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Want to safeguard your dog's health? Don't forget the eyes.

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Veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Jennifer Welser checks 1-year-old Louie's eyes. (Julie Hau for CNS)

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A veterinary technician holds 1-year-old Louie, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, during his eye exam at the NYC Veterinary Specialists and Cancer Treatment Center. (Julie Hau for CNS)

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Dr. Jennifer Welser, a veterinary ophthalmologist in New York, checks a flare-up in 1-year-old Louie's cornea. (Julie Hau for CNS)

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Dr. Jennifer Welser prepares to apply a bandage contact lens to relieve eye irritation for 10-year-old Princess at the NYC Veterinary Specialists and Cancer Treatment Center in Manhattan. (Julie Hau for CNS)

In a darkened exam room in her Manhattan ophthalmology clinic, Dr. Jennifer Welser dons a headset with a mounted light and peers through the visor into the big brown eyes of her 4-year-old patient. He’s got a spot in the middle of his right eye, and his family waits anxiously for Welser to complete her examination, fearing a possible diagnosis of glaucoma.

“You’re very brave,” the doctor coos as she cups her patient’s small face in her hands. Within a couple of minutes, lights switched back on, she puts him on the floor to play and offers him a treat. They’re out of beef liver today, she apologizes, but the cookies seem to be going over well.

Welser’s patient is a black and white Boston terrier named Rocky, and her eye clinic is at the NYC Veterinary Specialists and Cancer Treatment Center. Much to the relief of his owners, Jaclyn Dietl and Rob Palanca, Rocky doesn’t have glaucoma. Instead, he has cholesterol deposits in both eyes, which may ultimately need to be removed by a laser if his body doesn’t get rid of them on its own. “The good news is this is not painful,” Welser tells them. “Technically, it would be like if you had a little smudge on your glasses.”

Like most pet owners, Dietl, 30 and Palanca, 28, had never taken their dog to see an eye specialist before. But now, they know to watch for signs that the cholesterol deposits are hardening so they can quickly have them removed and spare Rocky unnecessary pain. Not all pets are that lucky.

As one of only about 300 board-certified veterinary ophthalmologists in the U.S., Welser knows all too well how often eye problems go undetected for too long. As with children who can’t verbalize their symptoms, diagnosing an eye disease or injury in pets depends on physically looking into their eyes. But a pet’s annual routine checkup at the vet often doesn’t catch eye disease, largely because general practice veterinarians don’t have specialized diagnostic equipment, such as the sophisticated headgear with a lamp and magnification visor that lets Welser see the blood vessels, optic nerve, retina and other essential parts of a pet’s eyes.

As many owners find out, not catching an eye infection or injury quickly can result in a serious problem. “Any eye disease that is not treated appropriately and rapidly has the potential to rob the pet of its vision,” said Dr. William Miller, a veterinary ophthalmologist in Memphis, Tenn.

Eye problems tend to increase as pets age, just like in humans. As veterinary care gets better, animals live longer, and there’s more wear and tear on the eye, said Miller. Cataracts, for example, are an easily treatable and common problem among dogs. But, he said, “cataracts left untreated can destroy the eye.”

Finding eye disease early enough to treat them, in dogs as well as in other pets, is a major concern for the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists (ACVO). In May, the association is promoting early detection screening for dogs that provide critical services for humans. Veterinary eye specialists across the country will offer free eye exams to eligible dogs, including seeing-eye dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for people with disabilities, police dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.

Miller and his colleagues in Memphis tested the free screening program last December, examining about 80 local service dogs. For one guide dog named Quest, early detection saved his sight. His owner, Elton McKinney, 36, who had gone blind six years ago within months of a retinal disease diagnosis, takes Quest for yearly veterinary check-ups, but the doctor had not detected a growing melanoma tumor behind the 5-year-old German shepherd’s right eye. Gone untreated, the tumor could have blinded the eye, said Miller, and ended Quest’s ability to serve his owner.

The goal of the screening, said Miller, “is to keep these dogs in service.” And so, Miller and his team began an aggressive treatment program, using an experimental melanoma vaccine to save Quest’s vision. Now, four months later, the tumor has shrunk, and his owner is relieved he won’t lose his constant companion. “He won’t retire until I decide to retire him or he doesn’t want to go anymore,” McKinney said. “I think he’d be lost without me and I’d just miss him.”

That kind of emotional attachment extends beyond service dogs, and, for some owners, veterinary ophthalmologists offer final hope when a pet’s blindness seems inevitable.

Last year, David Emery and his sister Kathy Mulvihill of Tampa, Fla. tried for eight months to save Emery’s toy poodle, Puffy, from a painful condition that left her unable to produce tears. Unlike the less drastic “dry eye” that often affects dogs, Puffy had absolutely no moisture in her eyes, and it was impossible to replenish it with drops. Her corneas were so dried out that her eyes were scarred and infected by the bacteria that tears normally wash away.

“She had completely stopped acting like a normal dog,” said Mulvihill, who calls Puffy “my little niece.” The 5-year-old round-faced, gray poodle would hide under the bed to avoid anything that would irritate her eyes. Their vet tried everything he could to stimulate tear production, but nothing worked. Emery and Mulvihill prepared themselves for the inevitable: Puffy would go blind because of the ongoing scarring to her corneas.

But as a last resort, the vet referred Puffy to Dr. Noelle McNabb, a veterinary ophthalmologist in Tampa, Fla. It was a specialty Mulvihill hadn’t known existed. “We were fortunate because our local vet knew of this and led us in the right direction,” she said. McNabb managed to surgically create a tunnel underneath Puffy’s tiny cheek that redirected saliva into her eyes to replace the missing tears.

A year later, the family still takes Puffy in for regular checkups and must disinfect her eyes regularly, but they’re thrilled that their dog is once again her normal playful self. “It was truly a miracle,” said Mulvihill. “We have our little Puffy back.”

E-mail: nki2101@columbia.edu