If your beloved pet has just gone blind or experienced partial loss of vision, you will be overwhelmed with emotions and consumed with questions. I know, because I was the same when it happened to Milo.
Even if you have recently adopted, or are considering adopting, a blind dog and are therefore already aware that you are taking on a pet with additional challenges, you may still have many questions and concerns about exactly what to expect.
This section will provide you with general information and advice, which I hope will reassure you and put to rest any concerns you may have about the future happiness of your blind dog.
The first thing to note is that loss of sight in dogs is not the end of the world. Most dogs adjust extremely well. What you should realise is that eyesight is not the most important sense for dogs. Their sense of smell and their hearing are much higher up the list. Blind dogs can almost “see” with their noses. As I write this, Milo is just sniffing his way from the hallway into this room to find me. He wants his dinner and is tired of waiting for me to notice what the time is.
When your dog first loses their sight there are a number of ways they may react. Some dogs react more strongly than others but even so, in most cases, these reactions are usually relatively short-lived and with your help and care your pet will quickly adjust to their new situation.
How well, or quickly, your dog adjusts to their loss of vision can depend on a number of factors: A dog’s personality, age, general health, and the speed with which the blindness occurred will all have a bearing, but your own reaction can also influence your dog’s reaction.
Owners of newly blind dogs often experience a stronger negative reaction than the dogs themselves. There is bound to be a period of adjustment for your pet, which can last anything from a few days to a few months, and sometimes it could take a year or more (although this is quite rare).
How you react to your pet over this adjustment period can help to reduce the length of time involved.
Generally, dogs with “submissive” characters, young dogs and those that lose their sight gradually will adjust more easily. Dogs with dominant characters, older and/or frail dogs, as well as those that go blind suddenly will have a harder time coming to terms with the loss of their eyesight. But given care, understanding and patience, most dogs will adjust and will go on to live a near-normal, and happy life.
The period of adjustment will involve a number of reactions, and the type and extent of those reactions will differ from dog to dog.
Initially your dog probably won’t realise s/he is blind. S/he may just assume it’s night-time and that someone has forgotten to switch on the lights. Over time it will gradually dawn on them that they can’t see.
Milo was very quick to recognise that although he couldn’t see, everyone else still could. This is probably because initially he had cataracts and although they developed very quickly, he could still distinguish between light and dark and could see shadows of movement. Milo has since lost virtually all of his sight and has also had one of his eyes removed, but this initial adjustment only took him a couple of days. Other dogs may take a while to catch on, particularly those that lose their sight completely and suddenly.
Your dog may become withdrawn and depressed as s/he starts to realise that they can no longer see. They may lose interest in toys and games, they may experience loss of appetite and they may start to sleep a lot more than before. The more you can do to stimulate your dog’s interest, the quicker s/he will respond and come to terms with their situation. Talking to your dog and touching are the best ways connect with your blind dog and will help to reduce their feeling of isolation. With encouragement from you, your dog will hopefully respond within a few days and will start to regain their interest in their surroundings.
Some dogs will start to become too dependent and will be reluctant to do anything on their own. It will be extremely tempting to lead your pet everywhere, keep them with you at all times, and even bring everything to them, such as their food, water, toys etc. This is not good for the dog, or for you. Try to resist babying your blind dog and allow them to explore their world and learn their surroundings, whilst you keep a parental eye out for any hazards.
In Milo’s case, he started to become nervous of walking across the room because of our other dog, Corby our beautiful greyhound princess. (Corby was sadly taken from us, at the age of 13, in December 2011 from chronic heart failure).
Corby had become a bit of a grumpy old lady in her latter years and she spent most of her time stretched out in the middle of the floor and she wouldn’t move for anyone or anything. The trouble was, if Milo accidentally walked into her then she would snap at him.
Milo took to “asking” if it was safe to cross the room and we would then let him know if his path was clear or, if necessary, we would steer him away from Corby. It was also difficult for Milo to know which bed he could sleep on. Previously both dogs were allowed to use either of the beds and they chose whichever they wished, or whichever wasn’t already occupied – Corby wasn’t a great one for sharing her bed with anyone!
We became very protective of Milo and tried to stop him from walking across the room without us steering him but this made him even less confident in walking around. We put bells on Corby’s collar, but this only helped when she was moving around – if she was crashed out on the floor or snoozing on one of the beds, the bells were useless. We then tried to insist that Corby move whenever Milo wanted to get passed, but this only caused her to resent him and she became even more crabby.
In the end we had to give Milo his own bed, that Corby wasn’t allowed to use, on one side of the room and Corby had the other bed on the other side of the room. This at least gave Milo a safe place to use as a base. (Of course, Corby the Princess tried occasionally to get away with sneaking onto Milo’s bed, just because she wasn’t allowed to, but mostly this worked quite well.)
Fortunately, in all other matters Milo is a very independent, fearless little chap and over-dependency never became an issue with him, but this certainly helps demonstrate how easy it could be to fall into the trap of being overprotective.
Aggression can be a fear reaction. Blind dogs feel extremely vulnerable, particularly if they lost their sight suddenly, as with SARDS or accidental trauma. The more dominant the personality, the more vulnerable they may feel. In such cases, a dog can become aggressive – perhaps feeling that attack is the best form of defence. Your pet may snap and snarl whenever approached by other dogs, or even people.
Do not offer treats or try to calm your dog with cuddles and soft words because they will see this as rewarding their aggressive behaviour. Do not shout or try to grab your dog; their feelings of stress and anxiety will only become worse and consequently so may their display of aggression. Instead, try to keep calm, whilst reprimanding your dog. Try to remove the source of the stress quietly and with the minimum of fuss and then wait for your dog to calm down.
There is an excellent section about Fear and Aggression in Caroline Levin’s book “Living with Blind Dogs”, which is well worth reading.