Coping With Canine Blindness

Zenithson Ng, DVM, MS, DABVP (Canine & Feline), University of Tennessee

ArticleLast Updated March 20243 min read
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In the Literature

Borzatta D, Gualandi L, Lucidi P. Blindness in adult dogs: owners’ and dogs’ reactions and changes in human–animal interaction. Anthrozoös. 2023;36(6):1025-1038. doi:10.1080/08927936.2023.2238436

The Research …

Vision loss in dogs profoundly impacts the human–animal bond and can evoke a variety of emotions in pet owners.

This study examined the effects of acquired blindness on quality of life. A structured questionnaire and online survey of 398 owners of adult dogs with vision loss were used to investigate the type of blindness, how the dogs were affected, and the owners' responses to the condition.

Acquired blindness was most commonly caused by sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (35.7%) and occurred most frequently in dogs 6 to 11 years of age. Observed behaviors included alterations in gait and hesitancy in ambulation. Dogs were perceived to rely more on sense of smell (45.7%) and hearing (34.5%) as compensatory measures. Approximately one-third of owners reported their dogs were depressed (27.9%) or were anxious and exhibited increased owner dependence (28.3%). Although 51.4% of owners reported no difference in their dog’s behavior toward other household dogs, 29% reported reliance on other dogs for support (similar to a guide dog role).

Owners initially experienced negative emotions in response to their dog’s blindness, including worry regarding whether the dog could live a happy life. Most (84.9%) owners never considered euthanasia in response to the blindness; however, 4 owners elected euthanasia, stating their dog suffered too much pain after blindness onset.

Many (43.9%) owners accepted the condition and sought opportunities to help their dog by adapting their lifestyle to enrich their pet’s life as well as their own. They pursued methods to enhance mental stimulation, primarily relying on vocal cues. As the dogs acclimated to blindness, owners observed diminished separation anxiety and increased independence, and a majority (89.3%) perceived their dogs to be happy.

… The Takeaways

Key pearls to put into practice:

  • Vision loss in dogs presents an emotional challenge that can significantly affect owners. Diagnosis should be approached with sensitivity. It is important to emphasize that blind dogs can enjoy a good quality of life and are often perceived as happy.

  • Support groups for owners can be valuable. Clinics can offer access to online support groups or organize groups for owners of patients with similar conditions to foster peer interaction and support.

  • Blindness in dogs can result in reduced sensory input and environmental stimulation, potentially causing confusion, disorientation, and anxiety. These signs may overlap with or exacerbate signs of cognitive dysfunction. As dogs age, each of their senses should be engaged and stimulated through regular training and enrichment—regardless of sensory impairments—to help alleviate signs associated with cognitive and sensory decline.