this condition by examining the lesions and deposits present on and in the eye.
Further investigation can involve blood work, specifically looking for cholesterol levels that can explain the fat deposits.
Just like most people don’t usually go blind once they get bad enough to need reading glasses, your German Shepherd is unlikely to lose his sight over this, and no treatment is often necessary.
If your dog isn’t in discomfort and seems to get around normally (indicating little or no vision loss), your vet will likely be comfortable just monitoring the animal over time.
A lower-fat diet may be prescribed if the blood work reveals high cholesterol levels, which will, in turn, lessen the amount of fat available to build up in deposits.
Further treatment for more severe cases will involve topical ointments and even surgery.
German Shepherds, like any other breed of dog, are susceptible to certain afflictions.
When dogs develop visual issues, their quality of life suffers, even if they don’t lose their sight completely.
Other disorders include the so-called cherry eye, or prolapsed gland of the third eyelid, retinal dysplasia, and progressive retinal atrophy.
However, these aren’t especially common in German Shepherds.
No matter the diagnosis, dog owners must stay attuned to their pets’ health.
Eye issues can be serious, and many must be managed in the absence of any cure. As with any ailment, early detection is the best weapon.
- Animal Eye Center: Pannus
- Animal Labs: Inherited Canine Eye Disorders
- Care.com: Dog Vision Fun Facts: Are Mutts Myopic? And Other Pressing Questions
- Summerview German Shepherds: GSD German Shepherd Health – Eye Problems
- The Bark: Canine Eye Disorders
- Traditions Vet Centers: Dog Illness & Disease Articles and Information
- Traditions Vet Centers: Your German Shepherd Dog’s Health
- VCA Hospitals: Glaucoma in Dogs
- VCA Hospitals: Pannus in Dogs (Chronic Superficial Keratitis)
- VetFolio: Canine Glaucoma: Pathophysiology and Diagnosis
- Wag Walking: Corneal Dystrophy in Dogs – Symptoms, Causes, Diagnosis, Treatment, Recovery, Management, Cost
- Wiley Online Library: Superficial stromal keratitis in the dog – STANLEY – 1988 – Australian Veterinary Journal
Click here to read my post about common general German Shepherd health issues
Veterinary Hospital Director at UCE
Dr. Marcelle is a general veterinarian with a Small Animal Medicine Specialty | Director of the UCE School of Veterinary Medicine | Certified by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society