URBANA — For your average dog, having good eyesight means being able to find the food and water bowls, spotting a squirrel out in the yard and running right in the direction of the tennis ball you throw.
But the eyes of service animals are doing double-duty, because they're often keeping a human companion safe from harm.
To make sure the vision of service animals is working the way it should, the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is offering free eye exams to all registered service animals from May 1 to 31.
Service animals can include any that offer assistance to people, such as guide animals, search and rescue dogs and therapy dogs, that have been certified by a service animal organization, UI veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Amber Labelle said.
Service animals tend to be dogs, but UI vets are also open to checking the vision of other service animals, such as horses, she said.
One of the vets who will be performing the exams, Labelle said it's a challenge to determine whether a dog has good vision, since tests used on people — reading a line of letters — won't work.
But vets have their ways: Labelle said she dilates the dog's pupils to check response to light and looks at the structure of the eye. She also observes how well Fido is navigating his surroundings by having him walk through a small maze in an exam room.
Labelle says she can't adequately express just how important service dogs are to their people and how tight this animal-human bond tends to be.
"We need to make sure their eyes are healthy," she says.
The good news is most service animals are well screened for genetic eye diseases by the organizations that breed and train them, so it's unusual to find eye problems when the dogs are brought in for exams, Labelle said.
"Fortunately, most of them have healthy eyes, which is fortunate for those who depend on them," she added.
Pre-registration is required by April 29 for a free eye exam, followed up by booking an appointment at vet med.
Pre-registration and more information about the exams is available online at http://www.acvoeyeexam.org .
Appointments for exams can be booked by calling 333-5374.