Like people, dogs and cats can experience poor or failing eyesight as they age. The onset of vision loss in our pets can occur for a number of reasons, including cataracts, glaucoma, and retinal diseases such as sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome (SARDS), and progressive retinal atrophy (PRA).
SARDS, a disease that affects the function of the light sensing cells of the retina, primarily affects middle-aged dogs and results in blindness over a very short period of time. Symptoms include difficulty navigating, bumping into objects and dilation of the pupils. Some dogs may also have systemic changes such as an increased appetite, increased thirst and weight gain.
PRA causes the light sensing cells of the retina to gradually deteriorate over the course of several weeks to months. This condition primarily affects middle-aged to older dogs. Early signs may include decreased night vision and a pet becoming more reluctant to go outside when it is dark or hesitant to walk around in low-light settings.
If vision loss is suspected, Dr. Erin Scott, an assistant professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, recommends that owners begin by performing simple at-home tests on their pets to determine if their sight is impaired.
“Owners can test how well their pet tracks a cotton ball when it’s tossed in the air or how well their eyes are able to follow a laser pointer because neither of these items produce a scent or a sound that their other senses will be able to detect,” Scott said.
If any changes in vision are noted, Scott advises owners to keep a close eye on their pet’s appearance and behavior.
“They should pay attention to their pet’s ability to navigate around the house in different light settings as this can be an early sign of retinal degeneration,” she said. “Most importantly, any form of ocular discomfort like rubbing at the eye, squinting or increased redness, tearing or cloudiness should be evaluated by a veterinarian immediately.”
If detected soon enough and depending on the underlying causes of the vision loss, restoration may be possible with timely treatment or surgery by a veterinary ophthalmology specialist.
“If diagnosed early, dogs can undergo cataract surgery to restore vision, ” Scott explained. “Glaucoma often leads to an irreversible blindness; however, there are medical and surgical treatment options for glaucoma, and if caught soon enough, we can maintain vision for as long as possible. Unfortunately, as of now, there is no proven therapy to help restore vision in veterinary patients with any form of retinal degeneration.”
Fully restored eyesight may not always be possible, but Scott reminds owners that our beloved pets have an incredible ability to cope with the loss of one of their senses.
“Dogs and cats do remarkably well with vision loss, as they can compensate with their sense of smell and hearing much better than we ever could,” she said. “If only one eye is affected, you may not notice a change in your pet’s ability to see at all.”
Although pets have their own coping mechanisms, owners should make navigation as seamless and easy as possible until their pets have adjusted to a life without vision.
“It is important to protect them from dangers such as stairs and pools,” Scott said. “Use tactile cues such as mats at the top of stairs to help orient them; placing scents around the perimeter of your house or yard can also be helpful. Lastly, toys that produce a sound or have a certain scent can allow them to play and continue to enjoy an excellent quality of life despite their vision loss.”
While the fear of the unknown can be the scariest aspect of dealing with your pet’s vision loss, by being on the lookout for the early signs of impairment and protecting affected pets from any possible dangers, owners can ensure their furry friends still live a happy, healthy life.
Pet Talk is a service of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.