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Vision Impairment and Blindness

            Dogs do not rely on their sense of vision to the same extent as do humans. The dog's vision is also not as highly developed as it is in humans. Dogs also cannot focus well on near objects, are partially color blind, and have poor detail vision. Canine vision is superior to human vision for detecting moving objects in dim light. This vision suits their original need as nocturnal hunters. Since the majority of domesticated dogs no longer hunt to survive, blindness does not interfere with their domesticated primary function--being a companion and pet.

            Dogs that are blind from birth are unaware that they are different from other dogs. They interact with the world much like any other puppy; they just go about it differently. Blind dogs rely on their senses of smell and hearing to compensate for the lack of sight, and those senses become more acute over time. Without proper socialization, however, a dog may become fearful and stressed in unfamiliar situations. Therefore early and frequent socialization with other animals and humans is important and should continue throughout life. It allows the dog to develop self-confidence and dog and his owner to bond more closely. The dog will experience a richer life with exposure to a variety of new people, situations, and experiences.

            Most dogs with vision loss and blindness experience a gradual loss of vision over time. Frequently owners rush to the veterinarian with a claim of sudden blindness when examination indicates that the animal has been blind for some time. The dog has managed to compensate so well, it’s only when there is a change in their home environment or exposure to a new situation that the problem becomes apparent. These dogs are far better equipped to deal with the vision loss/blindness than the owners. The owner’s sense of grief and loss is understandable, but usually the pet has moved on and is coping just fine. Many people consider euthanizing their blind pets, thinking that their quality of life will be diminished. However, your dog does not need clear vision to read, write or drive a car like humans. They have four other keen senses that are more developed than humans. As long as you do not move things around on them frequently, they do remarkably well.

            Sudden onset blindness can be much harder for both the dog and owner than a gradual loss of vision. Even then, most dogs can adjust, but the adjustment period is likely to be longer and harder. Where a dog whose vision gradually diminishes has the opportunity to work on mapping out his environment and developing coping strategies without the owner’s help or knowledge, a dog with sudden onset blindness is plunged into darkness without warning. He is more likely to experience depression, nervousness, and anxiety. The owner will have to take more precautions, such as adding baby gates blocking off stairs and other hazards, removing or padding sharp corners on furniture, and make other accommodations until the dog has adjusted to his condition and mapped his environment. You may need to limit access to one or two rooms at a time until the dog is comfortable there, before expanding his access to the rest of the house. Once he has mastered those, add another room or two. You may need to walk him around the rooms and “show” him obstacles—placement of furniture and other objects, and the location of his food and water bowls and bed or crate.

            How well your dog will cope with blindness will depend on the dog. Young dogs will adapt better than old dogs, but may require more vigilance because their exuberance can lead them to dangerous situations. Indoor pets are likely to adjust more easily than those allowed to run free. A dominant dog in a multi-dog environment may have more difficult adjusting than a single dog, especially if the other dogs challenge his pack position. Or his companions may help him with adjusting. We have one client that attached a bell to their other dog so their blind dog could hear and follow her. If blindness is caused by a painful condition such as glaucoma or a systemic disease such as diabetes, the dog may have more difficulty adjusting until the underlying condition is treated.

            Even dogs who adapt well otherwise may experience some personality changes. Many dogs will develop some degree of separation anxiety—they are more dependent on their owners and will become distressed when the owner leaves. This can be addressed through training and behavioral modification, but it will be more challenging because the underlying condition, blindness, cannot be changed.

            Training is good for any dog. It increases bonding between the dog and owner and gets him accustomed to taking direction from the owner. For a blind dog, it can be a lifesaver. The “wait” command can save your dog from injury or even death when facing hazards he can’t see. If the dog was trained before going blind, he will have an easier time learning the additional commands you will need to teach him to help him navigate his darkened world.

            Perhaps the most important factor in how well a dog copes with his new condition is the owner. Giving your dog the love and support he needs during his adjustment is crucial. If you must give in to your emotions, do it away from the dog. It is important to remain upbeat and positive in his presence.

Day Blindness

            We encountered recently a German Shorthair Pointer that appears like it can’t see at times. The dog can see at night, but during the day it appears to be blind and will bump in to things.

            There is a rare condition in German Shorthair pointers called Cone Degeneration Disease (CD) or Day Blindness. Alaskan Malamute and Australian Shepherds are also known to have this disease.

            CD disease causes day blindness due to degeneration of the retinal “cones” – cone-shaped cells in the retina that respond primarily to bright daylight. CD can be diagnosed in the early weeks of the affected dog’s life. Between 8 and 12 weeks of age, when retinal development is normally completed in dogs, signs of vision problems are noticeable. The pups become day-blind and are photophobic – meaning that exposure to bright light is irritating or even painful. The pup will shun brightly-lit areas. Vision in dim light remains normal. The retina of the affected dog initially appears normal when examined by an ophthalmologist and initially the ERG (electroretinogram) recording is normal. However, the ERG response from the degenerating cones declines with age and is non-recordable in the mature CD-affected dog.

            In contrast to PRA (Progressive Retinal Atrophy), which is the more common type of retinal disease in many dog breeds, CD does not affect night vision. A second type of cell in the retina, the “rods” – rod-shaped cells that respond primarily to dim light and detect movement – are not involved in this disease. The CD-affected dog keeps the ability to see at night or in dimly-lit areas.

            Exciting gene therapy research aimed at correcting this condition (in dogs as a model for human disease) is currently being conducted at the University of Pennsylvania.

Detecting Loss of Vision

            Some signs that your dog may be experiencing vision loss or blindness include general clumsiness, bumping into walls and furniture, startling easily, apprehensive behavior, inability to find toys or food and water bowls, reluctance to go out at night, excessive sleeping or loss of playfulness, disorientation or confusion, or changes in the appearance of the eyes. If you notice these behaviors in your dog, you should seek immediate veterinary care.

            Your veterinarian will likely conduct a thorough physical exam to determine the cause and extent of the dog’s vision loss. This may include blood work, neurological exam, cerebral spinal fluid test, MCR or CT scan, and ophthalmologic exam. You may be referred to a veterinary ophthalmology specialist. Treatment of the condition will depend on the cause. And while the vision loss may not be reversible, your dog can still live a fulfilling life after adjusting to his new condition.

How Do I Help My Pet Adjust to Vision Loss or Blindness?

            Naturally, you are going to be distressed at your pet’s vision loss. Remember that animals key in to your emotions, and that the best thing you can do for your pet is to maintain a calm, upbeat, positive attitude. Dogs can adjust to vision loss or blindness rather quickly—assuming you help, rather than hinder, the adjustment. Coddling or babying your pet usually results in a much longer adjustment period, loss of self-confidence, and may increase his dependence on you increasing his stress level. If you have a small pet, you may want to pick her up to take her to her bed or food and water bowls, or just to comfort her. Try to avoid this. It disorients her. If you do pick her up for petting and snuggling, return her to the same spot and facing the same direction. Talk to your dog when entering and exiting rooms and prior to touching her when she is sleeping. Let her figure things out for herself. You will be surprised at how well and quickly she will adjust.

            This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t make changes to your behavior, home, and routine to accommodate your blind pet. There are a number of actions you can and should take to make to keep your pet safe and increase his confidence.

            Establishing schedules and routines will be helpful to your blind pet. Feeding should be done on a set schedule and food and water bowls should not be moved—even by inches. Use adhesive stars or dots to mark locations. Some veterinarians recommend placing a small rug under food bowls and using a scent on it, a drop of peppermint or vanilla, to help her navigate to it. It usually isn’t necessary as long as you keep the food and water bowl in the same place. Call your pet to dinner with the same words and tone of voice every time. Do check to make sure your pet is eating and drinking, and lead her to her bowls if she is not. If she still doesn’t eat or drink, seek veterinary care immediately.

            When walking a blind dog, he may be more comfortable if you walk the same route every time while he adjusts to his blindness. The smells, textures, and sounds will be familiar and comforting to him. You may want to give him more “sniffing” time in safe areas than you would a sighted dog. Many animals are less open to new experiences after becoming blind or experiencing vision loss. Introduce them to changes slowly and pace changes to the pets comfort level.

            You can use aromas in your home to help your pet navigate. You may just elect to use two—one to signal “good” and one to signal “bad.” For example, use a drop a vanilla on food bowls, on doorways (get both sides of the doorframe so can navigate between the two) and at the top and bottom of stairs, and bitter apple on stoves, fireplaces, and rooms he would be best avoiding. Some experts suggest using a different plug-in air fresher fragrance in each room. You need to be certain to use the same fragrance in each room every time and keep a back-up supply on hand in case your local store runs out of a particular fragrance.

            Talking to your dog can relieve the sense of isolation brought on by blindness. Talk to her frequently. Discuss the weather, current events, the garden, or what your mother or children said on the phone. Even taboo subject such as politics and religion, she really doesn’t care! Talking to your dog will provide comfort, lessen her sense of isolation, and let her know you are there regardless of what you are saying!

Home Hazards

            To the extent possible, don’t rearrange the furniture in your house. After eating, move dining room chairs back to their original positions. Again, you can do this with the use of adhesive dots or stars. Keep objects off the floor and train your family members to do the same. Laundry baskets, toys and shoes left on the floor create an obstacle course that your blind dog can’t see to navigate. Use your dots or stars to mark the locations of furniture and other object you move when cleaning or vacuuming. Some dogs can map a house down to within inches. Be sure to close cabinet doors and drawers so your dog doesn’t bump into them.

            Be especially vigilant of hazards along the walls of your home. A newly blind pet may have a tendency to “hug” the walls in order to avoid obstacles in the middle of the room. Your pet may become tangled up in cords for electrical appliances, blinds and drapes and be unable to free himself.

            Pad the sharp corners on coffee tables and other furniture with sharp corners, especially those at your pet’s head height or treat them with bitter apple until he is comfortably navigating around them. You may want to use runners in rooms to indicate a clear path from one room to another, and rugs at the top and bottom of stairs. Be sure to anchor them. You will be amazed at how quickly your pet adapts and dislocates them running up and down stairs or tearing through rooms. Stairs, both indoors and out, should be blocked off until the dog learns their locations and can navigate them easily without assistance.

            When turning off televisions and stereos, return them to the lowest volume so that you don’t startle your pet when you turn them back on. Train your teenagers to do this if they listen to music at a high volume. Gradually increase the volume when you turn them back on. Your pet will thank you!

Outdoor Hazards

            You should never allow a blind pet to run loose outside a fenced area until he has perfectly mastered recall. Even then, you want to limit off-leash time to situations where you are absolutely certain he will not encounter any hazards. In the yard, trim low branches on bushes and trees in your yard and keep fallen branches picked up. Make sure children’s toys are put away or stored in a regular place. Decks and porches need to have railings low enough to keep your pet from falling off if you are going to let him out in these areas. You can use chicken wire or screening to block openings below rail level. Cedar chips, mulch, landscaping rocks, and paving stones can be placed to create a zone around obstacles such as trees, bushes, and outdoor furniture.

            If you have a ground level door, it might be easier to have him always go out that door until he is fully adjusted to his disability, rather than deal with steps, porches, or raised decks without low railings. Just like a dog that can see, he’s going to be excited to go outside and it might be better to take a few extra precautions to keep him safe, especially when he’s newly blind.

            Buy bells and attach them to the collars of your other pets or make sure their tags make noise when they are running. At a walk, most blind dogs and cats can pick up the scent of a familiar animal approaching. At a run, they may not. Blind dogs enjoy running and playing as much as sighted dogs—the noise your other pets make will help him follow his friend’s lead. Your other dogs are probably going to sense that he is “special” pretty fast and, if they are like most dogs, they will help him out.

Training

            When training a blind dog, conduct your initial training sessions for any new command in a familiar place free from any obstacles and distractions. You want the dog as relaxed and at ease as possible, as this will be more conducive to learning. The sit, down, stays and recall/come commands are taught to a blind dog in the same manner as a sighted dog. Stays may be a bit more challenging for a blind dog. You should reward the dog for stays of a second or two and slowly increase the time while by her side, and do the same for increasing distance. For the recall/come command, be sure you have a large area free from any obstacles in case your dog goes a little off-course. You may need to keep talking to him until he finds you at first or in noisy situations. While walking your dog, you may find that a halter gives you more control than a leash and that your dog is more comfortable with it than a regular collar. Teaching a heel is much the same for other dogs. You should, however, work at the commands left, right and slow to let your dog know where you want her to go since she can’t see you turning. These are taught by luring her with a treat just as you do when teaching a heel.

            The “Wait” and “Slow” commands, in addition to sits and recalls are especially important for a blind dog. These are the primary commands you can use to protect your dog from danger. You may want to use a sit instead of a recall in some situations, especially if he is likely to encounter hazards coming back to you. I can’t overemphasize practicing in non-threatening situations so when a real emergency comes along, both your action and your dog’s reactions are instinctive and immediate.

  1. Wait (or Halt)

            What you are really teaching here is stop, but if you are like most people, you use the word “stop” frequently for other purposes. Use whatever word you are comfortable with, but be consistent. Use this command when you open the front door, when getting your dog out of the car, or when he is about the wander into the street. Put your dog on a leash and begin walking with him. Tell him “Wait” (or halt, or whatever word you choose) while applying steady but gentle pressure on the lease until he stops. Praise and reward the second he stops. Practice this until he is responding reliably, both indoors and out, and with distractions. Then practice off lead in the house, then outside in an enclosed area and slowly add distractions. Always release your dog from “wait” with a release command such as “Free!”

  1. Slow

            Use this command to alert your dog that he's there is an obstacle is his way. Put your dog on a leash and begin walking with him. Tell him “Slow” while applying steady but gentle pressure on the lease until he slows. Praise and reward the second he slows. Practice this until he is responding reliably both inside and out, and with distractions. Use the “Slow” command if you see your dog is about to run into something.

  1. Home

            Use the home command to reorient your dog if he gets confused about where he is in the house or yard. You should have a “home” base both inside and out. Whatever place is you pick, stay consistent. You may want to select the area where his food and water bowls are in the house or the back door outside. Lead him to “home”, and say “home.”

  1. Stairs

            If your dog has handled steps in the past, these commands may be a fairly simple for her to learn, or maybe not. If she has not gone up or down stairs before (or you don’t know if she has), start with a short flight of stairs or a single one if you can find it. Find stairs without an open back if possible. A street curb in an area free from traffic may be your best starting point. Going up stairs will be easier for her than going down, so start with that. Have the dog on a leash and walking beside you. As you approach the stair, say “Up” and lure her up one step with a treat while tapping the tread. Keep the treat close to the tread of the upper step. When she gets her paws on the step, reward and praise her. Continue luring until she gets up on the step. Reward and praise again. Repeat with the next step or steps. If she is reluctant, don’t push her. It may take several days. If she is willing, next try going down the stairs. If she is tired, save it for another day! Lure the dog around to face the steps. Tap the lower step, say “Step” and lure her with the treat. You do not want to say “Step Down” because she might confuse this with the down command. Going downstairs is very scary to a blind dog. Let her take as long as needed to learn this. It may take a week or more. Just be patient. Do not force her. If after a week or so, she is still reluctant to go down stairs, try to find some shallower steps or use a street curb in an area free from traffic. Going down stairs where it feels like there is nothing underneath her is the ultimate act of trust. Be understanding. Work on longer staircases only after your dog has mastered short ones comfortably. Introduce her to each set of stairs in and around your house. Block them off until she is comfortable with them.

  1. Sudden Noise Alert

            Your blind dog will be startled by loud and unexpected noises—a car starting, a door slamming, or vacuum or other appliance turned on. To the extent possible, you can minimize this by teaching her an unexpected noise is about to happen. You can use any word or words you want, maybe “Uh Oh!” prior to the noise occurring.

Toys and Games and Other Activities for Your Blind Pet

            Keep your blind dog physically and mentally challenged to avoid him sinking into depression. Walk him often and allow him plenty of sniffing exploration breaks. At first, he may be reluctant to explore new places. If so, keep your walks to familiar routes. Give him time to adjust, and extend your walk by just a little each day. Soon exploring new places and smells will be a favorite activity.

            Just like any dog, blind dogs love to play with toys and play with you. As stated before, their sense of hearing and smell will grow more acute over time. Consider these when selecting toys. Kong toys filled with smelly treats are a wonderful way to keep your dog entertained. You can play fetch with a tennis ball scented with lemon oil or vanilla extract or a ball that makes noise when it bounces, but you may need to limit the distance you are throwing it. Be sure to have a clear space with no obstacles. Tennis balls inside a kiddie pool, with or without water, can be fun for your dog to chase, and they won’t be able to get away from him. You can use rope toys to play tug of war. Remember that blind dogs enjoy having fun, just like any dog.

            For a really fun and challenging activity, and one that depends on your blind dog’s keen sense of smell, teach your dog scent tracking. It’s both physically and mentally challenging for the dog, and it will simply amaze your friends.

            And, of course, snuggling and massages are fun activities for any dog, sighted or blind!

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