Pet Blindness Epidemic Coming to Oahu

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Throughout the tropical world, dogs, cats, chickens, and much wildlife suffer from a type of eye disease that leads to progressively cloudy eyes and blindness, called tropical keratopathy. And it has now come to Oahu.

It’s shocking to see your pet’s eyes lose their sparkle and become cloudy. It can start when your pet is only months old. It usually never goes away, and typically gets worse.

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The Big Island has had this problem affecting pets eyes for over a decade, and this problem is now plaguing up to 90% of the dogs and cats on the Hilo side, according to veterinarian reports. Let that sink in. 9 out of 10 dogs and cats on the east side of Hawaii Island have cloudy eyes!

Scientific studies and experience on the Big Island highly suggest that the Little Fire Ants are responsible for this problem, which is spreading across the Hawaiian Islands along with the spread of the ants.  So we have come to call tropical keratopathy the more descriptive term, Fire Ant Eye. 

Now that the Little Fire Ants are on Oahu, residents can expect to see this problem in their pets’ eyes, too.  But before you react to this emerging problem, check out what we have learned from our decades-long experience with the Little Fire Ants and our pets here on the Big Island, which has been ground zero for the Little Fire Ant invasion.

First, the good news is that this condition does not seem to cause pain to the animals. Their vision does suffer, but there is no inflammation or irritation that bothers them. 

The bad news is that it doesn’t get better while the animal stays in Hawaii. It usually gets worse. 

In the beginning, it is a small cloudy dot on the outer surface of the eyeball, on the cornea. The dot then progresses over time into a larger circle of cloudiness, with different circles eventually overlapping. Over time, the entire surface can become cloudy, getting darker and thicker until the animal cannot see.

Nobody seems to know the cause of tropical keratopathy. Some veterinarians tried treating the problem as an infection. But antibiotics didn’t work. Anti-fungal medications didn’t work, either. No treatment worked. And since the animals do not seem in pain, the current advice from veterinarians is to not worry about it, since they can’t do anything about it.

But who wants to have their precious pet’s vision lost to cloudy eyes?  Looking into cloud-covered eyes is heartbreaking, even if the pet is not in pain. The pet owner is in pain seeing this happen, and feeling helpless to do anything. 

It’s important to realize that eyes are sensitive, and you don’t want to experiment with home remedies. You can make things worse for your pet and his or her eyes.

The lack of inflammation in the eyes has been a source of confusion over the cause of this condition. You would think that a fire ant sting in the eye would cause pain and inflammation, at least for a short time. How can this condition last for years without any inflammation and be caused by ant stings? 

What many people have seen is that their pets may have a day or two of an irritated eye from the ant sting, which then goes away. This is soon followed by a cloudy dot on the cornea, presumably where the venom from the sting was deposited in the cornea. This dot can stay one size or grow in size over time. It does not seem to get smaller, unless the animal is taken out of the tropics, where there are no Little Fire Ants.

One theory is that this cloudiness may form when antibodies to the venom that are in tears react with the venom in the cornea, forming a precipitate that clouds the cornea. Repeated exposure to venom in the eye would lead to further cloudiness. Removing the animal from this exposure allows the antibody-venom precipitate to slowly be removed from the cornea. This is why Fire Ant Eye clears up when animals are removed from the tropics to the Mainland. 

If this is true, then this is not an infection, but an immune response we see because it is taking place in the outer surface of the eye. This means  you would have to suppress the immune system to prevent this problem, which would be far worse for the animal than a painless, cloudy cornea. 

Keep in mind that this also affects birds, pigs, feral cats, rats, and just about every other creature that lives with fire ants. There have even been reports of tropical keratopathy in humans, usually in agricultural workers who get exposed to Little Fire Ants. 

Here are some ways to reduce the problem:

  1. Test your house and yard for Little Fire Ants and treat for them with products approved for Little Fire Ants. To find the best products and learn how to properly apply them, check out the website of the Fire Ant Lab.
  2. Do not leave food out for cats or dogs. The food can attract the ants, especially if it is oily, and your pet will get the ants on his or her face when eating. 
  3. Do not try to treat the eyes of your pet without veterinary advice. 
  4. Many eye conditions can cause temporary cornea cloudiness, including injuries, and are usually associated with tearing or signs of irritation or discomfort. If the cloudiness lasts for days without seeming associated with discomfort, then it is probably Fire Ant Eye. If irritation persists over several days, seek veterinary care.
  5. If you are contemplating getting a pet, consider your location and its exposure to Little Fire Ants. You can test any area for ants using peanut butter on a stick. Check the Fire Ant Lab for details.
  6. Keeping pets indoors in an ant-free house is the best protection. 
  7. If you choose to leave the Islands, take your pet with you. Their eyes will probably clear up. 
  8. Encourage and support research into the cause and treatment of this condition.

A Big Island animal protection organization, the Good Shepherd Foundation, started a Facebook group, Fire Ant Eye Search for a Cure, to help the public and veterinary community address this problem. Join the group and share your experience, or learn from others.  

Eyesight is a precious gift. We must not stand by helplessly and watch our best friends become progressively blind. Lets fund research into the growing problem, and solve the mystery of tropical keratopathy that plagues animals throughout the tropical world.  

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