Living with a Blind Dog
One day you notice your dog appears awkward, has started bumping into furniture or has decreased confidence on your walks together. A visit to the veterinarian might confirm what you’ve begun to realize – your dog is vision-impaired or has already gone completely blind. How well you and your dog adjust will depend on the diagnosis, the age of your dog, the severity of the condition, whether the onset of blindness is sudden or slow, your dog’s natural personality traits and sociability, and your own reaction.
Whatever the circumstances, living with a dog who has become blind or has blindness in dogs symptoms, will certainly mark the beginning of a new chapter for you and your furry friend. As you both adjust and adapt, you will see that quality of life most definitely still exists and that potentially many years of happiness and affection remain. It is also quite probable the bond between the two of you will be enhanced as you and your blind dog learn to navigate through life together.
Cause of Blindness
If you’re asking yourself, how to tell if my dog is going blind? The answer is the cause of blindness in dogs varies considerably. Whether due to the natural aging process which can cause cloudiness of the lens (cataracts) to glaucoma in dogs which is a painful condition requiring immediate attention, to diabetes which causes cataracts in the majority of dogs, the list of possible causes is long.
Here are the more common causes of blindness:
Cataracts – cloudy appearance due to a hardening of the eye’s lens. (The lens sits near the front of the eye and acts as a camera lens by focusing light and sending images to the retina in the back of the eye.) Cataracts are usually inherited, but are also caused by diabetes, glaucoma, trauma, or age. Cataracts are not to be confused with nuclear sclerosis which also appears as cloudiness in the eye but is a natural result of aging and does not usually cause vision impairment. Only your veterinarian or an ophthalmologist can distinguish the difference.
Glaucoma – a painful condition caused by a buildup of pressure within the eye. Needs medical attention immediately.
Diabetes mellitus – most dogs diagnosed with diabetes mellitus will have cataracts within one year. If given prescribed daily antioxidant vision supplements before cataracts form, it is possible to prevent or delay the cataracts.
SARDS – Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome is a puzzling condition which affects older dogs, usually female, with sudden blindness. Cell death of the cells of the rods and cones in the retina occurs quickly for unknown reasons.
PRA – (or PRD) – Progressive Retinal Atrophy or Degeneration refers to a gradual deterioration of the retina. This is an inherited trait, typically affects younger dogs and will progress to complete blindness.
Retinal Dysplasia and Detachment – the retina is malformed resulting in poor vision or blindness. Usually an inherited trait but can be caused by trauma, infection, inflammation or glaucoma.
Other causes of blindness include Cushing’s disease, trauma, epilepsy, dry eye syndrome, kidney failure, heart or liver disease, tumors, corneal ulceration, infections, inflammation, stroke, lens luxation or cerebral edema.
Adjusting and Adaptation
Adjusting may take three to six months, perhaps even up to a year. Some dogs will adapt fairly easily while others may become despondent, dependent, lethargic or fearful. Utilize tools which will ease the stress of any uncertainty or fear your dog may be feeling and recognize that although many factors will influence your dog’s reaction to this new life condition the greatest influence may be you. How you react to your dog’s blindness will be a loud signal, so it is important to maintain a healthy emotional state, treat them normally, speak in reassuring tones often, and maintain walks, playtimes and social interactions.
A dog will most likely adjust more quickly if the transition to blindness is gradual, allowing time for adaptation and compensation. Also a younger dog may adjust more readily. However your dog reacts to becoming blind, there are techniques you can use to help him or her cope, become oriented and navigate safely.
First, you want to keep your dog safe so check the interior of the house at the dog’s eye level. Pad sharp edges of furniture. Place baby gates in front of any stairs. Then go into the yard and check for any low branches or other obstacles. Placing bark a couple of feet around trees, bushes or large objects will help signal an obstacle and placing a wind chime or bell near the entrance to the back door of the house will help your dog with orientation. Fence off the pool or any hazardous areas.
Leash your dog and slowly walk around the house together. Notify your dog as he or she heads towards a wall, using words like “watch, stop, careful.” Use your voice to reassure your dog as they explore the house and relearn their environment. Identify each room vocally, “bedroom, kitchen,” etc. Keep furniture in place. If you rearrange, then teach your dog where the new furniture is. Do the same in the yard.
When leaving your dog unattended, a limited space may initially work best. Leave a radio or tv on for reassurance and orientation.
Use Muffin’s Halo – A three-piece device which includes a harness, set of wings and a halo and prevents bumps and trauma to the blind dog, protecting shoulders, head and face. It is an excellent tool to assist Blind Dogs with mapping in their surroundings while boosting their confidence levels. It acts like a bumper and re-directs them when they confront a hard surface.
Use your dog’s sense of smell
Your dog’s sense of smell is dominant. Hearing is a close second, and sight comes third. While a human has approximately five million scent glands located high in the nasal passage, a dog has between 125 and 300 million scent glands, depending on the breed. Plus the part of the brain that analyzes smell is 40 times greater in a dog than in a human. Use smell to help orient and guide your dog!
Some simple aromatherapy, perhaps a vanilla scent for one room and lavender for another will help your dog identify location. Also, use scent to distinguish important areas to the dog. For instance, scent the spot next to the door which leads to the backyard, the water bowl area, and dog beds or sleeping areas. Essential oils work well in this context and can be reapplied every couple of weeks. Chose several areas to scent that you feel would be most beneficial to your dog. Too many scents could be overwhelming for you and your dog.
Use scented flower pots in the backyard, placed in strategic locations. For example, place near patio or next to the doggy door, or the back door.
As your dog makes progress, you may want to use treats to help him or her navigate the stairs. Place a treat on each stair and stand in front of your dog. Do not pull your dog towards you or down the stairs. Allow the treat to be the incentive and let them find their way.
Treats are a great lure as you teach your dog. For dogs that may have some fear attached to going for a walk, using treats may help motivate them. Also, placing a treat on the floor or seat of your car, may assist as you teach your dog to jump into the car.
Sound is an excellent way to guide and orient your dog. You may wear a bell wrapped around a piece of your jewelry so your dog knows where you are. You might utilize a bell sound near doors, or even a drum. For instance, you may signal you want your dog to come to the door with a light thump on a drum. Also, the bubbling of water from a drinking fountain bowl will help your dog find water.
Vocal feedback plays a gigantic role in helping the blind dog adjust. Give reassuring tones as encouragement, and start using repetition whether identifying a room, “kitchen” or warning of a chair or wall – “careful!”
When walking, use auditory cues such as “step up, step down” for the curb, or “sloooow dowwwwn” when approaching obstacles such as a tree or shrub. Drawing out the word, actually serves to slow the dog down. Use cues such as “go right” with a corresponding light tug on the leash. Walk the same route every day to allow acclimation and to bolster your dog’s confidence. Start using the “wait” command, placing a hand in front of your dog’s chest, and then the release command “okay”. These commands come in handy whether it is at a curb, when you open the car door, or if your dog moves to jump off a couch or bed.
When you pick your dog up, give an auditory cue,” picking up” and when putting down, “putting down.” Identify the room or placement, “couch”, “bed”, “living room”. This is all to help your dog as they adjust. You will find several things through repetition. Number one, it will become automatic for you and number two, as time goes by your dog will adapt and need it less.
Use toys with sound. If your dog loves to play ball, they can still play with a ball that makes noise. Start by throwing the ball several feet away. Squeeky toys or toys that rattle work well.
Another helpful guide for your blind dog will be the use of tactile objects for their paws. Placing bark or gravel around trees and bushes in your yard will provide guidance as well as the placement of carpet runners in the house. You may also choose to scent a carpet runner which brings a dog from the backdoor into the living room or into the kitchen, or use carpet runners with different textures as a guide.
If you have slippery areas, cover with rugs and if any stairs are slippery, protect your dog with nonstick strips on the stair treads as they learn to navigate.
Walks and Play
Interacting and engaging with your blind dog is extremely important. This is not a time to stop the walks. This is a time to keep your dog active and to engage their mind and body. Your dog needs walks and play times for their mental health. Go slow, use auditory cues and repeat. Practice. Your dog will probably surprise you at how quickly they can acclimate. If your dog pulls back or seems fearful, go slower. Walk a short distance each day. Add to it as your dog feels more comfortable. Use treats as motivation and reward and wear your bell as a walking aid for blind dogs and use your voice to reassure and give cues.
Socialize with people
Let people know your dog is blind. Ask them to extend a hand to be sniffed before petting. Signal to your dog that someone is approaching with a verbal cue, “someone wants to pet you!” Your dog is listening to you for cues, so maintain a calm and relaxed tone.
Socialize with other dogs
If your dog has always been friendly with other dogs, socializing will remain an important part of your dog’s life. While walking, if another dog on leash approaches, let your dog know by using a pleasant tone, “here comes a dog.” Ask the person if the other dog is friendly and let them know your dog is blind. Since your dog cannot see to read the other dog’s body language, he or she is depending on you and your voice, tone and energy for information. It is important to remain calm. If you have any doubt, or if the person does not answer you, avoid the interaction.
Have your dog socializing as soon as their health permits. Dogs are social animals and need contact. Remember, you want to keep their life as normal as possible.
There is nothing like a massage to feel good. Your dog might think so too. Spending time giving your dog a massage is a great way to connect and to reassure your dog as they acclimate to their new way of life.
These are just some tips to help you as you help your dog. You may want to research and gather as many ideas as you can. You may even want a trainer to help you. Also, regular checkups with your veterinarian are the best way to ensure that you find out about any condition or problem in advance, allowing treatment to begin as soon as possible which may mean the difference between sight and blindness. Should your dog become blind you may experience frustration at times, surprise many times at how well you’re both adapting and ultimately rewarded as both of you gain confidence while acclimating to a new normal.