If your dog is starting to go blind, you still have plenty of time to help him adjust to his new normal.

By Kate Eldredge Basedow, LVT and Faith Brar
February 09, 2021
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Just like humans, dogs can go blind in one or both eyes. Most causes of vision loss in dogs develop slowly over several months to years. This means that you will probably have time to figure out why your dog is going blind, if it can be treated, and a plan for managing your dog's changing needs.

How to Tell If Your Dog Is Going Blind

Unless they've suffered a major injury, blindness in dogs is almost always gradual. That's why it can be difficult to spot the signs earlier on. Preliminary behavior changes like anxiety, depression, lack of energy, and aggression can also be signs but are often mistaken for other possible diseases, according to the AKC.

Signs a Dog Is Going Blind

There are more noticeable signs you can look out for. Some common signs of a dog going blind may include:

  • Cloudy eyes
  • White spots on the eyes
  • Bumping into things
  • Hesitation when navigating obstacles such as stairs or when in new places
  • Anxiety when in new environments
  • Avoidance of stairs
  • No longer jumping on/off furniture
  • Redness and swelling on or around the eyes
  • Squinting or pawing at the face
  • Easily startled when petted or approached
  • Less interested in playing
  • Pupils don’t dilate when in dark room or constrict when exposed to bright light
  • Not making eye contact with you as much as he used to

"You might see your dog running into furniture, but especially new things in the house," Lisa Radosta DVM, DACVM at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service and co-founder of Dog Nerds tells us. "Dogs that go blind slowly have the lay of the land committed to memory. When something new is added to the environment, they may stumble over it or into it."

You might also notice that they don't see well at night or when there's an abundance of shadows, Radosta explains. "This might manifest as fear of going outside or snapping at lights or shadows," she adds. "Some dogs may also start to hesitate at transitions where there is a step such as a threshold."

From a more physical standpoint, Memphis Veterinary Specialists (MVS) notes that you might notice that your dog's eyes appear to be cloudy or that their pupils have stopped dilating when exposed to light. Puffy, red, or swollen eyes are also another obvious sign.

Portrait of mutt dog laying outside on porch
Credit: Kesinee / Adobe Stock

Testing Your Dog's Eyesight

If you're worried about your pet's eyesight, be sure to consult with your vet. That said, you can also administer a Menace Reflex Test at home to check your dog's vision. To do the test, simply place your hand 18 inches from your dog's face. Then, quickly move your hand towards your dog until it's about three inches away from his face. If your dog can see, he should blink his eyes or turn his head in response. Otherwise, it's likely that something is wrong with his sight.

The Cotton Ball Test is another way to assess your dog's vision. For this, grab a cotton ball and hold it up to your dog's visual field. Then, toss it in any direction and see if your dog reacts. If your dog remains still, it may mean that his vision is impaired, in which case you should definitely pay your vet a visit.

Reasons Why Dogs May Go Blind

In rare cases, a dog can seem to go blind overnight, but the development of blindness usually takes several months or even years. Vision loss can be part of the normal aging process, a primary issue with the eye itself, or a systemic health problem that impacts the eye(s).

If you are noticing signs of vision loss in your dog, an exam by your veterinarian is in order. Your vet may recommend blood work to evaluate your dog's overall health as well as looking at the eye. If there are problems with your dog's eye(s), your vet may recommend referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist for a more thorough eye exam and access to specialized treatments.

Cataracts

A cataract is an opacity in the lens of your dog's eye. Cataracts usually start out small, but can spread to take up the entire lens and block your dog's pupil so that light can't enter the eye and stimulate the retina. Your dog can develop cataracts in one or both eyes.

Many cataracts are believed to be hereditary in origin, but cataracts can also form as a response to trauma or complication of diabetes mellitus. Studies show that 50 percent of dogs with diabetes will develop cataracts within six months of being diagnosed and approximately 80 percent of dogs will develop them within 16 months of diagnosis. 

Cataracts are more common in older dogs but can show up at any age. Some medications and supplements can slow the development of cataracts. Surgery can also be performed by a veterinary ophthalmologist to remove the cataract and insert an artificial lens, restoring your dog's vision.

Glaucoma

Glaucoma is the buildup of fluid inside the eye. The increased pressure can be very painful, and causes the retina to become damaged, resulting in blindness. This process is usually gradual, and you or your veterinarian may notice changes in your dog's eye(s) well before he loses vision. Glaucoma is serious and can result in permanent vision loss unless you catch it in time.

Glaucoma can often be treated with medications applied directly to the eye. In severe cases the affected eye may need to be removed to provide relief for the dog.

Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)

The retina is a sheet of cells in the back of your dog's eyes that detects light and sends those signals to the brain to process images. In PRA, the retina slowly degenerates, resulting in a loss of vision. There are two forms: an early onset form that can show up in puppies as young as two months old, and a late-onset form that shows up in adult to middle-aged dogs. Unfortunately, there is no cure for this genetic disease and certain breeds are more prone to it, including:

Hypertension

The retina is extremely delicate, and high blood pressure can cause part or all of the retina to be damaged. This can result in partial or complete blindness.

Chronic Dry Eye

Keratoconjunctivitis sicca, commonly referred to as KCS or dry eye, is when your dog's eyes do not produce proper tears to lubricate the eye. This condition is uncomfortable, and your dog's body will do a variety of things to try to relieve the discomfort. This includes producing a thick mucus instead of normal tears and the gradual infiltration of vessels, pigment, and tissue over the surface of the eye to provide protection. These coping mechanisms can hamper your dog's sight.

Thankfully, KCS is usually manageable with regular application of eye medications. If you notice that your dog is squinting, rubbing at his eyes, or has a chronic pus-like discharge from his eyes, he should be checked for KCS by your veterinarian.

Untreated Infections

Scratches and other damage to the surface of the eye can provide an ideal site for infections to set up shop. If left untreated, these infections can lead to blindness. Systemic infections can also impact the eye in extreme cases. If your dog is showing signs of eye discomfort or illness, he should be seen by a veterinarian.

Pannus

Chronic superficial keratitis, commonly referred to as pannus, is an immune-mediated condition in which tissue and pigment grow across the eye. It is believed to be a hereditary condition, but ultraviolet light and high altitudes can act as triggers. If left untreated, the dog will eventually go blind. Thankfully, pannus can be treated with regular eye medications. 

Tumors

Tumors in, around, or behind the eye can block vision or damage the structure of the eye. Tumors in or behind the eye can be difficult to detect and may require a visit to a veterinary ophthalmologist. In many cases removing the tumor requires removing the eye as well. Your veterinarian will likely recommend sending the tumor out for a histopathology report to determine if it is benign or cancerous.

Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS)

SARDS is rare in dogs, and one of the few conditions besides trauma that can cause sudden-onset blindness that is permanent. We do not know the cause of SARDS in dogs at this time, although Cushing's disease may predispose some dogs to developing it. VCA Hospitals notes that the following dog breeds are particularly prone to developing this condition:

Age

Some elderly dogs may suffer from vision loss. Older dogs can develop cataracts, which might present on their own or in tandem with other diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. They're also more prone to developing glaucoma. Vets recommend that during their senior years, dogs get their eyesight checked frequently—as much as every six to nine months.

Taking Care of a Dog That Is Going Blind

Thankfully, dogs handle blindness much better than we humans do. While vision is handy, dogs rely heavily on their scent and hearing and are quickly able to adjust as their senses change. As their caretaker, there are some things that you can do to help ease your dog's transition into blindness.

Work with your veterinarian to come up with a care plan for your dog's visual impairment. Consider your home environment to make it as safe and comfortable for your dog as possible, and also consider outdoor dangers as well. Your dog might not understand where the furniture is if you move it around your living room or sense oncoming traffic as well as he used to, so he'll need your care and protection more than ever.

Patience is key when it comes to caring for and learning to live with your dog's visual impairment. As you develop a new style of communication and provide quality enrichment for your dog, the two of you will develop an even stronger bond and your pup can still have a happy, joy-filled life!