Give Your Blind Dog a Great Life

Vet examining the eyes of a puppy
Jetta Productions / Getty Images

It can be very upsetting for a dog owner to learn a beloved companion has become blind. Blindness is a health condition that can affect dogs of all ages. Some dogs are completely blind while others have partial loss of vision. There are many reasons for blindness in dogs and a number of ways to support your blind dog. You can help your blind dog by educating yourself about blindness in dogs. 

How to Tell If Your Dog Is Going Blind

In some cases, it is very obvious that a dog is blind or has poor vision. The dog bumps into walls and other objects. He has trouble seeing toys or food and does not make eye contact with you. Blind dogs and those with poor vision are often reluctant to jump up to or down from heights. They may seem uneasy in new places and act clingy to their owners. Blind dogs often feel more vulnerable and may show signs of fear or even aggression in order to protect themselves.

In other cases, especially when the onset of blindness is more gradual, dogs learn and adapt to the vision loss and show few signs there is a problem. This is why it's so important to bring your dog to the veterinarian regularly for routine wellness exams. It may be possible for your vet to detect small changes in your dog's eyes during the exam. Treatment may be available to stop your dog from completely losing vision. If the vision impairment is irreversible, your vet can help you and your dog adjust. If you suspect your dog is having trouble with vision, contact your vet right away.

Causes of Blindness in Dogs

There are many reasons for blindness in dogs. Some dogs are born blind, either due to a hereditary disease or a congenital disorder (meaning the dog was born with it). Other dogs become blind as a result of injury or illness. Certain dog breeds are predisposed to diseases that affect the vision.

Any dog can develop vision problems. Some dogs gradually lose their sight due to aging changes. Blindness is a fairly common health problem in senior dogs. There are several medical conditions known to cause of blindness in dogs.

  • Cataracts cause gradual vision loss as cloudiness develops in the lens of the eye. Certain dog breeds are predisposed to cataracts. Diabetes is sometimes a precursor. Cataracts can sometimes be surgically removed by a veterinary ophthalmologist.
  • Glaucoma causes a painful increase of the pressure inside one or both eyes. Treatment can relieve some pressure and pain. Glaucoma may progress to a point where medication is not effective and the eye must be surgically removed. Progression of glaucoma may cause the eye to rupture. Diabetes often causes glaucoma in dogs, especially if the diabetes is not well-regulated. 
  • SARDS, or Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome causes acute blindness but is not painful. There is no cure or treatment available for SARDS.
  • Progressive Retinal Atrophy is a hereditary disease that causes a gradual loss of vision. PRA causes degeneration of the retina and is neither painful nor life-threatening. Unfortunately, there is no known cure or treatment available for PRA.
  • Retinal detachment may be caused by elevated blood pressure, tumor, trauma, and inflammation. Surgery may be an option in some situations. Other times, the blindness is permanent.
  • Corneal ulcers, if left untreated, can do enough damage to cause vision loss or blindness in the affected eye.
  • Anophthalmia is a congenital disease in which dogs are born without eyes.
  • Microphthalmia is a congenital disease that causes a dog to be born with small, underdeveloped eyes that result in poor vision or no vision.
  • Brain disease can affect the optical nerve and impair the vision. Examples include a tumor in the brain, a seizure disorder, or some other disease of the brain.
  • Trauma that causes a puncture, abrasion, or swelling of the eye can lead to blindness, especially if left untreated. 
  • Macular degeneration is a degenerative condition of the macula (a part of the retina). This is a common cause of gradual vision loss in aging dogs.

There are other diseases that can cause blindness in dogs. Signs of eye conditions may include eye redness, swelling, cloudiness, squinting, spasms, pawing or rubbing of the eyes, excessive tearing or discharge, and various other symptoms. If you suspect your dog is having any trouble with his eyes, be sure to get to the vet as soon as you can. Without treatment, many eye diseases can progress rapidly and cause irreversible damage.

Can Blind Dogs Be Cured?

In many cases, blindness is an irreversible process in dogs. Treatment options depend on the cause of the blindness. For example, if your dog is blind because of cataracts, then surgery can often be done to restore or improve vision. However, if your dog suddenly became blind due to SARDS, then treatment is not an option. Talk to your veterinarian about the best treatment and preventive options for your dog. Even if your dog cannot be treated, your vet can offer advice about helping your dog adjust. Your vet may also refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist for an expert opinion and advanced diagnostics.

Living With a Blind Dog

Blind dogs can live very normal, happy lives. Like blind people, dogs learn to adapt to the environment and rely on their other senses to navigate through the world. Most blind dogs adjust fairly quickly to their surroundings. Some go through a more difficult transition period, especially if the blindness was sudden. Most blind dogs eventually get along just fine. Blindness alone is not a reason to euthanize a dog.

Dogs with gradual vision loss can usually learn to adapt over time, often without too much owner involvement. Many people don't even notice these dogs are going blind until they move around the furniture or bring their dogs to a new place.

When a dog loses vision suddenly, the signs are more dramatic and the dog needs more support. These dogs bump into things and startle easily. They need more protection and guidance from their owners.

Whether your dog has acute blindness or a gradual onset of vision loss, consider the following tips to help your dog adjust and stay safe:

  • Check your home and yard for hazards. Remove any sharp, breakable, and dangerous objects that your dog may encounter.
  • Keep your dog's water and food bowls in the same location. It's important that your blind dog can always find water. In addition, this area can act as a sort of "home base" to help your dog navigate the rest of the house.
  • Avoid moving furniture or placing new objects near walkways in your dog's environment. If anything gets moved temporarily, make sure to put it back. If you must rearrange furniture, slowly walk your dog through the area on a leash first so he becomes acclimated safely. 
  • Keep stairs and other dangerous areas blocked off with baby gates or other barricades to prevent falls, especially until your dog gets the lay of the land. 
  • Place different textures of rugs and mats in front of steps, bowls, and other obstacles to alert your dog.
  • It can take a little while for your recently blind dog to get used to stairs again. Help him by putting him on a leash and walking by his side on the stairs. Use your voice to guide him.
  • Crate train your dog and make the crate a safe, comfortable place. Keep your dog in the crate when alone for safety.
  • Take walks in familiar areas when possible. Stick to evenly-paved sidewalks and trails without rough terrain. 
  • Don't let your dog get too far ahead of you on walks. Teach loose-leash walking and try to keep your dog by your side using sounds.
  • Go slowly in unfamiliar areas, especially if there are steps up or down. The "wait" command can be a big help if your dog is approaching an obstacle. Also, consider teaching your dog words like "step up" and "step down" to alert him.
  • Proper training is essential for blind dogs to help with communication. Most blind dogs can learn easily, especially if they are food-motivated. Use your dog's keen hearing and superior sense of smell in place of visual cues. Good-smelling training treats and clicker training can be especially helpful.
  • Use verbal cues to guide your dog. Teach your dog as many basic commands as possible. 
  • Socialize your dog well. Even though he cannot see, it's just as important to expose him to many different environments, people, and other animals. This can enable your blind dog to feel less fearful and more relaxed in new situations.
  • Alert others to approach your dog slowly and to greet your dog with speech. Make sure they let your dog get a good sniff and only touch if your dog is receptive. Consider teaching your dog a phrase like "say hi" to let him know there is a person approaching.
  • Consider special equipment to help your blind dog, like a "bumper" to protect his face and alert him to obstacles. You can build your own blind dog hoop harness or you can purchase something like Muffin's Halo Guide for Blind Dogs. 
  • Some owners choose to put a harness or collar on their dogs that say "blind dog" in order to alert the public
  • Try not to leave your recently blind dog in an unfamiliar environment or with unfamiliar people when you go out of town. If you must choose a new pet sitter or find a new pet boarding facility to care for your blind dog, spend a little time with him at first while he becomes familiar with the sounds and smells.
  • Don't forget to play! Just because your dog is blind, it doesn't mean he can't enjoy fun games and toys. Fetch may not be a good option, but games like tug-of-war are great. Choose dog toys that make noise or dispense treats for extra fun.
  • If your dog is deaf or has poor hearing in addition to blindness, you have a bit more of a challenge on your hands. Use a gentle touch and your dog's sense of smell to guide him. You may also wish to try a remote control vibrating collar (NOT a shock collar) for training and guidance.
  • Be patient. Be consistent. Keep it positive. The adjustment period for a recently blind dog may be short or long depending on your dog. Don't worry, you will get there!