“Eyesight To The Blind”
Those more mature pet owners amongst us will recognise the nod to the Who’s rock opera ‘Tommy and are probably also familiar with the joys of how eyesight changes as we age … now where did I put my glasses?
As our pets age they may also have problems seeing as well as they used to, but how can we tell? After all they are not great readers, so we don’t see them holding their book further away. Some typical signs that our pets are not seeing as well as they used to include clumsiness, clinginess, being easily startled, sticking close to fences in the garden, less confident in the dark and the best tell tale of all – flash photography as will be explained later.
A less confident pet, and especially dogs, will cling more to their owner to help them navigate their world. So, when you let them off the lead on a walk they may not run around as much as they used to but prefer to walk near to you – at last they have mastered the heelwork! Unfortunately this loss of confidence can also make them more easily startled so doggy chums might get snapped at if they come bounding up, especially from the periphery. They can’t see so well who or what is around them and a startled dog is a tetchy dog and none of us want that to become ‘normal’ behaviour.
Many of the VIPPIES family will remember Dee’s dog Molly who was blind. Dee fashioned her an extra set of whiskers from cable ties around her collar to help her navigate obstacles, she takes up the story; “ When Molly first started to go blind she completely lost her confidence, so I wore a bell on my wellies or shoes so that she could hear me walking and it gave her something concentrate on. The worst time for her was when she was losing her sight as it was neither one thing or the other, once her sight had completely gone she dealt with it and her confidence returned.” The most common cause of blindness is cataracts, a progressive condition identified by the bluish tinge that goes a milky white. You can check if your dog is developing cataracts by taking a photo of their eyes using a flash. A healthy eye will have a reddish tinge but problems will show up as a green tinge in the picture. Cataracts can be successfully treated, but if your dog is very old you may not want to put them through the trauma of surgery – and they can cope quite well with their other senses as Dee’s experiences with Molly will demonstrate.
Previous articles about the Archduke Ralph’s arthritis have covered the importance of non-slip surfaces round the house to protect your pet’s joints, these can also help as landmarks to help them ‘see’. As their sight deteriorates they will be using their other senses to navigate their home so it is important to help them by keeping the water bowl in a consistent place and likewise food and beds. It might not be arthritis that makes them miss their footing hopping up onto the sofa for a cuddle, it might be they find it hard to judge the height and distance for their jump. To help Molly around the house Dee tried not to move any of the furniture unless absolutely necessary so that she could learn the layout and navigate her way around. Another idea she tried successfully was to mark the change in surfaces, “I put a rug or something with a different feel to mark the change – even just putting a small rug over the carpet at the point before going onto a smooth surface, altering the thickness beneath her paws, helped Molly to prepare.” If your dog has access to more than one room it can be helpful to put different scented candles in each room (make sure they are dog friendly fragrances) and then they will associate each smell with that particular room and bring up the appropriate navigation map in their brain.
It is important to find ways to let them continue to have fun, Dee came up with some great ideas for that too: “Molly loved to run for the ball; whilst she still had some sight I trained her to start running before I threw the ball, I would then throw the ball in the direction she was running over her head so it landed in front of her she would hear it bounce and then run towards it. As her sight deteriorated I got a ‘Chuckit’ ball that had holes in it so that it whistled as it flew through the air – she could listen for it coming.” Once Molly had lost her sight completely Dee added a bell to the ball so it would sound as the ball landed and rolled. She was really clever at following the sound and locating the ball using her trusty nose, she was spot on 95% of the time. Dee reminds us that the play area needs to be clear, “I always made sure she was in a really open area with no obstacles, and having learned the release command – in her case ‘go!’ she learned to trust that she was safe to run around.”
Dee also taught Molly new commands for crossing the road so that when they came to the curb she would know there was a drop. Her command was ‘step’, and she soon worked out how many paces it took to cross the familiar roads and would lift her leg in anticipation of the step up. Like the layout at home familiarity became very important, “We used to keep to the same routes on her walk so she got used to the obstacles and smells, eventually she was confident enough to be off lead and sometimes I used to forget she was blind.”
So you see blindness is not the end of the world for your dog, with some minor adjustments they can still enjoy life to the full. When Molly was first diagnosed Dee remembers her vet reminding her: “Dogs are born blind and deaf, but they still managed to find their way to the milk bar”. A dog’s most important tool is their nose, they use that more than anything else to gain information about the world around them; alongside their superior senses of hearing and vibration they probably handle the onset of poor eyesight or blindness better than we do. However, you should always consult your vet if you become concerned, it will certainly be another topic to cover when Ralph has his next check up.