When Your Dog Goes Blind
Puppy Girl Before Her Eye Problems Began
For the past year, my dog — a female miniature schnauzer I affectionately call Puppy Girl — and I fought a battle against an undefeatable enemy: Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca. KCS is a disorder in which the lachrymal glands stop producing tears.
Treatment meant to stimulate tear production wasn’t effective, so her condition is apparently the immune-mediated type that doesn't respond to treatment. With no tears whatsoever, her eyes must be kept continuously lubricated with ophthalmologic ointment to prevent corneal ulcers. The vet recommended a product for humans (one I use myself, in fact) GenTeal P.M., made by ALCON. Thicker than drops or gel, it obscures the vision a bit (like looking through cellophane), but lasts longer.
I open a new tube for her every third day and one for myself every two weeks (I only use it for sleeping). Naturally, I keep my tubes and hers separated so there's no chance of using the wrong one for either of us and causing cross-contamination. Each tiny little tube contains only slightly more than 1/10 of a fluid ounce and costs up to $12 plus tax at a local pharmacy or supermarket. I searched online for the best price and buy it in bulk for $10.49 per tube at drugstore.com. There's no shipping cost with a $35 purchase, and it arrives in only a few days. Since it's impossible to squeeze out the last little bit of ointment from the tube by hand, I recently ordered some small tools made to do just that, called "tube squeezers" or "keys." For readers old enough to remember, they work like the "keys" that used to roll open sardine tins.
I apply the GenTeal to Puppy Girl's eyes frequently — from early morning until midnight or later. It’s a good thing I’m retired and home nearly all of the time to look after her. Otherwise, she would need a sitter. As it is, I plan carefully when I have to go somewhere and leave her at home, lubricating her eyes just before I leave and returning within three hours--four at the max--and lubricating them as soon as I'm home.
Update: I no longer trust her eyes to stay lubricated from after midnight to early morning (I often have to add ointment to my own eyes during the night), so I've made a habit of waking and reapplying GenTeal to both of Puppy Girl's eyes at about three o'clock a.m. Just to be on the safe side and prevent a painful ulcer. So far, she's had no corneal ulcer.
Reapplication of GenTeal during the night rarely awakens her because she’s accustomed to the routine. In fact, it's kind of humorous that I can hold her eyelids open and put a glop of ointment in each of her eyes without disturbing her rest.
In addition, debris and mucus normally washed out by tears must be cleaned from her eyes frequently, especially when she wakes in the morning. A lot of mucus collects in the eyes of dogs with KCS and must be removed, especially before medication is instilled. She's shown no sign since her KCS diagnosis and subsequent preventive lubrication that she was in the severe pain, and no sign of ulceration was seen at her regular veterinary checkups.
No rest for this weary dog!
Have you ever lived with a blind pet?
Nearly a year after her KCS diagnosis, her behavior suddenly became erratic. Instead of bounding through the back door onto the screened back porch, she seemed afraid to venture across the threshold. When I led her out on leash, she hesitated, even pulled back. Once through the door, her gait resembled a stagger as she veered off in a diagonal path. The steps leading to the back yard were the worst challenge, for she stumbled on each of them.
At times, especially after a nap, she seemed confused and disoriented, as though she didn’t know where she was. Once, she crashed to the floor in a heap while attempting to jump onto the bed, something she’s done with ease for most of her life. Soon, she began waiting by the bed for me to lift her onto it. This saddened me.
I may seem particularly dense because I didn’t immediately make the connection between her behavior and possible vision loss. Looking back, I think my conscious mind blocked the thought of her going blind because I developed such a fear of that happening after her KCS diagnosis. A year of thinking her corneas were safe because of the intensive lubrication lulled me into complacency.
When I saw the problems she had with the steps—pausing, holding back, stumbling— I didn’t think, She can’t see the steps. Instead, I wondered if she was developing arthritis in her joints. As a mid-size dog and a breed with an average lifespan in the 12-to-15-year range, she’s not “officially” at the geriatric stage. According to her veterinary records, she will be considered a “senior” dog when she is ten years old. She’s only 8 ½…a mere middle-aged gal.
I made an appointment for Puppy Girl with her regular vet, her “primary care doctor.” Dr. Thrash said I was taking good care of my dog's eyes--she wasn’t squinting at the light, her eyes were well-lubricated, and her corneas looked okay with a regular light. The vet said my dog may have sprained her leg when she fell, and recommended a glucosamine and chondroitin supplement to protect her joints.
The following week, however, the situation grew worse. Puppy Girl literally fought against her harness and leash for the first time in her life, and after I got her through the doorway onto the porch, she turned the wrong way and ran "smack!" into a stand fan with her face. Getting her down the back steps was a nightmare, with her slipping and sliding, literally falling down the steps. After she finished “going potty”, she balked at the steps and refused to even try them. I had to carry her back indoors, while she kicked her legs in panic. (She’s never liked being picked up.) Lifting a 21-pound dog (she's not a toy and is on the large size of miniature) and lugging her up four steps with her legs flailing while holding the door open was not easy for me, and I hoped it would not become necessary for every potty break. (It didn't.)
I’m ashamed to admit my thinking at that point was, Oh no! Doggy dementia! Dogs can experience dementia similar to the Alzheimer’s Disease that attacks the brains of humans, but it usually happens when they’re elderly. At the same time, a nagging thought was forming in the misty regions of my own brain cells, but it wouldn’t quite jell. My subconscious was still at war with my conscious about the possibility of vision loss. Blindness? My mind couldn't deal with it yet.
I'm forced to face the truth
Then a friend came to visit…a friend who has multiple dogs and has lived with dogs all her life. She watched my dog stumbling and running into furniture for a few minutes, then stated what to her was obvious.
Those words knocked the foundation out from under my coping mechanisms, avoidance and denial. An unwelcome truth stared me in the face, and I could no longer hide from it.
We took Puppy Girl out into the front yard, which is enclosed by a four-foot picket fence, and took her off-leash to observe how she would navigate the space. She stood still for a few minutes, as though frozen in place. Finally, she began to wander slowly, ending up across the yard beside the fence bordering the street. She walked next to it for a few feet, and I thought she realized the barrier was there, but then she twice bumped her face on the boards. After the second mishap, she stopped walking and waited for me to rescue her.
Even an open outdoor space may harbor dangers for a blind dog
Paths should not be too narrow with a blind dog in the house
Indoor obstacles abound for a sightless dog
Yet, the inside of the house was not a safe haven, either. She repeatedly ran into door facings and furniture, and most of the time she hit either her face or head with a loud “thwack!” I was afraid she might get a concussion, and moved the heaviest offender—a vintage chest—out of the traffic path.
Time for a diagnosis
I emailed her vet, explained thoroughly what was happening, and Dr. Thrash made a referral appointment for a veterinary ophthalmologist to examine Puppy Girl at the earliest available date— mid-July.
In the meantime, it became my priority to help Puppy Girl — and me as well — adjust to this new fact of our lives….her apparent sightlessness. I was upset and depressed about her blindness, and gave in to tears a few times. Recalling that dogs pick up on humans’ emotional states, I made a concerted effort to pull myself together. My dog didn’t need any additional stress added to her suddenly dark and scary world. (It would be scary to me; why not to her?)
Okay…I’ll come clean. I allowed myself one tiny little pity party to get the crying out of my system, in my room with the door shut while she was asleep in the den. Wasn't that mature of me? Anyway, after I finished sobbing and washed my face, guess what I saw as soon as I opened the door? Yep. There stood Puppy Girl in the hall waiting for me. I put on a big smile to make my voice sound happy and began talking to her in a tone I hoped sounded cheerful.
After all, Puppy Girl spent many hours lying beside me on the bed while I recuperated from numerous surgeries. As a brave pint-sized guard dog, she once tried to defend me against a large dog that knocked me down. Now it was her turn and time for me to be strong and help her learn to get around without vision. I must also help her rediscover the simple joys of everyday life for a dog.
Since this change occurred, she'd slept much more than usual and showed no interest in playing or interacting with me, signs that she was confused and depressed. While her vision may have deteriorated gradually, it obviously worsened suddenly, which must have been frightening for her.
My grandson, whose Boston terrier lost an eye last year, loaned me his copy of Living With Blind Dogs: A Resource Book and Training Guide for the Owners of Blind and Low-Vision Dogs by Caroline D. Levin, RN. I began reading it immediately to learn what I should do. This book is wonderful and answers just about any question one could have about this topic. It certainly answered all of mine. There's even a section for dogs that are both blind and deaf. (I hope to never need that part, but I'm glad it's there.)
A wonderful resource for the caretaker of a blind dog
"An outstanding, comprehensive work that provides the educational tools necessary to help owners and their dogs adapt quickly to vision problems with minimal stress." --DOGworld Magazine
My bond with Puppy Girl
The first few pages of "Living With Blind Dogs" dealt, not with the blind dog’s issues, but with those of the human…the pet's caretaker. I discovered that my terrible sense of loss was not uncommon. Tears, depression, even feeling consumed by a type of grief—these are all normal reactions. The more closely bonded a human is with a dog that goes blind, the more tremendously that grief is experienced. When the blindness happens suddenly, the emotional trauma intensifies.
I think it’s safe to say I’m about as closely bonded to Puppy Girl as a human can be with a dog or any pet. She came into my life when I was at a very low ebb after an accident left me with limited mobility, chronic pain and the necessity to retire from a fulfilling career six years too early. I was deeply depressed for months before I got her when she was a puppy. Her presence helped me stop feeling sorry for myself as I concentrated on taking care of her. Her puppy antics made me laugh out loud, something I hadn’t done for quite a while. I’m convinced she literally saved my life and my sanity. Is it any wonder I love her as much as I do?
Puppy Girl's first spring with me
I finally understood why people love dogs!
I’d never had a pet in my life before she arrived on the scene, so the entire experience of a growing puppy was a revelation. I’d never understood why “dog people” were so wrapped up in their dogs, but it became evident as I fell “head over heels” with the little ball of salt-and-pepper fur who obviously loved me too. During the successive eight years, Puppy Girl and I went through a lot together, the good and the not-so-good. She loves me unconditionally, even when I’m at my worst. I adore her too and am committed to her wellbeing.
Learning to live with a blind dog may be a slow process
The author of Living With Blind Dogs cautioned that it takes time for both dog and human caretaker to adjust, and that grief cannot be short-circuited. Just as with any other type of loss, a human must work through emotions to prevent getting "stuck" while processing them. I had to admit my feelings (including anger that this could happen to my beloved companion) and allow myself to truly recognize and experience all emotions engendered by the situation in order to cope with them. Only then would I be ready to help my dog.
The average time for a dog that suddenly goes blind as an adult to adjust is from three to six months and can be even longer—as long as a year. There are ways for the dog’s caretaker to ease the transition, and I needed to focus on my role in doing this for her.
I’d already intuited that, with time, my dog will learn her way around the house and stop bumping into furniture. This is called “mapping”, and, as her other senses become enhanced to compensate for loss of sight, it will help her move around familiar places without harm. After she learns her way through our home, it’s important not to rearrange the furniture. (Fortunately, I’m not the type to move furniture around just for fun, so that’s no hardship.) The book even suggests using a variety of essential oils (a different one in each room) so her nose can identify where she is.
I’ll tell you more about our progress — Puppy Girl’s and mine — how we’re learning to live in a new way, but I’ll do it in another article. You see, only a few days into the beginning of this important adjustment period, there was a major, traumatic interruption. Puppy Girl became seriously ill and required hospitalization for two days. Just as I was preparing to help her learn to live as a blind dog, I came close to losing her. That story will be told in a separate article.
Fortunately, the animal ER hospital is only a 15-minute drive away!
Hubs About the KCS: Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment (Initial and Ongoing)
- Dry Eye in Dogs -- Coping with Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS) - Part 1
This is a personal account of my dog's symptoms, diagnosis, treatment and life changes (hers and mine) due to KCS. It also contains helpful information about how to recognize KCS in a dog and what the pet parent may expect.
- Dry Eye in Dogs -- Coping with Keratoconjunctivitis Sicca (KCS) - Part 2: “After the Diagn
Caring for a dog with chronic (lifetime) KCS - Still a personal account of what happened to my dog, but plenty of helpful info for anyone encountering the same disorder in a pet.