I understand the panic you must be feeling when you come to the realisation “my dog is going blind.”
Vision problems can be tough to catch early, even if our dogs are showing us there’s a problem. They may be walking a bit slower than usual, don’t seem interested in walking as much as they used to, even becoming startled when someone approaches. Once a vision problem has been diagnosed we can easily look back and think “oh now I understand why he…” but at the time there are lots of “logical” explanations. Or it could simply be we’ve never dealt with blindness in senior dogs, so it’s not something that would immediately pop into our heads.
Don’t beat yourself up about it, because if you don’t know you don’t know and we’re all doing the very best we can.
Okay now that we got that out of the way, let me say vision loss and eye problems in dogs is not inevitable, which is very good news. However, they can still occur, so if eye exams are not part of your dog’s health checks they should be. It’s always easier to treat a problem when caught early.
Dogs are pretty good at hiding pain, but if you’re in tune to changes in your dog and his behaviour (as we all should be), you’ll notice when something isn’t “quite right.” Even if it’s something you consider too minor to bother your vet about, if it’s not normal for your dog call him right away. Depending on the health of your senior dog, things can go downhill quite quickly, and definitely when it comes to sight, so it’s best not to adopt a “wait and see” attitude.
Signs of vision problems in dogs
- Walks on objects or surfaces he would normally avoid
- Rubs his face on the ground
- Eyes are bulging
- Cloudy eyes
- Stepping high – like he’s unsure when walking
- Closed eyes
- Sleeping more
- Bumps into walls, furniture
- Can’t catch toys you throw at him
- Rubbing his eye
- Is startled when approached or hearing loud noises
- Having trouble finding his toys/food/water bowls
- Doesn’t want to go out at night
Here’s an easy experiment to do at home
Move a couple of pieces of furniture, turn off the lights and watch how your dog gets around. Does he know where he’s going, or is he bumping into things? Now turn the lights back on and watch again. If he’s completely blind, you see the same results. If he has some vision, he’ll perform better in the light.
Now take him to the vet, or straight to the eye doctor.
My two experiences with vision problems in dogs
The first dog I had with vision problems was Josephine. She was an old dog my husband and I fostered…and kept of course. Not only was this sweet soul deaf she was also only able to see shadows. She got on very well, could always find her way to her food bowls and the front door. There was nothing to be done for her other than love and care for her. I remember the second she lost her sight. We were in the car when all of a sudden she started to cry…loudly. She was afraid of the car anyway, but I instinctively knew there was something wrong.
We got home, I brought her into the house and after watching her I realised she had gone completely blind in that split second. She cried for about a week before she was able to start adjusting, but boy was that heartbreaking. The worst part was, my husband was working in England at the time and we were in Florida and he was Josephine’s favourite person.
She was never the same after that, and with other health issues affecting her quality of life we said goodbye about a year after that episode.
Red, my 16 year old Chihuahua/Min Min who features so prominently throughout this site, is the second dog and she’s totally blind. We fostered and kept her from the same shelter as Josephine. She was about 8 when we got her, with eyes so big they were literally bulging out of her head.
After we brought her home we took her to an eye specialist hoping her blindness was reversible, which sadly wasn’t. We were also told her eyes were bulging because of the pressure building up due to glaucoma, a condition that had been ignored by her previous owners. Immediate action was required due to the severity of her condition, and the amount of pain she was in. Red is such a good natured dog, I don’t know if she would have ever complained about it, or she had just gotten used to it. Waiting much longer would have meant her eyes would have blown out of their sockets…literally.
The terrible state of her eyes and her obesity shows how terribly neglected she had been.
The procedure was incredibly simple, at least it seemed that way to me but obviously required a great amount of skill from her eye doctor!! A needle was inserted into each eye to relieve the pressure, and her eyes began to get smaller almost immediately. It’s been 8 years since we had it done, so I don’t recall the name of the procedure or the drug used, all I know is that it worked.
She was probably blind from the time she was about 6 years old so she’s had a lot of time to get used to it, and of course I do my absolute best to keep her safe. More tips on how to keep your blind dog safe later…
Conditions that can affect your dog’s vision
Nuclear Sclerosis or Lenticular Sclerosis
Have you ever looked into a dog’s eyes and noticed they appeared cloudy, a bluish haze? Although many people assume that’s cataracts, most of the time, it isn’t.
What is it?
- Result of age related changes to the lens
- Often seen in dogs over 7 years old
- Usually develops in both eyes at the same time
- Isn’t painful
How does it happen?
The lens, which cannot expand, is made up of clear fibre cells that constantly grow. In young dogs the lens is clear, because there is plenty of room for new cells. As a dog ages, the new cells push the old ones towards the centre of the lens, hardening it and causing it to cloud over.
Living with it
Doesn’t affect vision in any significant way, although your dog may find it a little difficult to see things close to them. All in all, your dog should get along fine.
Like Nuclear Sclerosis, cataracts cause cloudiness, but unlike it, cataracts affect vision. Thankfully, it is not a painful condition.
How does it happen?
Changes start in the centre of the lens, then move outwards. Vision suffers as the lens becomes more and more opaque. Cataracts due to age tend to develop in both eyes, but may progress at different rates.
Cataracts can develop as the result of trauma, infection, diabetes, or hypothyroidism – low thyroid function. Inherited conditions are the most common cause.
When does it usually happen?
Cataracts generally first show up at 6-8 years of age, but can be found in very young dogs as well.
A check up is needed for confirmation.
The only real treatment is surgery, but not if cataracts are the result of a secondary disease like diabetes. By the time many pet parents notice, a large portion of the eye will have been affected.
To avoid cataracts caused by diabetes, keep your dog at an ideal weight. Overweight dogs are at risk of developing this disease. Having said that, diabetes can strike dogs of any size.
Simply put, Glaucoma is pressure caused by a buildup of fluid in the eye. Left untreated, the optic nerve and retina are damaged beyond repair, leading to partial or total loss of vision. Glaucoma is quite a painful condition, and the most common cause of blindness in dogs. If this condition goes untreated for even 48 hours, it may be too late to save the sight in that eye, and when one eye has it, the other usually gets it. A common symptom is the sudden development of a red, painful eye.
There are two types of Glaucoma – Primary and Secondary
The fluid is not able to drain through the filtration angles of the eye, and is genetics based.
I read this very sobering statistic, once again emphasising the need to act quickly. Over 50% of dogs with primary glaucoma will develop complications in their unaffected eye within about 8 months.
- Cloudiness in the eye
- Eye is shrinking into the head
- Redness of the blood vessels in the whites of the eyes
- Bulging eyes
- Obvious sight loss
This occurs after some other eye problem – trauma, slipping of the lens, inflammation, injury that caused blood to collect in the front of the eye…
- High pressure in the eye
- Redness of the blood vessels in the whites of eyes
- Loss of appetite
- Not interested in playing
- Constriction of the pupil
Go to the eye doctor!
It’s entirely possible your vet has all the equipment needed to diagnose glaucoma and medications to treat it, and he may be fully qualified to perform as an eye doctor, I can’t speak to that. However in my case when we adopted Red who was blind, we went straight to a specialist. Our vet was wonderful, but going to him first would have wasted time, and in some cases that extra time could impact the outcome.
Depending on the condition of the eyes, and the test results, your vet/eye doctor will discuss with you the options available. It could involve drugs, draining fluid, surgery, possible removal of your dog’s eyes.
Prosthetic eyes could replace the damaged ones, or the eyelids sutured shut. I know it sounds gruesome, but I have been assured by the eye doctor we went to, dogs can live with it.
I touched on cataracts briefly above, but since I’m mentioning diabetes specifically it’s important to be aware that within 9 months of a dog being diagnosed with diabetes, 3 out of 4 will develop cataracts and go blind. Cataracts can develop, literally overnight, and if they’re not treated glaucoma develops which is an extremely painful condition.
Here is a piece of very helpful advice I read – As soon as your dog is diagnosed with diabetes, head straight for the eye doctor. Yes start diabetes treatment, but don’t wait until it’s under control because by that time it might be too late to save your dog’s eyesight.
This article”Cataracts, Blindness, and Diabetic Dogs” goes into a lot more detail, but it’s worth taking the time to read it.
Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome, or SARDS
A not very well known cause of sudden blindness in dogs is something called SARDS. Most often diagnosed in dogs around 8 1/2 years old, the cause is not known or understood. An article I read recently called “What Causes Sudden Blindness in Older Dogs?” will give you more information about this condition.
Eye irritants and other issues
Dust, sand, and other foreign bodies affect dogs of any age. If you notice your dog blinking a lot, tearing, rubbing his eyes, unable to open his eye(s), call your vet (or eye doctor) right away. Ask what you can do immediately at home, then get him down there as soon as possible. It doesn’t take long for a minor issue to affect vision.
How to help your blind dog adjust
If your dog goes blind gradually, you might not even realise it for quite some time. They know their homes and territory so well, they don’t seem to struggle. Other senses become more acute, and they adapt rather well.
However, if a dog goes blind suddenly it can be very scary and traumatic…for everyone, and it will take time to adjust.
Blind dog proof your house
Don’t move furniture around
Get down on the floor and see your house from your dog’s eye level. Are there doorknobs or handles sticking out that can hurt him? Sharp edges of a coffee table? Cables he can trip over? Cover them in a spongy material for safety.
Don’t leave anything on the floor he can stumble over – toys, shoes…
Put baby gates at the top and bottom of the stairs
Do the same around your garden. If you have a pool either fence it off, or don’t let your dog wander in the yard alone. Any holes in the grass he can get his foot caught in? Sharp pieces of fencing sticking out?
A new way to approach and communicate
Over time other senses will become more acute, and while adapting to these changes your dog can become very fearful or anxious.
I never pick Red up when she’s sleeping so I don’t startle her. I’ll call her first so she knows I’m around.
I have taught her the word “careful” and it’s a very handy cue for a blind dog to know. It’s simple really – whenever she got too close to banging her head for example I would say “careful” and she would switch directions. Obviously it took a bit of time for her to learn that, but she did. It’s also a good opportunity to do some retraining. I use careful but you can just as easily remind your dog of the “sit” and “stay” command to accomplish the same thing.
Talk a lot more to your dog in a calm voice. Make her feel safe and let her know what’s going to happen. Let her know in words that you’re going for a walk, or that it’s time to eat.
When you want your dog to “come” for example, you will likely have to repeat that cue several times to give him a chance to follow the sound of your voice.
She can still play and have a great life
The stress and anxiety your dog will be feeling can cause her to become depressed, so help her by keeping her active and an important member of the family. If she always loved her toys make sure she still has access to them, but you may want to try a few different types to see which ones she prefers now. Toys with bells or squeakers and that dispense treats are all good options to try.
She’ll still need her walks and will rely on you to guide her at the beginning. If you’ve always used a flexi leash it’s time to switch to a 4′ or 5′ leash and keep her close to you, on one side. If possible take her out when it’s relatively quiet so she’s not too overwhelmed by all the sounds outside.
She may have enjoyed her runs off leash, but you’ll have to keep her on leash now. As she becomes more familiar with her surroundings and more confident, you could buy a super long training lead or rope to let her get some distance for a bit of a run while staying safe.
It’s my hope you enjoyed this article – maybe enjoyed isn’t the right word – let’s say found it helpful. Please, any doubts or concerns about anything, especially eye problems in dogs, see your vet and preferably an eye doctor immediately.
Do you share your life with a blind dog? Was she born blind, blind when you rescued her or something that developed as a result of illness or injury? How have you managed, and what have you found works well in your home? Sharing your stories helps others.
I would like to invite you to join Senior Dog Care Club, a new Facebook group for senior dog parents. There you will find lots of helpful tips and advice, a place to ask questions and share experiences. I look forward to welcoming you.