Fortunately most eye diseases can be successfully treated with medication or surgery. However, in some unlucky pets, vision is irreversibly lost in both eyes. Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA) and Glaucoma are two common causes of permanent bilateral blindness. Veterinarian ophthalmologists are often asked whether a blind dog or cat can lead a happy life.
The answer is an unequivocal “YES!”
While there are certainly some things that they may be unable to do safely, most of the activities that are important to our pets are still possible. A blind dog or cat will behave remarkably normally in their own home. Animals that lose vision gradually appear to adjust better than those that lose vision rapidly. With a bit of patience and TLC, we have found that almost every pet can make this adjustment. They will remember where their food and water are and rarely bump into things in the home. Try not to rearrange the furniture and you will be amazed at how well your pet will remember the floor plan — even going up and down stairs. They will still play with toys, but may prefer a ball with a bell or a squeak toy. They will enjoy interacting with their human family in most all of the same ways as they did before they lost vision. A blind pet can continue in every way in their primary role as a loving companion.
It is important to recognize that, while vision is important to dogs and cats, they have many other senses that help them adjust to the loss of this one. Their senses of hearing and smell are much more sensitive than ours — dogs would think our normal senses a handicap! Loss of vision does not represent the same hardship for our pets as it would for us. For us, blindness would mean an inability to read and drive a car as well as a definite loss of independence. Our pets are already (happily) dependent on us. Unlike animals in the wild, pets typically do not need to hunt for their meals nor escape predators.
A blind pet does have some special needs, including a protected environment. This is particularly important because they behave so normally that you may forget that they are handicapped. Hazards for a blind pet include swimming pools, traffic and balconies. A blind dog should always be kept on a leash when outside of a fenced yard; you may find a harness works better than a collar for guiding your pet on walks outdoors. Cats who are blind really need to become indoor-only pets: no matter what they may tell you. There are tools available to help you keep your pet safe while still allowing some freedom. For example, there is an alarm you can attach to your pets collar to alert you if they fall in the swimming pool.
Here is an inspirational article written by one of our clients who continued to train her agility dog after she began to go blind.
PIXI is blind. Her loving owner sent us this update and the photo at right:
I wanted to send an email to THANK everyone at Vet Vision – Dr. Cook, Dr. Lynch, Dr. Mughannam and the whole staff and nursing crew. Pixi is doing great! And here is how she looks! As Dr. Mughannam said to me once, “Can blind dogs live happy lives?, YES!!” Glaucoma is such a difficult disease – but you CAN get through it!
Vision-impaired horses can be a particular challenge, since they are considered potentially dangerous to use for riding purposes, yet they are happiest when active.
Dr. Lynch’s patient LB the pony (photo at left) is nearly completely blind and his clever and determined owner trained him to pull a cart with great success, improving both of their lives in the process!
If you have a pet that has lost vision, you may appreciate some of these websites related to this subject. Veterinary Vision does not specifically recommend any of the products mentioned on these pages.
Books Related to Vision-impaired Pets
There are also two very useful books by Caroline Levin, RN: “Living With Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs” and “Blind Dogs Stories: Tales of Triumph, Humor, and Heroism.” They are available from Lantern Publications. Many of her tips are excellent, but she is not a veterinarian, so be sure to verify any medical information you read in the books with your pet’s ophthalmologist.
Cathy Symons offers advice for enriching the lives of blind dogs in her book, “Blind Devotion” available through her website here.