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Minimizing Fear, Anxiety & Stress for Your Vision-Impaired Pet

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While I hate exercising in general, walking our Poodle mix Dorie around our neighborhood is a pleasure because I love seeing all of her senses engaged. She’s sniffing the air, sniffing the ground, holding her cottony tail high, and like the Terminator, constantly scanning for enemies. Squirrels and grackles both incite Dorie’s wrath, but by far her biggest nemeses are other dogs. When she sees another dog from even a block away, her head shoots up like a periscope and she starts to strain her ferocious 12-pound body against her harness to see what they’re doing.

At home, Dorie doesn’t have to see any enemy canines, but she’s on frequent squirrel patrol and takes a running leap off the back deck to give chase if one dares to walk on her grass. She watches for any human activity in the kitchen because that’s where her treats are kept, understands visual cues for several tricks, and runs over to the couch when she sees her “treat”-ment mat being placed so she can get rewards for care. If we don’t go to bed when it’s clearly bedtime for the household, she stands in the hallway and looks at us disapprovingly until she sees that we’re actually making our way toward her to wind down for the night.

Like other pets, Dorie uses her vision to provide cues about her environment, and when she started developing cataracts about a year ago, I wondered how her life might change. Luckily, most pets, even those who are completely blind, can maintain a good quality of life, and we can bring Fear Free tips to our vision-impaired pets to support their emotional health.

How do I know if my pet is having vision issues?

Loss of vision can occur suddenly or be slowly progressive. Some pets will start having difficulty finding their toys or food or may bump into things. Your pet may have trouble seeing in lower light and may hesitate to explore in unfamiliar areas. I noticed that Dorie started to pause at night when going down the little steps to the backyard and would sometimes have to sniff to find a treat. Always schedule an appointment with your veterinarian if you notice any changes to vision or other signs such as redness, pain, cloudiness, squinting, eye discharge, or pupil dilation.

What’s causing my pet’s vision loss?

There are multiple causes of vision loss in cats and dogs, including cataracts (cloudiness to the lens), glaucoma (increased pressure in the eye), uveitis (inflammation of a portion of the eye), hypertension (high blood pressure), and SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome) to name a few. Beyond an eye exam, your vet may recommend eye tests, a blood pressure check, labwork, and referral to a specialist.

Will my pet get their vision back?

Some causes of blindness are reversible once the underlying condition is treated, but this is a question best posed to your vet. The great news is that we are lucky enough to have ophthalmologists for pets just like we do with people, and veterinary ophthalmologists will do everything they can to maintain the health and comfort of your pet’s eyes. I remember a Lab patient I had years ago who had been diagnosed with diabetes, which often leads to cataracts in dogs and sometimes secondary inflammation. I referred the client to a specialist where cataract surgery was performed, and the client reported the dog was ecstatic to be able to see his tennis balls again during a game of fetch.

What can I do to help my pet feel comfortable if their vision loss is permanent?

It’s normal for pet parents to feel stress when their pet becomes blind, but even if your pet doesn’t regain their vision, they can live perfectly happy lives with a few adjustments. Pets hear better than people and have a better sense of smell. You can use your voice to let them know you’re approaching, teach new cues such as “step up,” and play scent games for enrichment where you hide treats or kibble and allow them to sniff them out. Keeping the furniture layout the same will help them navigate their home environment, and placing pet stairs leading up to the couch and bed will help them gain access to their favorite resting spots.

For safety, never allow your dog to be off leash in an area that is not enclosed by a secure fence. Similarly, visually impaired cats who are used to unsupervised outdoor time should be kept safe. Alternatives to roaming free are setting up a catio (an enriched, outdoor cat enclosure connected to your house) or positively training them to explore on a leash and harness.

It’s also important to consider what may cause fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS) in a pet with vision loss and to avoid startling them. Imagine if you were standing in a pitch-black room, and out of nowhere someone grabbed your leg or touched your back. If your pet doesn’t hear you approaching right away, you can try making a soft noise such as lightly tapping your foot or finger against a surface and talking to them to get their attention. It’s usually best to allow a pet to approach you to give them a sense of choice, and that’s particularly true when visitors come to the house. If your pet normally shows signs of FAS around guests or you have young children coming over, consider confining your pet to a quiet, familiar room with a food puzzle away from the action to avoid overwhelming them. Some pets who are blind will still require eye medications, which can also lead to FAS.

Finally, be mindful that vet visits may be more stressful for pets who can’t see. All veterinary staff members interacting with your pet should be aware that your pet is vision impaired. You can purchase a “blind dog” harness for vet visits or create a label for your cat’s carrier. Use calming pheromones to reduce stress as part of your pre-visit preparation 15 to 20 minutes before heading to the vet. For dogs, spray Adaptil onto a bandanna and place it around your dog’s neck if they’re tolerant. For cats, spray Feliway onto bedding or a towel covering the carrier before your cat enters it.

Bring your pet’s favorite high-value treats for use during the visit, and if your pet was prescribed medications to reduce FAS at the vet, ensure that these are given as directed. You can also advocate for your pet by requesting that lab samples be taken in the exam room where they’ve acclimated instead of being taken to the treatment area, which is often a high traffic, louder environment.

For more tips on helping your pet adjust to vision loss and Fear Free application of eye medications, talk to your veterinarian.

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

Julie Liu is a veterinarian and freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. In addition to advocating for Fear Free handling, she is passionate about felines and senior pet care. Learn more about Dr. Liu and her work at

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