Caring for a Blind Pet

The great majority of companion animals that have visual deficits, or have lost sight completely, can still have wonderful, happy and healthy lives as long as their human caregivers recognize their pet’s limitations and take steps to ensure the animal’s safety and comfort and quality of life.

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Get a Diagnosis

It is important to recognize that many of the conditions that result in loss of vision are painful. When vision is lost, there may still remain the need to continue treatment and monitoring of the eyes to control or restore the patient’s comfort. For example, most glaucoma patients, once their vision has been irreversibly damaged, still have elevated intraocular pressure without therapy.  This pressure is described by human sufferers as equivalent to a migraine headache. Dogs with retinal degeneration, especially those diagnosed with an inherited retinal disorder such as progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), may over time develop cataract, which can result in lens-induced uveitis (intraocular inflammation). Inflammation, too, can be painful and can lead to secondary glaucoma. Many, if not most, of the ophthalmic conditions that can lead to blindness can have an impact on a patient’s comfort and quality of life. A proper diagnosis can inform decisions about maintenance, treatment and monitoring.

Playing it Safe

Once it has been determined that a pet is blind, the primary consideration beyond comfort is the pet’s safety. The environment must remain, or be made, safe for an unsighted pet. It is critically important that the environment be examined for dangers that are at pet-level and that sharp edges and other hazards be removed or cushioned to prevent injury. Baby gates may be employed to block access to swimming pools, stairs, fireplaces or hazards that cannot be removed. The floors should be kept free from flotsam. Objects that are left out of place make for a perilous landscape for the pet with opportunities for collisions that are potentially injurious or disorienting. In less confident pets, this uncertainty may contribute to generalized anxiety.

Particularly in early days for acutely blind dogs, supervision is important. Watching out for hazards and being a calm, steady presence can help the pet relax and be reassured. Dogs that are crate-trained often appreciate a sense of safety and security in their own space. The crate can serve as a safe haven when direct supervision is not possible. Dogs unused to crates may be confined to a room or a small area of the home when unsupervised. Nighttime confinement is often advisable to ensure all members of the household enjoy a restful sleep.

Stairs can be a particular challenge to the blind pet and may require a re-introduction of sorts. It can be helpful to carpet stairs or provide some other form of non-slip surface, such as adherent non-slip strips, on the treads will help the dog determine where stairs begin and end and improve footing. Training sessions with stairs should be performed with patience and supervision should be provided until the dog regains his/her confidence. Placing a treat on each stair tread, slightly out of the pet’s reach encourages exploration. Stand in front of the dog and speak with encouragement without pulling on his collar or harness. If s/he is still reluctant to move forward, place a hand beneath his/her abdomen and provide gentle support while at the same time encouraging forward momentum. Take one step at a time and repeat the process in both directions (up and down). Using a verbal cue when the dog makes the step, such as “step,” “up,” or “down,” will help the dog know what to expect in unfamiliar environments, such as when a curb is encountered on a walk outside.

It is important to make others aware that the pet is visually impaired. A person or another animal that approaches the blind pet without foreknowledge of the vision deficit may startle or frighten the pet and initiate a fight or flight reaction. Have an approaching person speak to the pet and offer a hand for olfactory inspection before making physical contact. A collar tag that states, “I’m blind,” is a good idea. Vests and bandanas can be purchased or made that state the same.

For exuberant individuals or those that persist in bumping into things once a reasonable acclimation period has passed, there are some devices that can be worn by the dog that allow the pet to detect a physical object or obstruction before coming into direct contact with it. Halo or bumper vests are worn like a harness and provide a lightweight bumper of sorts. Homemade vests or harnesses that have extensions or other “feelers” may be helpful to these pets. Whiskers and the other vibrissae of the face are nature’s feelers. These should be allowed to persist in their full and natural state and not be trimmed or removed during a trip to the groomer.

Adjusting and Acclimating

Just as with human beings, each dog is an individual and reacts to loss of a special sense differently. Some dogs, particularly if they are aged or have been used to being the alphas of their “packs,” have a harder and longer transition phase. Older dogs that have dominant personalities or are beginning to exhibit some cognitive dysfunction are more prone to difficult adjustments. Younger dogs, particularly those with congenital deficits, may adjust quickly and without too much hassle or distress. Initial reactions may range from minimal changes in demeanor and behavior to severe depression or fear.

If the newly blind dog begins to act aggressively or displays an uptick in aggressive behavior (snapping, biting or growling) above baseline, it is important to recognize that this may be a manifestation of fear rather than overt and simple aggression. Care should be taken to speak calmly and move slowly around these dogs and do what is necessary to minimize stress and avoid situations that incite aggression. Aggressive behavior should not be accepted or encouraged, however. The dog should never be petted, soothed or in any way rewarded for an aggressive reaction.

Dogs that exhibit the opposite response to vision loss, withdrawal or depression, may lose interest in play and exercise, and even food in extreme instances. They may seem lethargic, appear to have aged abruptly or become increasingly needy. These dogs need encouragement to engage in their environments and regain their confidence. Patience and consistency are key to their recovery, however they should not be coddled or relieved of their responsibility to interact with the world.  Human caretakers should try to act as normal as possible around these pets and maintain a positive attitude. Offer treats, toys and touch and try to maintain the once normal routine of walks and play and refrain from expressing overt sadness at the companion’s deficit.

With a period of adjustment, visually impaired animals will acclimate to their environments and compensate with their other senses. Consideration of the pet’s environment and senses of smell, hearing and place are important when learning to live with a visually-impaired pet. Dogs that cannot see will “map” their environments if given time and support. In many cases, they will develop such a sense of place and the confidence necessary to negotiate in such a way that visitors unfamiliar with the pet’s deficits may not even recognize the lack of sight. If the pet is reticent or if the environment is novel, leading the pet on a short leash around and from room to room and providing treats and positive reinforcement will facilitate adjustment. Picking up small dogs and carrying them around the house should be avoided as it prevents the pet from mapping the home and can be confusing to the pet if they are set down in another part of the home. A somewhat heightened level of supervision may be necessary to ensure the blind pet’s safety, however, it is important that the caretaker refrain from “hovering” and take care not to become a crutch for the visually impaired dog. The pet must be allowed to negotiate the surroundings and make mistakes for him/herself in order to learn and regain a sense of self and confidence.

For dogs, the leash should become an important safety tool. Keeping the pet on a short leash whenever outside of his/her home range will impart some degree of confidence and keep the pet within reach if an unexpected danger presents itself. If they are not already a part of the dog’s repertoire, teaching commands such as “sit,” “stay,” “come,” “heal,” and “down” will provide a sense of structure and safety for the pet and may help considerably with confidence levels. Training the pet with new commands such as “watch,” “step up,” “step down,” “left,” “right,” “hold,” “slow down,” and “stop,” may improve the pet’s engagement and safety as well. Verbal direction is reassuring to the visually impaired pet and may also help enhance the relationship between the dog and its human companion. Clicker training may be helpful for some pets as well. Continue to walk the dog to keep him or her physically and mentally fit. It is advisable to exchange a collar for a harness that provides somewhat more control and permits greater guidance. Remember that when presented with another animal, the visually impaired pet will not be able to read the body signals and visual cues that animals usually give to one another. Supervision is necessary when introducing new animals until a hierarchy and understanding has been established. It is advisable to be cautious around new dogs. Once accustomed to one another, sighted and blind companions often interact very well. Some sighted dogs become a great help to the impaired pet and will act as a form of “seeing eye” guide.

Keeping the pet’s bowls and bedding in the same place can be helpful for orientation. If the pet becomes confused but can return to his/her personal effects and home-base, re-orientation will be easier. If the crate is a home-base or the pet uses it as a resting area when not being confined within it, the door should be tied back in the open position to prevent inadvertent door closure and disorientation. Refraining from moving the furniture, or recognizing that that will require the pet to re-orient him/herself, and keeping the house picked up and things in their normal places is helpful as well. Carpet runners or non-slip pads, especially on slick surfaces or in doorways can provide landmarks, as can different textures (mulch, pebbles, varied surfaces).

Many blind pets will have heightened senses of hearing and smell. It is possible take advantage of this to help the pet’s security. Talk to the pet often and let him/her know when you are approaching or about to touch him/her. Walking with heavy footfalls when approaching a visually impaired pet may alert the pet to your presence. Keeping a radio on and in the same place will provide the pet with a landmark and provides some level of comfort and security when a human caretaker is absent. Placing wind charms on the porch, by the outside door or in a particular area of the yard may help a dog keep its bearings outside. Other pets may wear jingling tags or bells to alert the impaired pet to their presence and location. This can be particularly useful to avoid bites or other defensive behaviors that may manifest if the visually-impaired dog is startled, which is often the case when he/she is woken abruptly. Children should be cautioned and counselled about approaching a blind pet in order to ensure everyone’s safety. They should be supervised when they interact with the pet, particularly during an introduction.

Water fountains for drinking work very well for blind pets since the burbling sound of the water helps the pet locate the water source. Employing scents or pheromones in different parts of the home may be helpful for placing, particularly if used and corners or junctions in the home. Toys and blankets that have a familiar smell may provide comfort during stressful times or travelling.

Enjoying Life

It is helpful if the human companion maintains an upbeat and positive attitude with their visually impaired pet, especially if the vision loss is recent or acute. A human that feels sorry for themselves or their pet will transmit that sense of sadness or despair and may cause or increase a pet’s anxiety. Speaking to the pet in a normal, cheerful voice and providing positive reinforcement will ease the pet’s transition.

Visually impaired dogs can and should still play and interact with their environments. Play and socializing are an important part of a fulfilling life and contribute to good physical and mental health. Switching to or adding toys that have bells or squeakers, or otherwise make noise, may encourage or permit a pet to continue active play which is important to both physical and mental health. Pets can and do learn the names of certain toys. This may be a way to engage the pet in play. Toys that are scented or have holes for treats can engage and keep a pet’s interest and often become favorites.

In addition to auditory and olfactory cues, tactile sensation is another way the blind pet can interact with the environment and his/her caretakers. Massage is an excellent way to provide reassurance and relaxation for the blind pet. It is also helps strengthen the bond between the pet and his/her caretakers.

Learning to cope with the blind dog takes patience and dedication, but it is extremely rewarding when the dog achieves acclimation. The dog’s ability to cope and adjust to sensory deficits is remarkable and often enviable to humans in the same condition. The human caregiver of the blind dog must learn to vocalize everything and adapt to the dog’s new needs and abilities. A variety of resources, including books, websites and support groups, are available to provide insight and guidance.

Thank you to Caryn E. Plummer, DVM, Diplomate ACVO, University of Florida for preparing this information.