Coping with a blind pet

In our experience informing a pet owner that their pet is blind or is going blind can be quite a daunting task. It's an overwhelming experience for most pet owners and a time often filled with emotion and doubt. That's why we have asked Sue, the owner of a blind Whippet named Pebbles, to tell her story. We hope her insight into a moment of darkness and her handy hints in dealing with day to day activities will provide you with some hope. 

I'll never forget the day. We had just finished eating lunch and were relaxing, sitting in front of the television watching a Saturday afternoon game of football. I was seated in my favourite black armchair next to the glass sliding door that led out to our patio. Pebbles our three year old Whippet was snooping around looking for post lunch treats. A routine activity we were all accustomed to after every meal and of course she was always rewarded for her effort. But on this occasion instead of a wet happy nose on my leg, I heard a thump! Pebbles had walked straight into the glass sliding door. My partner looked at me, I looked back at him with a look of confusion and concern.

What just happened? Pebbles had been in and out of the same door a million times before. I called Pebbles by name and she slowly wandered up to me, bumping into the coffee table leg in her travels. We knew immediately something was wrong. It was if her world had turned to darkness - like someone had literally turned the lights out. The first thing we did, was our amateur version of an eye test. The test we had seen our vet conduct on previous occasions. Drawing one finger to her eye to check if she would blink - she didn't, no reaction. My heart sank and panic set in - 'what's wrong, what's happening - surely not'.

For Pebbles her new world of blindness was something that happened over night. Of course as a concerned pet owner, she was shipped off to her veterinarian who referred us onto a veterinary eye specialist. I was determined someone would have a solution and miraculously her eyesight would be restored. In fact, I was so convinced that a miracle cure existed that I even sought two expert opinions. Unfortunately this was not to be the case.

Pebbles had something called progressive retinal atrophy, a condition she was predisposed to from birth. More than likely she had been losing her eyesight over a period of time and had been coping up until now.

The first eye specialist basically gave us a few limited options and also discussed the 'E' word. To this day just thinking about it still makes my heart crumble. A visit to the second pet eye specialist reassured me that euthanasia was not necessary for a perfectly healthy dog and that she could lead a very normal life with a little extra help. Of course I was relieved to hear this. Pebbles was always at my side and undoubtedly my best friend. I couldn't bear to be without her and at 3 years of age I knew she had plenty of life to live.

So very quickly we adapted to our new life as owners of a blind dog. Let's say there was never a dull moment and whilst I could list many injuries, for not one moment do I ever regret standing by her side. Our relationship was stronger than any other, if not more. Her trust in me as her guide and her protector was without question.

Any owner contemplating a life with a blind dog should be reassured, the bond you will form with your companion and your journey together will be amazing.

Tips for caring for a blind pet

With this in mind, here are some of the things I personally suggest to help you make life a little easier:-

  • Firstly, find out what is wrong before you start making any changes. Talk to your vet and establish why your dog is either going blind or is blind. This process was invaluable for me.
  • Your dog can and will quickly learn new cue words from you. My favourites were 'watch', which Pebbles interpreted as stop immediately. 'Step' obviously for steps or raised pavement. 'Hold on', for when we were going around the corner in the car - hmm actually I still use this today with our seeing dogs. 'Slow down', when there was a need. Also the tone of voice I used was exceptionally important. A critical danger was a much louder more abrupt 'watch!'
  • Remove sharp edges and obvious dangers around the house. Items we had mishaps with that ended up in a visit to the vet included - the edge of the car door, edge of a table (one she had walked around for years before) and a pool gate (she wedged herself between two railings).
  • Meeting other dogs - this was our biggest learning curve. For some reason unknown dogs could sense Pebbles was not normal. During her life she had two canine altercations, one which ended with many stitches and a new found fear of dogs. Every dog is different. It's hard to say what spiked each of these attacks and if this is the case for other blind dogs. Just be cautious around new dogs.
  • Fires are hazardous of course, and... - Pebbles had been on previous camping trips and always treated the fireplace with great respect. She could sense the heat and the danger. On one occasion we took this for granted. She was startled by a visitor, and moved towards the flames. Within seconds her whiskers were singed. Not a great deal for most pets, but Pebbles counted on her whiskers to alarm her of obstacles. We underestimated how important her 'eye-feelers' were after the event.
  • Plenty of people say you should not move furniture or even move to a new house. I have to say Pebbles had an amazing ability to learn new obstacles quickly. We moved house at least 4 times during her lifetime. Once she had her mental furniture roadmap she would rarely have a bump. I also occasionally moved the furniture about, just not every weekend and not all at once.
  • A bell on the collar of OTHER family pets is essential. This will prevent any defensive responses such as swiping or nipping when being stalked or startled.
  • Floor coverings with different textures make a difference as they play an important role in household navigation.
  • The soft sand of the beach was her paradise. Being obstacle free, Pebbles loved to run at a quiet beach. However this should be avoided on a windy or stormy day. Hearing is everything, if the waves were crashing there's no chance of expecting a blind dog to come when called. 
  • Startling a blind dog can have ramifications - this is particularly important with children. Pebbles was entitled to her own defence mechanisms when startled. In the company of strangers, we had a close encounter when a small child chased and pulled her tail. It happened so fast and took us by suprise. Make sure you introduce children to your dog, explain the situation as best as you can and provide some boundaries.
  • Only the nose-knows - Pebbles sense of smell was amazing. She became the 'Superdog Explorer' of food. Just because she couldn't see it, didn't mean she couldn't find it. A fillet steak, Easter eggs (yes, oops and many eggs on one attempt) and a roast dinner were just some of her prized trophies. All of which belonged to dinner guests.

There are many resources for owners of blind dogs which provide a myriad of hints and tips to protect your pet. The above tips are some of my favourite personal tips learned from experience and which made a big difference to our lives and the quality of Pebbles' life.

Over the years, people who met Pebbles were unable to tell she was blind which demonstrated her amazing ability to cope. She was a true inspiration to me and touched the hearts of many others. She lived a wonderful life with many adventures by my side. Pebbles left the world at the grand old age of 11 years, a result of a non related medical problem. I miss her dearly and encourage any pet owner who is learning to cope with a blind companion to persist. The journey will be worth it.

Other handy tips for caring for blind pets

Sue mentioned some very helpful tips for blind pets and here's a few more we can suggest:-

  • A whistle can be a handy way to attract the attention of your dog at the park 
  • Protect sharp table edges with protective foam corners. These are used for toddlers and can be purchased from your hardware store
  • Entertain your dog with jingle balls or toys containing bells

If you have a blind pet and a great tip for other pet owners, drop us a line on our contact us form and we'll add it to our list.

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