URBANA — For Dr. Amber Labelle, there's no dog like a wrinkly-faced pug.
"Pugs are the happiest dog," she says. "They're always in a good mood."
But pugs are also vulnerable to an eye disease that can blind them. And Labelle, a University of Illinois veterinary ophthalmologist with a beloved pug of her own, has set out to do something about that.
She's launching a research project to study pigmentary keratitis, a condition in which a brown pigment forms on the surface of the dog's cornea — the way mud covers the windshield of a car, she says.
To help her conduct the study, she needs 300 pug owners to bring their dogs in for a free eye exam in February or May.
Other dogs can get pigmentary keratitis, but it seems to be more common in pugs, Labelle says. And with their little black faces, the brown eye pigment can blend right in.
"It's a very easy thing for owners to miss," she says.
The cornea of the eye normally would be a clear surface, allowing light to enter, and the brown pigment can spread to cover part or all of the surface. If the pigment covers the entire cornea, the dog becomes blind, Labelle said.
There are eye drop treatments that can prevent the spread of pigmentary keratitis, she said, but the treatments don't work on all dogs. And once the disease starts, the treatments must be administered for life.
The cause of the disease is unknown, Labelle said. She's seen it in dogs as young as 3 months old and as old as 16 years, "which is really old for a pug," she said.
Of the 300 dogs she hopes to examine in her study, 150 will be pets and 150 will be show dogs, she said.
Labelle said she will be looking to document the overall incidence of the eye disease in the pug population and analyzing factors such as the dogs' head shape, eyelid shape, tearing and moistness of the dogs' eye surfaces, Labelle said.
Collaborating on the research will be UI veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Ralph Hamor and Ohio veterinarian Dr. Chris Dresser, Labelle said.
Her own pug, Dexter, is free of this disease, Labelle said. But it was her love for him that inspired her to undertake this study.
"I don't want any more pugs to go blind due to this disease," she says.
Pug owners interested in scheduling an eye exam for their dogs can send an email to: email@example.com.