By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Dogs and cats can become blind, either suddenly or gradually, for many reasons. For example, diabetes can lead to cataracts, which cause a clouding of the lens and eventual blindness. Diseases of the retina (located in the back of the eye) can cause either sudden or gradual blindness. Other causes of blindness include eye trauma, glaucoma and genetics.
Your pet’s blindness might not be noticeable right away. Look for signs of blindness, such as bumping into things and becoming startled more easily. A cat with vision loss will misjudge heights when jumping on or off furniture. If you look at your pet’s eyes, you may notice that the pupils don’t change size in bright lights.
If you think your pet is becoming blind, take them to your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will perform tests to assess your pet’s vision and determine the cause of blindness. In some cases, vision loss can be reversed if diagnosed and treated early enough. Early diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma, for example, can lower the ocular pressure enough to restore vision. However, in many cases, vision loss is irreversible.
Irreversible vision loss isn’t as bad as you may think, though—dogs and cats are very good at adapting to blindness. Sometimes, it can be the pet owner who has trouble adjusting! If your pet is blind, there are many ways to keep them happy and safe. Continue reading to learn what you can do to help your blind pet.
A pet who gradually becomes blind will have learned to adapt to vision loss bit by bit. By the time they are fully blind, they will already know how to navigate their environment relatively well. However, a dog or cat who becomes blind practically overnight will need more time to adjust. If your pet has become blind suddenly, give them at least a few weeks to adjust to their vision loss.
A blind pet will need to create a new internal “map” of their environment. If you have a blind cat, place her in their litter box as a reference point, then let her navigate your home from there. Doing this will help your cat always know where the litter box is in relation to other locations in your home. Sometimes, it can help to first confine a newly-blind cat to a small room. After she learns to navigate that room, she can then navigate the rest of the home.
If you have a blind dog, walk him through the house on a leash and give him treats along the way. For small breed dogs, it can be tempting to pick them up and carry them to different rooms. However, this would confuse the dog. It is best to have a blind dog, no matter their size, navigate their environment by walking.
When your blind pet has created their new internal map, keep all furniture, even a cat’s scratching post, in the same place. Moving furniture around can disorient and confuse a blind pet and may even pose a safety hazard if the furniture edges are sharp.
Normal household items or locations can become dangerous for blind pets. To keep your blind pet safe, go through your home—both inside and outside—and identify potential safety hazards. Common hazards include stairs, open toilet bowls, furniture corners and in-ground pools.
After identifying the hazards, block your pet’s access to them. For example, put a baby gate at the top and bottom of the stairs. Keep bathroom doors closed to prevent access to toilet bowls, into which a blind cat could easily fall. If you have an outdoor pool, consider placing a fence around it.
A blind pet will use its other senses to navigate their environment. Using different types of cues can help your pet recognize where they are and what to do. For example, use scented oils like lavender and vanilla to designate certain rooms. If your pet is comfortable using stairs, a stair runner can help your pet know where the stairs are. In your backyard, you can put down gravel so your dog knows when he has stepped off of the grass into a potential danger zone.
For sound cues, a wind chime or tiny bell can help a blind dog locate the door to go outside. Speaking to your pet frequently, especially in a positive and cheerful voice, can help them know where you are and be comforted by the sound of your voice. Teaching new cues, such as “left,” “right” and “stop” can keep your pet safe from danger.
Blind pets still need regular playtime and exercise. Modifying playtime to accommodate a blind dog or cat can be simple and fun. For blind cats, toys with bells or rattles make playtime fun—just make sure the bell or rattle can’t be eaten. Catnip-scented toys, which stimulate a cat’s sense of smell, are also great toys for blind cats.
Noisy toys and toys in which you can hide tasty treats are great for blind dogs. If you have a blind dog that likes to play fetch, consider purchasing a noisy ball that you can roll across the ground.
Safety during walks is very important for blind dogs. If you have a blind dog, place a bandana around their neck that says “I’m blind” to alert other people walking their dogs. You can also put a small bell on your shoe so your dog knows where you are. Along your walking route, stay on the lookout for potential dangers, such as thorny bushes or uneven sidewalks, and keep your dog away from them.
Even if your pet’s blindness is irreversible, regular veterinary appointments are still important to monitor any changes in your pet’s eye health and maintain your pet’s overall health. These appointments are also a good time to discuss different ways to help your pet cope with its blindness.