How can we test a dog’s aging eyes? Give them an eye chart and ask if the little E is blurry? That probably won’t work. That’s why they are now asking dog owners around the world for their help.
It’s a seemingly simple question, but there’s no easy answer in sight. When people go to the eye doctor, we sit down and look at an eye chart. Our ability – or lack thereof – to read smaller and smaller letters can indicate age-related vision loss.
“There’s no way we could test this method on a dog,” Freya Mowat, assistant professor of ophthalmology in the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Department of Surgical Sciences The opposite.
So Mowat thought of something else: By finding out what content dogs find most visually appealing, like the kind of television they watch while curled up on the couch with their owners, she could develop a visual test that dogs could use could actually have the attention span. And now they’re asking dog owners around the world for their help in finding out what TV dogs really like.
How Do TV Habits Help Unpack Vision in Dogs?
As a veterinary ophthalmologist, Mowat has worked hard to develop an eye test for dogs that mimics the eye chart used by humans.
Since dogs and toddlers are somewhat similar in their development, Mowat first tried to apply the children’s eye test to dogs. Instead of using the adult eye test, optometrists instead hold up cards with stripes of different thicknesses, similar to the different-sized letters on adult charts.
Unfortunately, the test couldn’t keep the dogs’ attention long enough for veterinarians to check their eyesight. Part of the problem is that “dogs get bored very easily,” says Mowat.
After that experience, Mowat realized “we really need to start thinking outside the box, beyond what’s already been done with each type of person.”
Her research team realized that video content — like the shows on your TV — could be engaging enough to capture a dog’s attention because it taps into a dog’s natural instincts as a predator.
“Something that moves is more likely to grab and hold their attention,” explains Mowat.
But before Mowat could begin taking dogs into a lab to watch video content and eventually develop an eye test, she first had to understand what type of content would appeal best to numerous dogs of different breeds.
How to take part in the dog study
Mowat has developed an online survey that any dog owner anywhere in the world can take part in. The survey lasts about 15 minutes and she assures that privacy will be respected.
Ultimately, Mowat hopes to receive thousands of responses over the next few months to inform her future research. You can find the link to the questionnaire here.
“With this survey, we want to create meaningful content for us to conduct laboratory studies with domestic dogs,” explains Mowat.
But if you’d like to learn a little more about how Mowat got here – and how your dog’s TV habits might eventually help researchers develop an eye test for dogs – then read on.
“This is the first step on a long journey,” says Mowat.
After the researchers identified the most engaging visual content based on the questionnaire responses, they could use that content to develop an eye test in the future. It’s unclear what that would look like, but it could mean the content being hidden or made smaller to test the puppies’ eyesight. But first they have to captivate the dogs with exciting content that will catch their attention.
“If we don’t get the content right, the test is useless,” says Mowat.
How This Dog Research Could Help People
After Mowat completed her clinical residency in ophthalmology, she said she came out “with this kind of deep understanding of canine vision.”
She has a specific reason for studying vision: it’s a clear measure of aging. Certain visual characteristics decrease with age.
“They see the effects of vision loss in people as a cause and contributor to things like social isolation, depression, anxiety and dependency on others,” says Mowat.
Because humans spend much of their time in close proximity to their canine companions, it’s possible that environmental or other factors that contribute to age-related vision loss in dogs are also present in their human owners.
“They cuddle with them at night, they share their dinner with them, they take them for a jog in the park,” says Mowat, adding, “The environment and our lifestyle are somehow connected between the dog and the human.”
By studying aging in dogs, you may be able to gain a better understanding of how humans age too – and in a much shorter period of time since dog lifespans are a fraction of the average human lifespan. If there are environmental issues that impact age-related vision problems in dogs, researchers may be able to determine whether similar issues exist in people living in the same household. That is why it is so important to develop an equivalent eye test for dogs as there is for humans.
“Even if the tests aren’t identical, they test the same component of our health,” says Mowat.