Consider the five traditional senses; smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. Nearly every dog I’ve owned has woken up in the morning for the critical purposes of indulging in smell and taste (those of you that have owned a Labrador Retriever can confirm). Throw in a belly rub or ear scratch, and you have a pretty happy pup. Although we could debate the impact of hearing vs. vision in dogs, these two senses are likely less important than the others when you consider the quality of life. In fact, when a pet goes blind, they don’t know that life isn’t supposed to be that way.
In most cases, dogs generally adapt very well to vision loss. Those that gradually lose vision (such as patients affected by progressive retinal atrophy or PRA) often adapt so well that pet owners are unaware of the impairment until a drastic change to the environment is made. Pets can memorize the environment so well that only by visiting a relative’s house or adding a Christmas tree to your living room might an obvious vision impairment be unmasked. Indeed, a disproportionate number of animals with vision loss present to veterinarians around the holiday season.
Addressing the underlying cause of vision loss is of utmost importance to restore, improve, or maintain vision and prevent any discomfort secondary to the disease. We previously wrote about why your blind pet should routinely see a veterinary ophthalmologist. However, in the subset of dogs with irreversibly blind but comfortable eyes (most often from some form of the retinal disease), we must shift our focus to keeping them safe, happy, and confident. Keep reading to learn how you can maintain a high quality of life in your visually impaired or blind dog.
- Dogs may sometimes feel discouraged or anxious if they lose vision quickly, so do your best to help him, or her feel safe and confident by sticking to your normal routine with sleeping, going outside, walks, playing, etc.
- Healthy socialization is critical, so keep getting your dog out in the world. Go on walks to dog parks and stores that welcome pets. Not only does this helps them meet other people and pets, but it also helps them stay interested in new scents and sounds!
- When exploring new places, it may help to have a familiar item, like a toy, blanket, or bed, for comfort.
- Frequently talking to your blind dog helps maintain a strong social bond and keeps his or her confidence high. Remember to keep it cheery as your dog loves hearing you happy.
- Avoid constantly picking up your blind dog so that he or she learns to be self-sufficient and, in turn, confident. This will also avoid leaving your dog confused when you put him or her down in a new location.
- You can teach your blind dog to walk up or down stairs by placing a small treat on each step and patiently encouraging him or her to practice climbing or descending. You may need to use a harness or collar and leash initially.
- A stable home environment is key to allowing your blind dog to develop a mental “map” of the house and yard. By not moving furniture, your pet will learn to navigate rooms by memory. You can also create landmarks by keeping items used routinely (such as dog bowls and bedding) in the same place.
- Keep your floors tidy and free of unexpected clutter like kids’ toys, as your dog will likely bump into them and/or become disoriented.
- Get down on the floor and crawl around at your dog’s level to find anything dangerous in the house or yard. You may find cushioning (with bubble wrap or foam pipe insulation) sharp corners, like those of doors, cabinets, and coffee tables, may help some dogs remain unharmed while navigating.
- Tie or organize electrical cords tightly so that your dog doesn’t get tangled.
- Block off radiators, space heaters, and fireplaces using fire gates or ex-pens
- Limit access to stairs and open balconies/patios using baby gates.
- If your dog uses a crate to feel safe or rest, you may want to remove the door so that he or she doesn’t accidentally bump into it when entering the crate. Some crates may allow you to tie the door open and in place consistently.
- Use different textures on the ground, like rubber and rug mats, to notify your dog of safety or danger. For instance, place “safe” rug mats in front of the water and food bowls and “danger” rubber mats around trees or bushes outside. You may find a carpet “runner” down a hallway can clearly mark “safe” areas for chasing toys, and many dogs will learn they can run full speed on these runners.
- Different scented plug-ins or candles for each room can help your dog distinguish rooms and avoid disorientation. For example, put a vanilla scent in the room with the water bowl and a lavender scent in the living room. Citrus scents, which are sometimes unpleasant to dogs, could be used for “danger” areas. Just remember, don’t overdo as your dog’s sense of smell is much greater than your own.
- Tapping above or below a step or small height difference might allow your dog to judge the distance and give him or her the confidence to take the step.
- Having a TV or radio at low volume near your pet’s preferred sleeping spot may be soothing or discourage excess barking. It may also help your pet stay oriented in the house.
- Always supervise the outdoor activity. Whether loose, in a fenced yard, or tied up, blind dogs may get themselves into trouble.
- Limit access to stairs, open balconies, open patios, and other hazards using baby gates. This is especially important in areas with pools and bodies of water.
- Fences make your dog safe, so consider fencing all or some of your property with dog-friendly fencing. Outdoor playpens and runs are available as temporary measures.
- Hanging a wind chime near the backdoor (or wherever your dog goes outside) can help your dog find his or her way back quickly and confidently. A doormat outside can also be helpful.
- Consider trimming or removing low tree branches and shrubs with a woody or thorny stems to prevent trauma to your dog’s face and eyes.
- Small, soft plants around big, hard objects like tree trunks, fences, and posts can function as “feelers” so that your dog grazes them before running into something hard.
- Store and carry lawn equipment, like shovels, high above your dog’s head so as to avoid any inadvertent injury.
- Continue taking your dog on walks you always have. You might just need to go a little slower, but a sedentary lifestyle is unhealthy. Using a harness and short leash allows you good control of your blind dog’s direction and may allow him or her a feeling of security. You’ll be surprised at how happy and bold some dogs will be!
- Work on verbal cues to guide and reassure your dog while also solidifying your connection with him or her. A few useful cues are below, but feel free to get creative:
- Up step
- Down step
- Leave it
- When going on walks, try to either avoid areas with shrubs that could cause eye trauma or consider purchasing Eye Shield or Doggles to protect your dog’s eyes. Beware, such devices require patient training for most dogs. You can start by putting them on for short periods and offer treats with gradually extended usage.
- Find toys that rattle, ring, or squeak so that your dog can continue chasing, tugging, and squishing whenever he or she wants. Rubber balls with an internal bell are great for ball-orientated dogs.
- Lots of toys allow your dog to roll them around to dispense treats. These are great toys for independent play. Just be careful of calories! You may also want to check out snuffle mats, which are a great way to satisfy your dog’s natural desire to sniff and forage.
- When the weather permits, leaving your windows open for your dog should give him or her some interesting smells and sounds throughout the day. This may be particularly fun if you have neighbor pets or wild critters around.
- Going for car rides, for social, fun, or medical purposes, sometimes poses challenges; with small dogs, most pet owners can just lift and place them safely in their vehicle. With larger dogs, you may need a dedicated command (such as “get in” or “go up”) or a ramp to allow him or her to ascend safely into the car. Be sure to use a ramp with raised sides.
- Create some fun games to play with your dog.
- Hide and seek: You can have a start cue, like “find me,” then they periodically make a small noise. When your dog finds you, give lots of praise. They love it!
- Hot and cold: Hide a treat and tell your dog “hot” or “cold” as he or she looks for it. Make it easy until he or she catches on to the verbal cues, then make it more challenging.
- Small “clip-on” bells can be placed on the collar of other household pets so that they don’t catch your blind dog by surprise. If your dog likes to follow you around, you can even clip a bell to your own leg, so they know where you are as you move around the house.
- If you have a new dog to bring home, be sure to introduce him or her slowly because sighted dogs need time to learn that blind dogs are different and may have unusual behaviors.
- The body language of blind dogs is often different than sighted ones. They may have a broad-based stance, point their ears, and have an unusual “staring” appearance to other dogs. Some unfamiliar dogs may interpret these as hostile or challenging signals. It’s best to introduce dogs using leashes and in neutral territory (i.e., not at someone’s home or yard)
- Teach your dog a verbal cue to inform them another dog is approaching. “Puppy” or “Friend” might work for this, but consistency is key.
- Ensure friends and other people are aware of your dog’s visual impairment. It is not uncommon for quick vision loss to make animals reactive to surprises; teach others to speak prior to approaching and/or touching.
- Include information regarding the vision impairment on dog tags, collars, bandanas, or harnesses so that unfamiliar people will be aware of this issue if your dog ever gets lost.
- Never force a greeting from your dog. He or she is unable to see and interpret body language, so may be shy or nervous with certain people or under certain circumstances.
- Know why your dog went blind. This is an often overlooked step that requires a comprehensive ophthalmic examination (read about “What to expect at your ophthalmic consultation”). The most frequent causes of blindness in dogs (cataracts, uveitis, glaucoma, retinal detachment) are treatable and, if left untreated, may be painful. However, you need a prompt, precise diagnosis and management plan to restore or maintain vision and prevent discomfort. Unfortunately, some diseases (progressive retinal atrophy, Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome) less consistently benefit from treatment.
- We previously wrote about the need for comprehensive ophthalmic evaluations for most blind dogs (read about “Why your blind dog needs routine ophthalmic exams”). After all, blind people frequently get their eyes checked!
- Don’t forget to follow your veterinarian’s advice for routine health check-ups. Most veterinarians recommend check-ups annually, but this may be more frequent If your dog is older or other diseases. In addition, some dogs’ blindness may be associated with systemic ailments, such as high blood pressure, kidney disease, and endocrinopathies like Cushing’s disease.
- Many blind dogs, especially if older, should drink plenty of water to stay appropriately hydrated. Pet water fountain makes a subtle, “running water” sound that helps blind dogs find water when thirsty.
Finally, dogs with low degrees of vision may benefit from some additional steps.
- Instill night lights to help your visually impaired dog navigate dim lighting conditions. In some cases, motion-sensing lights are also helpful, especially on stairs and outdoor areas.
- High contract often helps visually-impaired dogs see more easily. Try marking corners and stairwells with high contract tape. You could also place high-contract mats on the floor under his or her food bowl or at the top and bottom of stairs.
There you have it; just a few tips to help make your dog’s visual impairment less challenging for them and you. As you might suspect, the above tips are just scratching the surface, and you can find plenty more online. If you still need a precise diagnosis for your dog’s vision loss or routine monitoring after blindness has occurred, you can schedule a consultation online any time.