Late this summer, my nine year old quarter horse gelding developed conjunctivitis in his right eye. I’d dealt with this before, so I called the vet and said that I’d like to drop by for some antibiotic ointment. I started it that evening, and used it faithfully twice a day for eight days. His eye never cleared up. I called back and told them it wasn’t responding to the treatment, so they offered me another ointment, this one with steroids. After the prescribed treatment time, there was still no change.
I had the vet come out to see one of my other horses, so I asked him to take a look at Jake’s eye. He looked and said he saw no ulcerated areas, so it must be allergies. This went on for three more weeks. Jake’s eye never improved, and I could tell it was making him crazy. It weeped constantly, and he had rubbed it raw scratching it on his right leg. I called again to inform the vet there was still no improvement. Once again, I was told it was allergies. They had no intelligent response to my question why would he only have allergy symptoms in one eye.
I wasn’t happy with this response, so I took him for a second opinion. The new vet immediately spotted the culprit: a small, fleshy growth on the bottom of his third eyelid, or nicitating membrane. He was honest, “it doesn’t look good, but I want to biopsy it.” Ten days later, the biopsy results were in: it was squamous cell carcinoma. He asked me to bring him in that next day to have his entire third eyelid removed. I dropped him off at 8:00 am. By 8:15, as I was on my way home, he called my cell phone. “I’m sorry, it’s spread to the eyeball. I really need to take this out.”
I wasn’t prepared for this, but I saw no other option. If he didn’t remove it, it would surely spread. And the next place it would go would be his lymph nodes. The vet said I could pick him up by 4:00 that afternoon, barring any complications. There were none, thankfully. What I saw when I arrived that afternoon broke my heart. Jake was standing in one of the facility’s outside stalls, head down, still drowsy from the anesthesia. His right eye socket was stitched closed and terribly swollen. He still whinnied to me as soon as he saw my truck and trailer pull up. He was ready to go home.
He stayed in a paddock by himself for a few days. I was worried about one of the other horses startling him by coming up on his blind side before he was used to it. When his incision started to itch three days later, I put his buddy Durango in with him. This was, he could scratch his eye on Durango instead of a wooden fence post. The stitches came out a week later, and the swelling had gone down dramatically.
He’s had a few minor personality changes after losing his eye. He was used to being the alpha, and the other geldings started challenging this status after they realized his disability. He’s not letting go quietly, and he may not ever concede his status. He spooks easily now, and he’s not as affectionate as he used to be. I haven’t ridden him since the surgery – I plan to give him plenty of time to adapt to his loss of sight. I’m hoping with time he will still be my favorite trail horse, and save me from perilous trails as he has done in the past. He will really need to learn to trust me even more than he had.
My lesson out of this ordeal is a big one: when it comes to eyes, don’t take the wait and see approach. Would his eye have been saved if I had insisted on a second opinion after the first round of antibiotics? I will never know. But, I will never second guess my instincts again. If I’m not happy with one diagnosis, I’ll get another. Pronto.
Jake, before cancer