Blindness & Sight Problems in Dogs

Sight problems are relatively common in older dogs, with vision deteriorating as part of the aging process. In some cases, this degeneration is severe and dogs like Molly the Collie can become almost entirely blind.

Of course, this is by no means true of all oldies, and blindness or visual impairment rarely causes much change in the daily life of your aging pet. Sadly, for some dogs, vision problems can all too often occur – at any age – as a result of illness or neglect.

When elderly blue merle Collie Sparkle came into the care of the Oldies Club under The Alice Project, we discovered just what an awful state she was in.

Sparkle’s left eye had eroded around a massive, painful ulcer that had – left untreated – irreparably damaged her vision and also affected her right eye.

Luckily for Sparkle, she responded to courses of antibiotics and anti-inflammatories and – with plenty of care and attention – she was saved the operation to remove both eyes, which it was at first thought she would need to have. You can read the full story of Sparkle’s treatment, recovery and rehoming in her Doggy Diary.

Ex-puppy farm bitches Ruby and Suzie both spent the greater part of their lives used as breeding machines and kept in appalling conditions, neglected and denied veterinary treatment.

To learn more about the problem of puppy farming, see the article in our Education section.

Ruby’s eye condition was left untreated; if caught early, her sight could have been saved but, as it did not impair her ability to whelp, it was ignored, leaving her with very limited vision. Suzie, too, is blind in one eye.

Puppy farm dogs can often suffer ocular problems from spending their lives in dark, confined conditions, and eye infections such as conjunctivitis, not noticed or ignored, can worsen and lead to corneal scarring (as in little terrier Moxy’s case ), or glaucoma, among other things.

    Types of Vision Loss

Three eye conditions are among the most common causes of canine blindness and vision loss, although it can be caused by numerous genetic conditions, traumas, tumours or other complications.

GSD x Ridgeback Caspar has been diagnosed with retinal degeneration. This condition has no treatment available, and Caspar will lose his sight. The speed of sight loss in retinal degeneration varies from dog to dog, but it does not cause undue pain or distress, and is often less traumatic than sudden onset blindness or other conditions, although owners need to monitor the rate of deterioration in sight carefully, and be aware of the dog’s changing needs.

Cataracts in dogs – like humans – is often common with age. Just as in humans, it is possible to remove the cataract with a simple operation, but this is usually very costly.

Some vets will simply remove the cataract from the eye; others will replace the lens. For some forms of cataract treatment, you can expect to pay well in excess of £500, which is why dogs in rescue are very seldom treated for this condition. Cataracts can cause varying degrees of visual impairment, but they are not painful or life-threatening.

Glaucoma might not be as common in dogs as cataracts, but it can occur where there is already a cataract on the eye, or where there is a condition such as dislocated lens, ocular inflammation or trauma. This is known as secondary glaucoma – early signs include increased redness, itching or sensitivity in the area.

Primary glaucoma can occur where there is no existing condition in the eye. Early signs may include mild conjunctival inflammation (easily misdiagnosed as conjunctivitis), severe itching and pain, increased tear productions and photophobia (‘squinting’ and discomfort in the light). When primary glaucoma advances, the eye becomes enlarged, red and the eyelid may not close entirely. By this point, the disease is unmistakeable, and vision is permanently lost.

If you have reason to suspect early signs of glaucoma in your pet, go to your vet immediately and – if they do not suggest it – ask for a pressure reading or referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Glaucoma will spread to the other eye. In about two thirds of cases, it presents in the left eye first, and the disease is three times more common in females than males. Glaucoma – in northern regions – occurs more frequently during the colder months, and the second eye is normally affected within five years of the first episode. There are many treatments for the disease, but no ultimate cure.

So, if you own or are considering adopting a dog who is blind or losing his sight, what do you need to know?

    Blind & Visually Impaired Dogs in the Home

Dogs’ sense of smell is far more powerful, sophisticated and socially important than we can comprehend. When a dog loses his sight, his sense of smell becomes even more integral to the way he perceives his environment, and the people and animals within it.

A blind dog whose sight has deteriorated gradually in the home environment (or at least the same environment!) will often seem to have better vision than is in fact the case. He has been familiar all his life with the size, shape and scents that make up home and garden, and is used to the layout of furniture, position of food and water bowls etc. But what about sudden onset blindness, or the blind rescue dog, not used to his new environment?

Sudden onset blindness, from traumas or illness, can be accompanied by changes in behaviour such as nipping, fear aggression, defensiveness or depression, and this may also occur when a blind dog is settling into a new home; one of the reasons such care is taken in placing visually impaired dogs.

Oldies Club Sponsor Dog Billy , for example, is almost totally blind and deaf having spent his life shut in a garage or coal shed, and cannot be responsibly homed unless someone who can deal with his tendency to lash out when confused or surprised is found.

Of course, most dogs with sight problems will settle in a new home with no problems at all. Basic precautions – approaching the dog gently and perhaps using a ‘heavy foot’ to allow him to sense your vibrations, being more vocal around him – can all help blind dogs feel more secure when settling in.

Make sure the entire household – especially children – are aware of not sneaking up on or surprising the dog, avoiding sudden movements and keeping furniture, food and water dishes in the same positions. When your dog meets new people, ask them to let him sniff their hands before they reach out to pet him (a sensible idea with any dog, sighted or not!), and leave doors either fully shut or fully open, so your dog doesn’t bump into the edges.

With a consistent routine of where furniture, dishes and other household objects, such as stair gates, are placed will help your dog ‘map’ his new home. Dogs are very adept at learning territories in this way, and the same applies to walks – keep routes consistent and terrain level to start with, and your dog on a flexi-lead, until he is comfortable with the route and ready to start exploring somewhere new.

Blind dogs sometimes lack confidence – particularly in new homes – and need to be encouraged to take exercise, to avoid excessive weight gain (particularly in diabetic dogs). Again, it is safest for your dog to stay on the lead unless he is in a secure, fenced in area that he knows well (you may like to cordon off part of your garden or invest in a dog run at home).

Encouraging exercise, activity and play will help stimulate the dog’s body and mind, as well as building confidence. If your dog’s sight is degenerating slowly, you have time to teach him commands that will be invaluable when he is completely blind (and there’s nothing stopping a blind dog starting training, too!).

Five year old Springer Spaniel Rollo is totally blind, and knows several commands that help him negotiate unfamiliar places. He has been taught “Step?? so that he knows a kerb or stair is coming up, and “Slowly?? to slow down when approaching crossings or potential hazards.

These types of commands, as well as a good recall, are excellent helps to blind dogs, and strengthen the bond between owner and dog, as well as making life easier for you both!

    Emotional Support

Confidence can become an issue for some blind dogs. Dogs like Rollo, who have been blind from a young age, or blind puppies (the development of the canine eye outside the womb means blindness can be apparent at any age from three weeks on), need a great deal of reassurance and support if they are to become healthy, well-adjusted adults. There is a useful FAQ on raising blind pups on the American website Blind Dogs.

Older dogs, especially once they have been through the ordeal of rescue and kennels (even more terrifying for an oldie who can’t see what’s going on!), need to be praised and reassured for doing ‘normal’ things – it is easy for an older dog to become depressed when he tries and fails to do what he used to as a younger dog..

The main thing is to remain positive with your dog. Praise him and give him plenty of cuddles even if he can’t manage his task, and he will still be willing to try. There are also several tips and tricks you can try around the home to make your dog’s life easier as his sight fades.

    Blind Dogs & Sound

If your visually impaired dog’s hearing is fine, make the most of this sense to encourage him to take an active interest in his environment.

There are many excellent toys available that squeak, jingle, gurgle or make bizarre novelty noises – invest in a few and excite his interest – or maybe try toys, bones or treats with a recognisable odour.

In a multi-pet household, try attaching cat bells to your other pets’ collars – and even your own shoes – to let your blind dog know who is where. He will be able to distinguish between other people and animals by scent, but won’t be surprised by their sudden appearance. Alternatively, use attention discs, dropped on the floor by your feet, to help call your dog to you.

An indoor water fountain, placed on a table, helps a thirsty dog track down a drink – particularly useful when he is in a new environment and isn’t sure where anything is. Many dogs also love running water!

Outdoor and indoor windchimes with different pitches and different materials (wood, brass, steel etc) can be useful to help designate different areas of the house and garden.

Never underestimate the importance of your voice to your dog. Almost every dog responds to a kind word, and if your blind dog can’t pick up on your facial expressions or body language, he reads even more importance into your voice, so talk to him as much as you can – who cares if people think you’re barmy? ;-)

    Blind Dogs, Touch & Scent

Touch is tremendously important to all dogs, and even more so to those lacking sight and/or hearing. T-Touch, Bowen Technique and other forms of touch therapy are excellent for building confidence in disabled dogs, and strengthening the bond between dog and owner.

Touch can also be used to help your dog navigate his environment. Rugs, carpet runners, and different flooring materials help blind dogs differentiate between rooms and spaces in the house (although care must be taken that old paws do not slip on hard or polished floors), and textures outside – gravel, stone, brick or grass – can be used to similar effect.

Some blind dogs also respond well to scent tagging in the home. You might try applying essential oil (diluted at 25% human useage, or they are too strong for pets) that the dog dislikes, such as eucalyptus or citronella, to areas you want to discourage him from – e.g. stairs, the kitchen bin. Other scents can be applied to table legs or other pieces of furniture, especially if you have recently moved them.

Pot pourri, scented sachets or candles can help differentiate between different rooms – and therapeutic scents such as lavender and mint can help reduce stress and create a pleasant environment for both you and your pet!

As you can see, blindness is rarely a big problem for domestic dogs. Visually impaired dogs aren’t suited to all families, but if you have a quiet home with a space on your sofa and room in your heart, why not consider giving a home to dog languishing alone in kennels, so often dismissed because he can’t see?

    Links

Blinddogs.net – a discussion forum for owners of blind and partially sighted dogs.

http://www.blinddogs.com – American site with a wealth of information on living with blind dogs.
Also has a guide to raising blind puppies: http://www.blinddogs.com/puppy.htm

http://www.pepedog.com – These owners have designed and are marketing a hoop on a harness that can be used to help blind dogs move around more confidently in familiar and even unfamiliar environments… Not for everyone, perhaps, but certainly interesting!

http://angelvest.homestead.com – The owners of 15 year old Miniature Schnauzer Scooter have a website marketing a vest with a hoop that can be used to help blind dogs move around more confidently in familiar and even unfamiliar environments.

http://www.doggles.com/ – Doggles, the sunglasses for dogs…. More than a fashion statement, these can actually protect the eyes from trauma, reduce glare, and relieve light sensitivity, so perhaps useful for dogs with some sight conditions.

Many books on Tellington T-Touch and Bowen Technique are available from Amazon.co.uk or other retailers.. .happy browsing!

The opinions expressed in this article are just that, and are not intended to constitute or replace veterinary advice in diagnosis or treatment. This article is intended for information only, and the Oldies Club is not responsible for the content of links to external sites, nor do opinions found there necessarily coincide with those of the OC.