Some causes of blindness in dogs, such as cataracts, are treatable. Other causes, such as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), are not. If there is any doubt as to whether the blindness is treatable, then referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist is recommended.
How do I know if my dog is blind?
At first glance that may seem like a strange question. However, dogs vary in their response to blindness. Dogs that go blind slowly usually cope better than dogs that become suddenly blind because they learn to adapt to their reducing vision. Older, slower dogs tend to cope better than younger, more boisterous ones.
Some dogs that have lost their sight over a long period of time navigate around so well that their owners do not recognise that they are blind. As dogs lose their sight they often initially become more cautious about going out in the dark and may be disorientated in dim lighting conditions.
Animals that are totally blind do not cope well in novel surroundings and may be unwilling to walk off the lead or may bump into objects.
How can I help my dog if it is losing its sight?
In general, most dogs learn to cope very well with being blind, although inevitably there are exceptions. There are a number of things that you can do to help your dog adapt to blindness:
Keep their environment consistent Blind dogs gradually develop a mental spatial map of their environment. This enables them to negotiate their way around familiar surroundings (this mental map can be accurate enough to convince many owners that their dog does retain some vision, even when totally blind).
Owners can help their pet develop a mental map by initially restricting their access to a small area of the house and garden before gradually extending the area. This is particularly important in cases of sudden onset blindness, or if a blind pet moves to a new home.
Try to keep items of furniture in familiar positions.
Avoid leaving objects in unfamiliar places (e.g. shopping bags on the floor).
Leave food and water bowls in the same place.
Leave the TV or radio on when your dog is left alone. The sound acts as an auditory cue to allow them to orientate themselves within the house.
Place tactile cues to aid orientation around the house. For example, placing mats at every room entrance allows blind dogs to feel these under their paws, thus helping them to orientate themselves within the house and negotiate their way into rooms. Likewise, in the garden they can learn to negotiate by locating paths or grass beneath their pads.
Take care in unfamiliar environments. It obviously makes sense to keep blind dogs on a lead or harness on walks.
Take particular care when meeting other dogs. Much of the initial social interaction between dogs is based on visual cues, for example determination of dominant or submissive status. Blind dogs are unable to respond to such visual cues, and as such are more at risk of attack should they encounter a dominant dog.
It can be helpful to consult an experienced dog trainer or behaviourist who may be able to give advice on ways that training can help improve the confidence and ability of blind dogs. Such considerations may include:
Positive reinforcement to increase their confidence.
Increasing their repertoire of auditory commands.
Use of training aids such as whistles.
Stimulate their other senses
Remember that a blind dog still retains four other senses. Set aside some time to stimulate these, for example by giving your dog a daily massage and by getting used to talking to your pet more than you might to a visual dog. Whilst it is tempting to want to spoil your dog by feeding regular treats, bear in mind that blind dogs are likely to exercise less than visual ones, so try to ensure that weight control is maintained.
Caroline D Levin (2003) Living With Blind Dogs. Second Edition, Lantern Publications (ISBN 09672253).