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How to Help Pets Adapt to Vision Loss

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Connecticut resident Kathye O’Brien Anstis and her family were concerned when Riley, their 5-year-old Beagle mix, started bumping into their legs – it was as if he couldn’t see. They took him to a veterinary ophthalmologist who confirmed that Riley had lost his eyesight and diagnosed him with Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS), a disease that causes sudden and permanent blindness in dogs.

Fortunately, pets can overcome vision loss with help from their people. Here are some simple tips to help them find their way.

Put a Check on Changes

Whether vision loss occurs from age or illness, pets can still “absolutely” enjoy good quality of life as long as owners take a few precautions to keep them safe at home, says Fear Free certified practitioner Robin Downing, DVM, an expert in pain management and hospital director at Windsor Veterinary Clinic and The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colorado. She speaks from experience: her cat Olivia lost her vision to advanced glaucoma when she was three years old. Now Olivia relies on her sense of smell more than Dr. Downing’s other household cats, tipping her head to sniff the air when deciding where in the house to go next.

“She has no problem finding me in the kitchen when I start to cook a meal!” Dr. Downing says.

Riley’s veterinarian warned the Anstis family not to rearrange the furniture; Riley needed to remember where things were to help navigate the house. For about six months, the dog was cautious, but then grew comfortable walking up and down the stairs and even jumping up on beds. He loved playdates with his Pug pal, Raisin, and making mischief in the pantry.

“He knew exactly where he was,” Anstis says. “He seemed like he had acclimated to his condition and to the new barriers around him. We thought there would be a bigger learning curve for the dog and for us, but I think we all did really, really well with it.”

Safety Tips

Dr. Downing has treated many pets who can’t see. She has been impressed by the adaptability and resilience of both those born without vision and those who lost their sight later in life.

Her advice to someone whose pet has gone blind – or who is considering adopting a blind pet – is not to panic. Instead, be a patient “helicopter parent” initially:

  • Don’t rearrange furniture.
  • Prevent unattended access to stairs.
  • Put bells on other pets in the household.
  • Microchip for the “just in case” scenario of a pet getting lost.
  • Pay attention to routines and try not to change them.

For dogs in particular, Dr. Downing recommends the following:

  • Keep them leashed whenever they are outside a fenced area.
  • Work hard at voice training—particularly with cues such as “down” or “drop”—so the dog will stop and lie down. “This provides a safety net for a time that the dog may be unattached to the owner, and to prevent the dog from wandering into a dangerous situation, like into the street.”

In the case of cats who can’t see, Dr. Downing makes these suggestions:

  • Never allow them outside except on a harness and leash, or inside an outdoor enclosure attached to the house via a window.
  • Provide them with steps up to beds, sofas, and chairs with things like an ottoman or other low stool.

“Pet owners should not be intimidated to bring a blind pet into their household,” Dr. Downing says. “In reality, most dogs and cats can adapt very well and very quickly, so they just need a little help from their friends.”

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.

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