Back to class, Madison. Today’s lesson - veterinary science with professor Freya Mowat

A Madisonian is finding out what dogs like to watch on TV.

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A new study by a UW-Madison professor is looking at what dogs look at. | Photo by 608today

In our new series, Back to Class, we learn a thing or two from local intellectuals.

Today, we look into the work of Freya Mowat, a veterinary ophthalmologist and professor at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine.

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UW-Madison professor Freya Mowat studies dog eyesight. | Photo via UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine

Mowat didn’t have a dog as a kid. Her mother was allergic. But Freya Mowat always wanted one and so she would play with the neighbor dogs as often as she could.

Now, Mowat owns Tavish, a dog and a beloved part of her family. She also spends her days focusing on retinal aging and disease in dogs at her own lab.

“The study is an exciting one,” Mowat said.

The study she is referring to is the one she recently authored, now published in Applied Behavior Science. She sought to identify what kinds of video entertainment dogs respond to for potential tests of canine vision.

“We go to an eye doctor and read the chart on the wall,” Mowat said. “We can’t do that with dogs. But, if we can establish a baseline of what videos normally get dogs to react, we can design better tests that can be used to monitor a dog’s eyesight over time.”

What do dogs like to watch videos of? Dogs.

“95% of dogs reacted to an animal in a video, and most all of them liked watching dogs.” About 65% of those tested liked watching livestock. Horses were very popular.

Interestingly, humans weren’t that popular. “An aspect of the study we discovered was how unfocused dogs are on people. Humans rank quite low down,” Mowat said.

Humans, however, have been engaged in the project itself. She said, “There are a lot of dog owners who have been very enthusiastic and engaged in this.” Mowat surveyed more than 1,200 dog owners.

She found that herding and hunting breeds are more likely to be interested in TV. Older dogs are less likely to respond to screens than younger ones.

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Dogs can have cataract surgery like humans do. | Photo via Wikimedia Commons

As for the breeds with the best and worst eyesight, Mowat notes that there have not been many deep dives into that particular question. “Every breed has the exact same cells in the retina,” Mowat said. Further, she notes, dogs might not have had enough time for speciation from wolves, from which they all sprang. “We’ve bred them for different things, but different eyesight capabilities have yet to be defined.”

If your goldendoodle used to catch treats and is struggling of late; or if its peripheral vision isn’t as it once was; or is having difficulty navigating stairs or curbs, Mowat suggests you visit your vet.

Though there is no Lasik for dogs, they can have specially-designed goggles. Dogs can also have cataract surgery similar to humans. In fact, they’re often done using the same machines.

Perhaps, thanks to Mowat’s work, one day soon your vet will put a video on as a better way to diagnose your dog’s eye troubles.