I understand the panic you must be feeling now that you suspect your dog is going blind. The first thing I recommend you do is make an appointment with an eye specialist, since typically your regular vet won’t have the experience or equipment to properly diagnose what’s going on. You will probably need a referral from your vet to see a specialist, so explain to the staff why you feel the situation is urgent, and get things moving so no time is wasted.
Okay you have an appointment now you can carry on reading.
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UPDATED September 20, 2018
Vision problems can be tough to catch early, even if our dogs are showing us there’s a problem. Sometimes they are so subtle or come on so gradually we don’t even realise something is going on. Here are signs to watch out for.
- 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
- Having trouble finding his toys/food/water bowls
- Doesn’t want to go out at night
- Walking slower than usual
- Not interested in walking as much
- Aggressive when he never was before
Oh no, I missed the signs!
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 were lots of “logical” explanations. The thing is, if this is your first time sharing your life with a blind senior dog, how can you know what to look for?
Do not beat yourself up. We’re all brilliant in hindsight, but if you don’t know you don’t know, and you can only do the best you can with the information and experience you have in that moment.
This is something I talk about frequently, so it’s time for me to mention it again!! If you notice any changes in your dog’s behaviour – even if it’s something you consider too minor to bother your vet about – make the call anyway. You know your dog best so if you’re concerned, there’s most likely a reason to be. 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.
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.
My two experiences with old blind dogs
The first dog I had with vision problems was Josephine. She was an older 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. She certainly didn’t need great eyesight to find her way into the kitchen when the chicken was boiling!!!
I remember the second she lost what little sight she had. We were in the car coming back from a visit with the vet at the shelter, when all of a sudden she started to howl…loudly. She was afraid of the car so would bark anyway, but I instinctively knew there was something very 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 her favourite person but he was working in England at the time and we were in Florida.
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. Talking about being brilliant in hindsight – I should have said goodbye to Josephine sooner.
Red, my 17ish year old Chihuahua/Min Min who features so prominently throughout this site, and in the picture above, gained her wings May 18, 2018. She was totally blind when we met at the same shelter Josephine came from. Red 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 was such a good natured dog, you’d never believe she was experiencing any level of discomfort. 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.
We were given two options for dealing with her eyes. One was to remove them completely, the other was a procedure that involved inserting a needle into each eye to relieve the pressure. It was several years ago, and I no longer have Red’s medical records from that time, so I have no idea if they were just needles or medication was injected as well.
I didn’t love the idea of having her eyes removed, although if that had been my only option I would have taken it, but chose instead to go the “needle in the eye” route. I was happy with the decision and the results. In no time her eyes started to get smaller, and they continued to shrink for years after.
Red was blind when she was dumped in the shelter, and obviously for quite some time before that. She had a lot of time to get used to it, and she did very well. I always marveled at how well she got around new environments, and how easily she would find her water bowl. We also took her on more trains and buses than I can possibly count, and she was a relatively frequent flyer for awhile as well and she adapted no matter where we went.
What can cause a dog to lose their sight?
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.
To learn more ⇒ Lenticular Sclerosis in Dogs
To learn more ⇒ When Your Pet’s Eyes Turn Cloudy, Should You Be Concerned?
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.
To learn more ⇒ Cataracts in Dogs
To learn more ⇒ Cataracts and Cataract Surgery in Dogs
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, and I’ve even seen natural options mentioned.
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.
To learn more ⇒ Glaucoma
To learn more ⇒ Veterinary Medicine Essentials: Glaucoma
To learn more ⇒ 8 Natural Treatments For Glaucoma In Dogs
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
The picture you see above is a piece of foam I cut down the middle, then put on every door, table and chair leg and Red’s head height. In case she banged into something she wouldn’t hurt herself. Similar to a pool noodle, this was purchased at a DIY store like Home Depot.
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?
Don’t leave anything on the floor he can stumble over – toys, shoes…
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?
For tips on how I keep my blind dogs safe, please click HERE
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. You may want to consider giving her something for her anxiety, at least until she adapts. Some of your options include –
I never picked Red up when she was sleeping, because I didn’t want to startle her. If I needed to wake her, which was unusual, I would call her name or stand close to her until she sensed me.
I taught her the word “careful” and it’s a very handy cue for a blind dog to know. It’s simple really – whenever Red 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.
Your dog can still play and have a great life
Of course it’s going to be a big adjustment for everyone, including your dog, 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 that make noise and 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. Any concerns relating to eye problems in dogs, please see your vet but preferably an eye specialist ASAP.
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 am pleased to announce my new One on One Senior Dog Care Support Service. It is a private session tailor made to your concerns – behaviour, nutrition, health challenges, quality of life, pet loss and grief.
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.
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