'Contact lenses' for animals

July 16, 2009 by Deborah Cole
An employee of the S & V Technologies company shows adherent lenses for a horse (left) and a dog. Lions, giraffes, tigers, rabbits, bears, rhinoceroses and even owls can go blind from cataracts, but an east German firm has an answer: custom-made "contact lenses".

Lions, giraffes, tigers, rabbits, bears, rhinos and even owls can go blind from cataracts, but an east German firm has an answer: custom-made "contact lenses".

The procedure is delicate, to say the least, and requires special training for veterinarians.

But it has propelled tiny S & V Technologies, founded by Bavarian chemist and entrepreneur Christine Kreiner in the former communist east, to global leadership in a highly specialised field.

The acrylic intraocular lenses are implanted into animals' eyes when their vision has clouded to the point of total impairment, and are fitted for various species, from cat-eye-sized to fist-width for rhinos.

"Cataracts generally means blindness for animals, unlike for humans," said the head of the company's veterinary division, Ingeborg Fromberg.

"And because animals have short life spans, it means losing quality of life in a greater share of that life."

Since its launch in 2008, the firm has fielded calls from Sea World in San Diego (a sea lion who had trouble performing his tricks due to severely blurry vision), an Australia nature park (a blind kangaroo) and a Romanian zoo (a visually impaired lioness).

The German lenses have helped turn the lights back on for dozens of house pets, racehorses, circus animals, guide dogs -- literally preventing the blind leading the blind -- and even wild creatures roaming nature reserves.

Special lenses that absorb UV rays can also be used to help horses afflicted with "head shaker syndrome", an excruciating and ultimately life-threatening ailment.

Although the expense of such an operation and subsequent check-ups can run into the thousands of euros (dollars), the procedure is often worth it for animals that have gone blind -- and for their owners.

"When something is unsettling for an animal, when they don't have a good sense of their surroundings, they can begin to get aggressive or unpredictable or withdrawn," Fromberg said.

That can mean the pricey investment in training an animal is wasted.

Impaired vision can also blunt the sex drive, stopping animals from reproducing. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, has paid for lens transplants for brown bears in a preserve in China.

"Of course that is only one side of it -- some are pets and seen as members of the family and worth any expense," Fromberg said.

She said the trickiest part of treating big animals such as elephants and rhinos is the anesthesia.

"If larger animals lie for too long on one side during an operation then it puts too much pressure on the heart. That makes things a bit harder," she said.

"With a giraffe, for example, its head may never be lower than its heart. Every animal has its peculiarities that you have to contend with."

CEO Kreiner, a 64-year-old from Munich, chose to set up her unusual firm in Hennigsdorf, a sleepy riverside town that has become a high-tech haven in the 20 years since the Berlin Wall fell.

On the capital's northern outskirts, Henningsdorf also made smart business sense because the European Union and the German government both pitched in to provide one-third of the startup costs.

Kreimer has founded five different firms in her years in business and said she was drawn to Germany's ex-communist east in the heady trailblazing mood of national unification in 1990.

"I thought at the time that it would be better to go to a poorer part of Germany rather than stay in Bavaria," the prosperous southern state, she said.

"The thinking was that it would be less bureaucratic in an eastern state, and that the subsidies would be better than in the west. It was the right decision."

Her various enterprises blossomed and evolved over the years, culminating in the founding of S & V Technologies in January 2008. The company now even has a US subsidiary in Salt Lake City.

S & V posted turnover of nearly 2.5 million euros (3.5 million dollars) last year and Kreiner expects it to grow by one-third this year based on lens sales but also a thriving anti-wrinkle products division -- for humans.

She employs 32 people with another five to join this year.

"There are no global players active in this area that are able to crush medium-sized firms with a major marketing operation," Kreiner said, adding that her few competitors -- in Canada, France and the United States -- were all smaller than S & V.

The main limit to her business's growth is a lack of vets able to perform the implantation procedure, which is why she now organises training weekends for animal doctors from around the globe.

Participants have come from as far as Australia, Brazil, Japan, Taiwan and the United States to learn the procedure in the company laboratory on eyes harvested from animal cadavers.

(c) 2009 AFP

Explore further: ISU researcher performs first veterinary corneal implant procedure in US

Related Stories

Study says eyes evolved for X-Ray vision

August 28, 2008

The advantage of using two eyes to see the world around us has long been associated solely with our capacity to see in 3-D. Now, a new study from a scientist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute has uncovered a truly eye-opening ...

First step to test tube rhinos

October 31, 2006

Scientists from the Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, Germany, together with veterinarians from Australia, have performed a world first by harvesting egg cells from a black rhino for the purpose ...

Achtung, bunny's back in town

March 2, 2009

Hares, foxes and wild boar are increasingly migrating into Germany's cities, causing havoc and even sometimes endangering humans, a major wildlife organisation said on Monday.

Recommended for you

Protein disrupts infectious biofilms

December 8, 2016

Many infectious pathogens are difficult to treat because they develop into biofilms, layers of metabolically active but slowly growing bacteria embedded in a protective layer of slime, which are inherently more resistant ...

The song of silence

December 8, 2016

Like humans learning to speak, juvenile birds learn to sing by mimicking vocalizations of adults of the same species during development. Juvenile birds preferentially learn the song of their own species, even in noisy environments ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.