What Does Vision Loss Mean For My Pet?

By: Lynsey Wagner, DVM

TVMA Member
San Antonio, TX.

Published November 2014

Vision loss in our companion animals is often a disturbing event for pet owners. Vision loss can be a slow process or one that literally occurs overnight. If vision is lost slowly, the pet will often adapt so well that their owners may be unaware of the change. When vision loss is sudden, owners often notice that their pet is confused, may bump into walls and furniture or may become fearful or aggressive. Depending on the cause for the vision loss, owners may also notice an increased shine to the eyes due to a dilated pupil.

What Causes Vision Loss in Pets?

There are many causes for vision loss in our pets. Vision is lost at three main locations: the retinaA layer at the back of the eyeball containing cells that are sensitive to light and that trigger nerve impulses that pass via the optic nerve to the brain, where a visual image is formed., the optic nerve (the extension cord between the eye and the brain) and the brain itself. Conditions that prevent light from reaching the retina will lead to decreased vision or blindness. This could include severe corneal scarring, hyperpigmentationA condition in which patches of skin become darker in color than the normal surrounding skin. of the cornea, corneal edemaThe swelling of the cornea following ocular surgery, trauma, infection, inflammation as well as a secondary result of various ocular diseases., severe inflammation inside the eye (uveitis) or cataractA condition in which the lens of the eye becomes progressively opaque, resulting in blurred vision. formation. The retina itself can be damaged by glaucomaA condition of increased pressure within the eyeball, causing gradual loss of sight. or affected with several inflammatory or degenerative conditions. The optic nerve is also affected by glaucoma, systemic disease, inflammation, neoplasiaThe formation or presence of a new, abnormal growth of tissue. and trauma.

How do Pets Adapt to Vision Loss?

Pets are extremely good at adapting to their loss of vision. Their heightened senses of smell and hearing quickly take the place of vision. They do not experience the depression or other difficulties that a human with vision loss would face. After all, they have you to take care of them! The speed at which vision is lost often dictates the time it takes for the pet to adapt to their environment. Some adapt immediately while others adapt over several months. All pets with vision loss maintain an excellent quality of life.

How Can a Pet Owner Help?

The following are guidelines to help you and your pet adjust to visual impairment:

  • Certainly several precautions should be taken to protect your pet. Do not leave your pet unattended around swimming pools, roads or other dangers.
  • Allow your pet to navigate around the house on their own. Resist the urge to pick them up and move them as they are trying to memorize the environment; pets have excellent memories. Pets will find their food and water bowls consistently if you leave them in the same place. Along the same lines, try to avoid changing the furniture frequently.
  • Bells can be placed on the collars of other pets so that the visually impaired pet is aware of their presence.
  • If a doggie door is present, try placing a textured mat on either side of the door (astroturf, rubber, etc.). That way your pet will know that when they are on the mat they are in front of the doggie door. This will also help them get back inside from the yard.
  • Encourage your pet to play. If they love to pay with tennis balls, buy a ball that makes lots of noise or has a strong scent.
  • Sometimes other pets in the household will serve as companions to the visually impaired pet, effectively becoming guide dogs.
  • Avoid stressing your pet by instructing family members to talk to your pet before approaching so as not to surprise them.
  • Consider fitting your pet for a harness. This will make them feel more secure on walks and gives more points of contact for you to direct them. It also helps if you take your pet on the same route each day.
  • Continue to monitor the eyes for redness, squinting, discharge or cloudiness. Injuries to the eye or conditions such as uveitis and glaucoma can develop. These conditions are painful and require treatment by a veterinarian.
  • Most importantly, continue to show your pet lots of love and support.

Once again, it cannot be overstated that visually impaired or blind pets continue to lead happy, healthy, fun-filled lives and continue to be special family members for many years.

Lynsey Wagner, DVM, DACVO, is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in San Antonio, Texas. Dr. Wagner is a board-certified diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists who practices at South Texas Veterinary Ophthalmology.