Seeing Past Imagined Obstacles: How to Care for a Blind Pet

Blind pet Dexter Colt
blind pet
Sonny, a 6-year-old rat terrier, was born with glaucoma. His original owners had allowed his eyes to become infected, leading to swelling, which put pressure on his brain and caused severe headaches. Suffering and in pain, he was relinquished to the League, where our veterinarians removed his eyes.

Shortly after his surgery three years ago, Sonny was adopted by Karen B., who says he has overcome his disability with flair. “He’s a lively fellow. He acts like a normal dog, including getting into the garbage. He can be a little jerk,” she says fondly. “When we’re out and about, I say ‘Step’ and he tests whether to step up or down by sticking his leg out in a canine version of a white cane.”

This blind pet gets along well with the household’s other dog, a cocker spaniel, and three cats, all of whom are sighted. The dog has learned to “work” Sonny, hiding toys so Sonny can’t find them, or stepping to one side when they are playing so he can’t locate her. “I was advised to put baby gates up on the stairs,” says Karen. “But Sonny climbed over them. He maps out rooms, patrolling the perimeter to find out where things are. I was also told not to move things in the house, but my daughter and her 6-year-old moved in with me, and Sonny has to navigate Hot Wheels and toys strewn everywhere. He manages just fine.”

Now Sonny has a chance to showcase his abilities—onstage. Enter PHAMALY, a Denver theater company composed entirely of disabled actors. Their latest production is the musical “Annie,” which features a couple of parts for disabled dogs. Karen found out about the acting opportunity through Marissa Martino, the League’s behavior manager.

To audition for a part, Sonny had to demonstrate his ability to respond to “Sit” and “Stay” commands. He also wowed his fellow actors with his skill at walking on his hind legs, a move he performs during the show, prompted by the “Up” command and rewarded with a treat. He was selected, not for the lead dog role of Sandy, who is played by a black Lab, but for a smaller role in which Sonny’s “character” accompanies the dog catcher. Although Karen is very proud of her pup’s accomplishment, she says it’s a serious commitment. There’s two months of rehearsals, twice a week for three to five hours.

To see Sonny in action onstage, catch one of the performances at the Space Theatre in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. The show runs from July 15 – August 6.

Adopting a blind pet isn’t as daunting as it might appear. According to Dumb Friends League veterinarian Dr. Erin Hickey, both cats and dogs can quickly learn to adapt to partial or complete blindness and can lead happy, normal lives.

“We had a kitten come to the shelter who’d been hit by a car,” she says. “The injury caused severe brain swelling resulting in total blindness. During the five-day lost period, that kitten went from walking in circles to walking in a straight line, and learned to locate and use his litter box. The kitten has a very good quality of life, comes when he is called and is very affectionate.”

Causes of Blindness in Pets

Blindness in cats and dogs has numerous causes. These include primary disease of the eye, central nervous system disease, metabolic disease, trauma or untreated injuries. Chronic corneal ulcers as a result of herpes virus or trauma can cause significant scarring that leads to partial or complete loss of vision. In more severe cases, corneal ulceration can cause the eye to rupture, which requires surgical removal of that eye and loss of vision.

Glaucoma, an elevation in intraocular pressure, can also result in permanent loss of vision. In dogs, glaucoma is often a primary disease. In cats, it is usually a reflection of significant underlying disease. Changes to the eyes can often indicate that there are additional medical concerns that should be addressed. Many conditions resulting in blindness can be treated or managed as long as the animal is not experiencing discomfort.

If an animal has a blind eye, our veterinarians typically remove it only if it is causing pain, which the animal may signal by squinting or pawing at the face. A test for elevated eye pressure can also flag a painful condition.

Coping Strategies for Blind Pets

When an animal loses one eye, they adjust almost immediately to using their remaining eye. Pets don’t require the same depth of vision that humans do. If they lose both eyes or go blind slowly (as with cataracts, for example), they become highly reliant on their other senses.

Dogs have more olfactory, or smell, receptors than cats (and far more than humans). They often rely more heavily on their other senses such as smell and hearing over their sight. Cats also possess olfactory glands and heightened hearing, in addition to their legendary keen vision.

When meeting a blind dog, advises Dr. Hickey, make yourself known. Walk loudly on the floor to announce your arrival rather than surprising the animal. Speak to it and let it smell your hand before you touch it.

Tips for Caring for a Blind Pet at Home

In terms of care, Dr. Hickey cautions that a blind pet should not be left unattended outdoors. “When introducing them to your home,” she says, “create a safe space and let them figure out where things are. Don’t move the furniture or place unfamiliar objects (for example, a laundry basket) in their path.” Here are some other suggestions:

  • When pets are going slowly blind, they can be aided by using brighter lights at nighttime. They can also learn the ropes by following other household dogs around.
  • Since animals dislike the smell of citrus, it can be used to mark dangerous objects (such as a newly planted rosebush, for example). You can also train them by guiding them with smells, like placing a vanilla candle, say, near the back door and a lavender candle near the front door. Once the animals are acclimated, the candles can be removed.
  • You can also set up sound cues (e.g., wind chimes outside the door) or touch cues (e.g., a textured mat placed in front of a food bowl) to teach your blind pet how to navigate your home.

Meeting Other Family Pets

When introducing a blind dog to another family dog, consider placing a bell on the other pet. Another way to facilitate smooth dog introductions is to use a Dog Appeasing Pheromone (DAP) collar, which contains a synthetic pheromone that is alleged to calm dogs of all ages by triggering a happy memory of being nursed as a puppy.

Blind cats require a slow, gradual introduction to other household cats. Place a barrier between them and place strong-smelling food on both sides of the door, then move to a screen or a baby gate. Let them meet briefly nose-to-nose with supervision, and then gradually increase the exposure until they become comfortable around each other. Feliway spray is touted as mimicking the natural comforting facial pheromones produced by cats in order to calm them and reduce stress-related behaviors. It can be sprayed on bedding, a towel or a bandana, or used in a diffuser (humans cannot smell the product).

All in all, blind pets are extremely adaptable and can be terrific additions to your home. Notes Dr. Hickey, “Our Behavior team can assist with learning how to handle a blind pet. Some of our volunteers have lots of experience with blind animals that they can share, as well.”

Blind or not, find the perfect pet now!