Saturday 16 November 2013

Poked in the Eye

Please be warned that there are some unpleasant pictures in this blog post.

Recently a one-eyed butcher bird has been visiting and this has prompted me to write a little bit about eye injuries in possums. When I first started this blog, I had initially planned to periodically do specials on possum-related subjects, and it's been over a year since my last special (Toe-biting Possums) so it's probably about time for one now.

But first the butcher bird:

A couple of weeks ago, when I was fixing up the cladding under the eaves (I had to break it when Baxter was trapped inside), a butcher bird landed next to me on the balcony rail and started looking at me expectantly for food. It acted just like a normal butcher bird but I noticed something strange about its left eye; namely that it didn't seem to have one.

Here is the good eye.

One-eyed Butcher Bird - Good Eye - 29th Oct 2013

It was difficult to get a shot of the bad eye because it understandably kept the good eye towards me as much as possible, but I eventually got this shot.

One-eyed Butcher Bird - Bad Eye - 29th Oct 2013

A week later, the butcher bird visited again, and I got this shot of what's going on in that eye socket. Not very nice.

One-eyed Butcher Bird - Bad Eye - 8th Nov 2013

The bird appears to be completely blind in this eye.

I would have thought that for a bird in general, and even more so for a butcher bird which lives on small and often fast-moving prey, having only one eye would be a serious handicap. In fact, I would have though that a bird like this couldn't survive in the wild.

However, this butcher bird seemed to have no problem with navigating through the dense foliage in the back yard and was easily able to snatch morsels of food in mid air when they were tossed towards it. It only failed once at this, and that was when I tossed a fragment of food on its blind side and it didn't see it at all.

It didn't appear to be starving or in distress and in every way acted like a normal butcher bird.

Back to possums:

Possums often suffer eye injuries. Partly this might be a result of running and jumping through trees in the dark, but most likely fighting plays a major role. Losing an eye entirely is not an unusual thing to happen to a possum.

Northern Rivers Dreaming have One-eyed Puss, who lost an eye to an infection about a year ago.

Sneddo has Gabi who was born with only one eye, and was also given Eddie (who had had an eye removed) to care for. Gabi in particular has shown that a possum with only one eye can live a normal life. She is now four years old and is currently nursing her fourth baby.

I almost feel left out that I've never had a one-eye possum.

However several years ago I came close.

Back in November 2007, a possum named Queek was seen to be in some distress while resting in Box 2. This was a year before the Possum TV webcam server was set up; there was a box camera installed, but it was hooked up to a VCR and was viewed on a standard TV. This was fairly inconvenient to use, but it had the big advantage of having sound as well (something I really miss with the new system). Queek not only looked restless and uncomfortable but was also letting out occasional shrieks of anger or pain.

When Queek appeared at the house that night, the reason for his discomfort became obvious. Ouch! Those were definitely shrieks of pain, then.

Queek with eye wound (Day 1) - 7th Nov 2007

[With these photos I'm going to include zoomed in close-ups of the injured eye. It's not that I want to gross people out, but I think they might be interesting from a veterinary point of view. The closeups are all at the full resolution of the original photo.]

Queek eye wound - Closeup (Day 1)

I contacted Australia Zoo (they had been recommended to me by a possum carer) and they said that if I brought him in they could try to treat him, but added that if they were unable to save the eye, he would have to be euthanized because he would unable to survive in the wild. I wonder now whether I was talking to someone who had any experience with wildlife at all, because this advice was clearly wrong.

This (along with the difficulty of capturing Queek) discouraged me from taking him in to a vet.

The following night the eye had opened up to reveal an ugly infection. At least the eyeball was still there, but it looked pretty bad.

Queek with eye wound (Day 2)

Queek eye wound - Closeup (Day 2)

Some antibiotics and eye ointment were obtained.

My understanding (and bear in mind that I am not a vet) is that oral antibiotics aren't especially useful for eye infections. The reason is (as far as I understand it) that an oral antibiotic is transferred via the blood stream, and the blood supply to eyeball is very low, meaning the antibiotic gets into the eyeball only very slowly. Eye-drops are a better proposition, but have to be applied every couple of hours.

It turned out that the eye ointment was virtually impossible to use. It was extremely difficult to drop it into the eye from a distance, and holding the tube too close to the eye ran the risk of poking the eyeball with the pointy end of the dispenser. Despite much effort it's doubtful that enough made it into his eye to make any difference.

However, the eye improved rapidly. Unfortunately, no photos were taken over the following two days (the emphasis was on treating Queek), but the photo from day 5 shows an enormous difference.

Queek with eye wound (Day 5)

Queek with eye wound (Day 5)

As the infection cleared, the eyeball was left with a bluish tint ...

Queek with eye wound (Day 10)

Queek eye wound - Closeup (Day 10)

... that faded a little over time ...

Queek with eye wound (Day 49)

Queek eye wound - Closeup (Day 49)

... but never fully disappeared.

Queek with eye wound (Day 509 i.e. well over a year later)

Queek eye wound - Closeup (Day 509)

After the first painful day, Queek was happy and cheerful through the remainder of the ordeal; possibly because he was getting a lot of care and attention, and not to mention choice food. I'm not sure how much the antibiotic helped - even if it couldn't reach the infection directly, it might at least have prevented it spreading. I would certainly use oral antibiotics again with a similar injury.

A lot of other possums have turned up with minor eye infections. Usually the eye is a little weepy and sometimes partly closed. Nearly always the possum has completely recovered by the next day without treatment.

One final note: Possums can get over some horrible injuries with little or no treatment. I've even heard a report of a local possum who is missing an entire front leg. Be aware, though, that a seemingly minor injury that gets steadily worse can often be much more serious than a seemingly major injury that is getting better.

In particular, beware of that minor wound that doesn't appear to be healing. In most cases, a small cut or scratch will be noticeably better in a few days. If it looks about the same or worse after a week, you might be looking at exudative dermatitis, which will be the topic of another special at a later date.

[Comments on this post have been disabled 25th Oct 2018 due to spam. If you want to comment on this post, please post something on the latest post or email me.]


  1. Thanks for this really interesting post - do you think that Queek still had sight in that eye? Puss' eye was interesting to watch - it went grey and milky all over. He definitely couldn't see on that side by the time of his surgery.

    1. Thanks for taking an interest.

      I think that once the pus had cleared, Queek could see out of the eye and most likely he had almost normal vision after it had fully healed. In the last couple of photos it looks like the main damage was outside the area of his pupil and would hardly have obstructed his vision at all. Fortunately, it seems that unlike Puss, the infection never got inside the eyeball itself.

  2. An interesting article. I am astounded by the advice from Australia Zoo. To watch Gabi in the trees you would never know she only had one eye and the vet who treated Eddie obviously thought that he would be OK.

    1. Yes, it's very strange. It's now 6 years ago and I don't remember all of the details, but I thought at the time that I was talking to either a vet or a vet nurse - I wonder now if I had in fact been fobbed off by some receptionist.

      Australia Zoo make a big deal about treating koalas so I would have thought that anyone working there would have had at least a passing knowledge of native wildlife.

  3. We've been quite surprised how well Puss has managed with one eye, as male possums don't have an easy life. On the other hand he does get a bit battered during mating seasons.

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