Just as our eyesight can become impaired as we age, dogs can also suffer from vision loss as they enter their senior years. However, unlike humans, dogs do not rely on vision as their most important sense. Their noses and ears allow them to adapt quite well to changes in their eyesight. Here are the signs of potential vision impairment and some steps you can take to help your senior dog cope with any loss of sight.
Vision Loss: Causes and Symptoms
There are many causes of vision loss in older dogs, including glaucoma and macular degeneration.
One of the more probable causes is a cataract, when the lens of the eye is clouded over. A cataract will appear as a hazy, opaque white growth over the eye and often goes hand-in-hand with other illnesses, such as diabetes.
Hypertension (high blood pressure) can cause a multitude of ocular problems, such as retinal detachment, which could lead to blindness. Untreated infections, chronic dry eye, and tumors or cancer can also cause blindness. It's vital for your elderly dog to have regular visits (at least every 6-to-9 months) with his veterinarian, as the sooner the condition is detected and diagnosed, the better the possible outcome.
Signs that your dog is losing his eyesight can be quite obvious. He might bump into walls or furniture or have trouble locating his food or toys. He might stop making eye contact with you. The signs can also be subtler, such as being reluctant to jump on or off the couch, a new level of anxiety, or becoming clingy. Your dog may even begin to show aggression because his vision loss may leave him feeling vulnerable and more inclined to act offensively in an attempt to keep himself safe.
If the loss of eyesight is gradual enough, you may not even notice until you take your dog to a new environment or rearrange your furniture. This is because dogs can adapt so well. If you notice any of the above changes, be sure to book an appointment with your veterinarian.
Managing Vision Loss
Even with reduced or complete lack of vision, dogs can fare surprisingly well, as long as they are in a familiar environment. It’s important to keep the layout of your house the same. For example, don’t rearrange furniture or bring in new furniture because these can become obstacles. Another caution — ask your kids not to drop their backpacks in the middle of the floor after school where the dog can trip on them Your dog will form a mental map of his surroundings, and your goal is to keep that map accurate. Be sure there are clear paths for your dog to walk from one area to another.
Don’t forget to keep your dog’s food bowl, water dish, and bed in the same place, too. In fact, these items make a great base camp for your dog. If he becomes confused elsewhere in the house, he can return to his base camp to reorient himself. Placing his food and water on a large plastic mat will give him a feel for when he is in the right location.
If you need to move things around for any reason, be sure to walk your dog on-leash through the new configuration several times to help him become familiar with the path he needs to take. You can also help your dog get around new environments by teaching him directional cues like, “left,” “right,” or “stop.”
Now that your senior dog’s vision is compromised, there will be new hazards to consider, both inside your home and out in your yard. For example, adding carpet runners over slick tile floors or placing wood chips around trees will help your dog have an easier time navigating. Placing a uniquely textured mat at the top and bottom of the stairs will let your dog know when he’s reached the last step. Check for any dangerous objects that are sharp or breakable, such as pointy furniture edges or low-hanging branches.
Take advantage of your dog’s other senses. Flavor extracts, like vanilla, or natural essential oils, like lavender, can be used to scent mark important places in your house and your dog's toys. Always use caution with essential oils, though. Many are very irritating and some can be toxic if ingested.
Speak when you approach or before you pet him, so you don’t take him by surprise. Keep a radio or TV playing when you are out of the house to give him a reference point to orient to and help muffle loud outside noises. And walk with a heavy step when approaching your dog, as the vibrations from your footfalls will cue him you are coming.
Prepare your dog for being out in the world by teaching him a cue like “say hello” that lets him know a person is about to approach him. This will help prevent him from being startled by well-meaning people on the street who simply want to pet him. And be sure to warn people to first approach your dog verbally and then let him sniff them. Only let them touch your dog if your dog seems comfortable in the situation. Exercise similar caution with other dogs, as well.
Remember to practice patience, and consider putting yourself in your dog’s shoes to appreciate how his world may be becoming a more challenging place to navigate. If he’s losing his eyesight, he may be losing his hearing, as well, so don’t be annoyed if he seems confused, stubborn, or like he’s ignoring you. It is far more likely he simply didn’t hear or see what you were asking. With some simple and practical adaptations and a positive outlook, you can maintain the lines of communication and give your vision-impaired senior dog a rich and fulfilling life.