Written by Cathy Symons, CVT, CCRP
As a veterinary technician I have seen many blind and visually impaired dogs and cats over the last 25 years. I have assured many clients that their pet would be okay. I truly believe their pets would be fine and be happy and well adjusted. However, I never gave much thought about how that process happens. It wasn't until my own dog was diagnosed as blind that I realized how devastating this is to an owner. Then I was left with the questions: How do I help my dog navigate the world? How do I keep my pet safe? And what will be his quality of life?
Vision is the ability to see or eyesight. The definition of total blindness is a lack of vision in both eyes. There are many conditions that can lead to blindness in dogs and cats such as cataracts, progressive retinal atrophy, hypertension, or glaucoma. Vision loss can also occur as part of the aging process.
When we think about how our pets navigate the world they use the same senses that humans do. They use their senses of smell, hearing, vision, touch and taste to get information about their environment. However, they process the sensory inputs a little differently than humans. Humans are largely visual where dogs and cats get most of their information about the world through their sense of smell. The dog's primary sensory input is smell. Cat's also experience the world largely through their sense of smell. A dog's sense of smell is highly developed and can detect smells that humans cannot. Dogs have been trained to track, hunt, rescue, sniff out drugs, blood, and some dogs are being trained to sniff out cancer cell. Dogs get information about other dogs, people, and their environment by smelling.
Dogs and cats also have good hearing. Good hearing alerts them to the location of prey and to danger. Hearing cues such as growling, barking, or meowing gives them information about other animals. Dogs and cats can hear frequencies that humans cannot.
Our pets also receive sensory information by touch. Animals are very aware of physical contact anywhere on their bodies, be it a breeze moving their fur, or a bump, or a stroke, or a vibration. Whiskers are a sensory organ. Whiskers themselves do not contain nerves however; at the base of each whisker are nerve endings that send information about the environment back to the brain. Cat whiskers are generally longer than the width of their face, giving them an advantage when it comes to this type of sensory input.
As owners of pets we can use these other senses to our advantage to help our animals adjust to losing their vision and to navigate their environment.
- We can help dogs adjust to navigating the world by helping them form a “mental map” of their environment. As I stated previously, dogs have an extraordinary memory for scent. We can enhance a dog’s mental map with the use of scent marking. Using scented oils, we can mark important spots in the house such as doors, water and food bowls, and crates with different scented oils. Scent marking will help to increase your dog’s number of reference points. In our home we use scents that are not offensive to us such as vanilla and citrus. Your dog will form an association between the scent and the location. You do not need to use very much oil -- just a drop or two. Remember your dog’s sense of smell is much greater than yours. Scents should be reapplied every one to two weeks.
- Cats have an advantage when it comes to smell. They are able to secrete pheromones which will help them to find their way around. The glands that secrete these pheromones are found in your cats cheeks and they are able to deposit this scent as they rub their cheeks against something.
- We can use sound as auditory cues to help a blind dog or cat find their way in the house. In our home, we have a noise maker in each room. For example we have a squeaky toy in the bedroom, a whistle in the hallway, and a bell in the kitchen. We use these noise makers to assist our dog in finding us in the house. You can also clap or slap your thigh to give your pet auditory cues.
- Water fountains can be used for dogs and cats that are having difficulty finding their water bowls. The sound of circulating water cues your pet to the location of the water.
- Toys that make sounds can be used for fun games.
- Cats have an amazing ability in locating the source of a sound. This is one of the reasons cats are superior hunters.
- Cats can also hear sounds at great distances. Whose cat doesn't come running when they hear the sound of the can opener?
- As I have previously mentioned, dogs and cats receive information about their environment through with their mouths and whiskers. They can also experience touch with their feet. Rug runners can be used to mark the trail to important locations such as food and water dishes, bed, and the door outside.
- Blind pets can also be more attuned to vibrations, so tapping the floor gives them cues about your location.
- There are also commercially available aids for blind dogs such as the Littlest Angel Vest. The vest incorporates a small plastic hoop attached to a vest that attaches at the shoulders of the dog. The idea of the hoop is like a blind person using a cane. When the hoop hits something the vibration is felt at the dog's shoulders and they recognize that they are close to something. My dog uses his hoop to navigate the whole home.
Keeping your pet safe
It is imperative to protect a blind pet from further injuries. Sightless eyes remain vulnerable to potentially painful injuries. It will be your responsibility to protect and prevent an injury from occurring. Dogs and cats without sight are more vulnerable to bumping into things. They are unable to see debris coming at them so don't avoid it or blink. Blind pets can also injure themselves or worse by tripping on things, falling down stairs, off balconies, or into swimming pools. To protect your pet, try to identify potential dangers in your house and in the yard. Here are some things to consider in your home:
- Block off stairs. A blind dog could very easily fall down a set of stairs. We utilize baby gates where we don't want our dog to go unaccompanied.
- Block access to open balconies or open patios where a blind pet might easily fall off.
- Tie up electrical cords so you're pet will not get entangled in them.
- Block access to low hanging plants and the Christmas tree if you have one. Low branches, especially thorny ones are an eye hazard.
- Do not leave boxes, bags, and other items on the floor where your blind pet might trip on them or bump into them with his or her blind eyes.
- Carry items such as boxes, grocery bags, tools, and gardening equipment high above your pet to prevent eye injury.
- If your pet is low vision install night-lights throughout the house.
- Do not leave shoes, clothes, toys, or other obstacles on the floor.
- Block off the fireplace, space heaters and radiators with fire gates or ex-pens.
- Do not leave doors open where a blind pet might wander into an unsafe area.
- Stabilize wobbly table legs.
- Coffee table/ end table corners may be easily padded to avoid any injury. Use foam from the fabric store or foam padding that you can buy in the plumbing section of the local hardware store.
- If you have a cat that likes to play with your blind pet, you may want to consider purchasing soft claw nail covers. This will lessen the chances of injury to your dog's eye.
- You may also want to put bells on the collars of your other pets to alert the blind pet of their presence since blind pets may startle easily if approached without warning.
- Low vision dogs may be able to distinguish contrast or color. Mark stairwells, stairs and corners with high contrast tape. Place mats with contrasting colors under the dog's bowls and at the top of stairways.
- Keep numbers of 24 hour emergency veterinary hospitals posted where everyone can see them.
The same thing can be done outside. Here are some things to consider keeping your dog safe outside:
- A fenced yard keeps your dog safe. An unfenced yard is a risk not worth taking.
- Steps and uneven terrain can be hazardous to blind dogs. When possible remove tree stumps. Leveling and grating your yard would be helpful. If that is not possible consider fencing off a smaller area in your yard that is level.
- If you have a pool or pond make sure you supervise your dog closely around the pool or close it off with a gate so they do not have access to that area.
- Cover hot tubs.
- Eliminate low tree branches and bushes. Seemingly harmless piles of leaves may have sticks or small branches in them and should be removed.
- Doggles are goggles for dogs and can be worn for safety. All blind dogs are at risk for eye injury however, breeds with short muzzles such as Pugs, Pekingese and Boston Terriers are at greater risk because their eyes are large and bulgy and may stick out beyond their nose. Remember, a blind dog's ability to blink in response to a foreign object is absent.
Never leave your dog outside alone, either loose or tied up. Always supervise outdoor acitivty.
For low vision dogs a LED light can be added to their collar to illuminate the way. Or install floodlights with motion detectors.
It is safer for all cat' to live indoors. If you take your cat outside use a harness and leash to keep control of your pet.
Maintaining quality of life for a blind pet.
Even though my dog is blind I believe his quality of life to be good. I have to admit that I was worried in the beginning about what my dog's quality of life would be. There is an opinion among some people that keeping a blind dog is cruel. I disagree. I believe that my dog has everything that he wants. His blindness has not had a huge impact on his comfort level. It is my belief that in the absence of other diseases blind dogs and cats are not suffering from being blind. However, there are other factors to quality of life. (Discussed in more detail in other chapters.)
Dr. Frank McMillan author of Mental Health and Well Being in Animals describes quality of life as a balance between pleasant and unpleasant experiences. Like humans dog and catss will have many experiences within their lifetime some good some bad. When the scale starts to tip towards mostly unpleasant experiences we then need to evaluate a dog's quality of life. Unpleasant experiences can include pain, anxiety, fear, isolation, depression, and helplessness. Blind pets that are limited in activity or new experiences or who are isolated can experience some or all of these things.
- Blind dogs and cats need to have mental stimulation. Just because your pet is blind, does not mean they do not need mental stimulation. Blind pets can get bored and depressed. So you need to find things to do that your pets enjoys..
- Allow your dog time outside to sniff and air scent. This may not seem pleasant to us, but is very natural for your dog.
- Nose Games. As I have discussed previously, dogs experience the world largely by their sense of smell. Nose games are a way to utilize that great sense of smell in a way that is fun. We put treats in an empty paper towel roll and stuff both ends with paper towels and have our dog figure out how to get it. Or stand empty toilet paper rolls on end putting treats in some of them and having your dog knock them down and find the ones with treats in them.
- Use toys that stimulate thinking such as Nina Ottosson brain games. I love the idea of toys that stimulate your dog to think. There are a variety of toys available in this line that a blind dog can enjoy. Although these toys are not specifically designed for a blind dog, they were designed to mentally stimulate your dog. Some of the recommended toys include the Dog Brick, Dog Tornado, Dog Smart, Dog Magic and the Dog Spinny. I personally like the Treat Trapper. The object of most of the brain games is to figure out how to get the treat sometimes by moving blocks, moving flaps or turning discs. Usually these games are taught to dogs by allowing them to see where you have put the treat and then they figure out how to get them. In the case of a blind dog, let them smell the treat and have them bring their nose right down to the level of the toy when you hide the treat. On more thing about brain games: Be present and interact with your dog; guide and supervise. These toys are designed for owner and dog interaction, to be fun for both of you. Interacting increases the fun and the chances of your dog success. You can also develop this game at home by buying a large muffin tin and put treats in the some of the tins and cover them with tennis balls, empty Kongs® or plastic cups.
- Take your dog for a walk in new places.
- For cats, find and area for sunbathing. Crack open a window to allow fresh air in but be sure you have a secure screen.
- Blind pets can play and interact socially. If your dog enjoys playing with other dogs, arrange a play date but supervise all activity.
- Experiment with toys that make different sounds. Water bottles and plastic milk containers make a fun crinkling sound. Other toys giggle, squeak, or make animal noises. There are even toys that can record your voice. Switch toys around to make it interesting. Take note of what sparks your pet's curiosity and supervise play.
- Get toys that are scented. Catnip scented toys for cats.
- Enjoy your time together. Our pets enjoy our company too. Make time to spend with them.