Blindness in dogs
- Depending on the cause, blindness in your dog can develop very suddenly, or gradually.
- Most dogs are very good at adapting to gradual blindness and as a result, it can be surprisingly difficult to notice. Sudden blindness is much more obvious and many dogs find it difficult to adapt.
- There are many causes of blindness — some are treatable, some are not.
- Contact your vet for advice if you suspect your dog is losing their sight.
Signs to look out for include:
- Changes in the appearance of the eye for example the pupils not responding to light, milky or cloudy appearance, bulging eyes
- Walking slowly and cautiously
- Not wanting to go out at night
- Being easily startled and nervous
- Bumping into people, walls or furniture
- Confusion and disorientation
- Being unable to find toys, balls, food dishes etc
- Being more vocal e.g. barking or whining
Gradual or sudden loss of vision
Blindness can develop suddenly or gradually depending on the cause.
Gradual loss of vision – It can be surprisingly difficult to notice a gradual loss of vision because dogs are good at adapting. You may notice behaviour changes, for example they might find it harder to see in dim light, bump into items lying around the house, find using steps difficult and struggle in unfamiliar places. Dogs that lose their vision gradually often adapt well and lead a very happy life.
Sudden loss of vision – If your dog has suddenly gone blind, the symptoms will be much more obvious and they often struggle to adapt quickly. There are certain things that can help at home when caring for a blind dog (see below). If your dog has suddenly lost their vision, it’s important to consider their quality of life when deciding on a treatment plan with your vet.
Possible causes of blindness include:
- Cataracts: changes to the lens inside the eye(s); this is common in older dogs and diabetics. The eyes usually look cloudy if they have cataracts but if your dog has cloudy eyes it doesn’t always mean they have cataracts, there are other causes.
- Glaucoma: increased pressure inside the eye.
- Uveitis: inflammation inside the eye.
- Retinal disease: disease at the back of the eye such as retinal. detachment, sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS) and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA).
- Optic nerve disease: a problem with the nerve that connects the brain to the eye.
- Brain disease: such as a stroke, tumour or infection.
- General disease: diseases in another part of the body can sometimes cause blindness for example, diabetes.
- Serious eye injuries: serious injuries to the front, back or whole eye can cause blindness.
- Tumours in the eye: tumours in and around the eye can cause blindness.
- Breed specific causes: some breeds of dog are prone to developing certain conditions that can cause blindness. For example, Collie eye anomaly is an inherited problem that can affect Collie breeds; Golden Retrievers can develop various problems with their retina (back of the eye) that can cause blindness; Miniature Schnauzers, Standard Poodles and Labradors are all prone to developing cataracts.
As there are many different causes of blindness, the tests your dog might need can vary. An ophthalmoscope (an instrument that can look into the eye) may be used to assess the whole eye (front and back) for issues. Your vet may also use a ‘tonometer’, an instrument to measure the pressures in your dog’s eyes to check for glaucoma.
Your vet may also suggest doing further tests for example taking a blood sample to see if there are any underlying issues. In some cases, your vet may suggest that your dog has a CT (computerised tomography) scan to check if there are any underlying issues with your dog’s brain.
Blindness in dogs is usually permanent. Your vet will be able to guide you on your dog’s individual prognosis.
If your dog has lost their vision and their eye is still painful, your vet may advise an enucleation surgery, where your dog’s eye is removed to allow them to lead a pain-free life.
Caring for a blind dog
If you've been told your dog is losing their sight, or if you're thinking about adopting a blind dog, there are some simple things you can do to help them adjust.
A lot of owners worry about how their dog will cope with blindness but luckily, most dogs adapt really well and continue to live happy lives.
Keep your home the same– Don’t make any sudden changes to the layout of your home – your dog will gradually learn to find their way around furniture and through doorways, so try to keep things the same so you don’t throw them off. Keep walkways tidy and clear of trip hazards so they don’t fall over things.
If you do need to make a change in your home, guide them around the new layout several times to help them learn the new route through the room. You can also leave a radio playing softly near where they sleep. The sound coming from the same place will help them to orientate themselves.
Keep their food and water bowls in the same place – Moving your dog’s food and water bowl somewhere new could confuse them. If you need to move their things, guide them to the new location a few times to help them adjust.
Dog-proof your home – Think about removing any furniture with sharp edges or padding the corners. Make sure wires and other trip hazards are tucked away and your dog can't accidentally bump into anything hot or dangerous, like a wood burning stove or fireplace. If you need to restrict your dog to safer areas of the house, you could consider using a baby gate.
Talk to your dog – your voice may be useful to help your dog know you are close-by. Always talk to your dog before stroking them or putting a lead or harness on so they know you are nearby. This will help them to know something is about to happen and prevent them from getting startled. You could also talk to them on walks to warn them of upcoming hazards for example kerbs.
Familiar smells – Dogs use their sense of smell much more than we do so you could consider avoiding air fresheners or scented products in case it masks the familiar smells your dog is used to.
Be their lookout on walks and in the garden – Outside the house, keep a lookout for anything that might be dangerous for your dog, such as low hanging branches, thorns or uneven surfaces. Make sure your garden is safe. You could try putting up a wind chime near the door to help them 'map' out the area and guide them when they want to come back in.
Ring a bell – When you take , try wearing a small bell. This 'jingle' will help your dog to know where you are at all times. If you have another dog, try attaching a small bell to their collar, your blind dog may use them as a guide (cat collar bells are ideal).
Keep the lead on – It's best to keep your dog on a lead during walks. Only let them off the lead in secure, enclosed spaces. Check the area for potential dangers to make sure your dog will be safe. Let other people know that your dog can't see so they don't reach out suddenly and startle them. Harnesses are much kinder to your dog’s neck and eyes, and also allow better control if you’re helping to steer them away from hazards.
Get a special collar, tag or lead – You could buy a collar, tag or lead that states that they are blind so that anyone who comes into contact with them, will know straight away.
Try new toys – If your dog has lost interest in their old toys, or is struggling to play the games they used to, make the most of their keen sense of hearing and smell. There are lots of scent-based games you can play with dogs, although these might take a bit of training and practice. You can buy toys which you can stuff with tasty treats that your blind pet can sniff out. Rubber balls with a bell inside are great for ball-orientated dogs, and the sound helps them to track their play-thing.
Your dog’s outlook will depend on why they have lost their sight, if their health is otherwise affected, and how they cope with their loss of vision. Dogs tend to cope well with losing their sight slowly and can often still lead a long, happy life. However, sudden loss of vision can be extremely stressful and difficult to cope with. If you or your dog are struggling to cope, sadly, there may be some instances where it may be kindest to consider putting them to sleep.
When to contact your vet
Contact your vet if you notice any changes with your dog’s eyes, or if you think they are having problems with their vision. Some causes of blindness can be painful for your dog and many eye issues can be easier to treat the earlier they are diagnosed, so it is best to contact your vet as soon as you notice any changes. You know your dog best, always contact your vet if you’re concerned.
Treatment for eye conditions can become very expensive, so it’s important to speak openly with your vet about the cost of treatment, your finances, and what you think is right for your dog. There is sometimes more than one treatment option, so if one doesn’t work for you/your dog then your vet may be able to offer another.
Consider insuring your dog as soon as you get them, before any signs of illness start, to ensure you have financial support to care for them.
Published: September 2023
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Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only. Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst.