December 12, 2016
Caring for a blind pet
Tips for helping a vision-impaired pet flourish
When she managed a veterinary eye clinic in Portland, Oregon, Caroline Levin witnessed some heartbreaking scenes. “I’m sorry,” the veterinarian would tell a pet owner. “Your dog is blind. There is nothing we can do.”
“The people would leave in tears,” Levin says, “whether it was some little old lady or a big burly guy. They had no idea how life was going to work with a blind dog.”
Levin had previously worked as an ophthalmology nurse. She helped human patients understand their disease, connected them with support organizations for the blind and handed them helpful pamphlets. But back in the 1990s, there were no similar resources for pet owners, she says.
Blind pets can live a happy, healthy life."—Caroline Levin
Drawing on her experience in veterinary and human medicine and her background as a dog trainer, Levin wrote Living with Blind Dogs (petcarebooks.com). Her goal, she says, was to help people understand that “blind pets can live a happy, healthy life.”
Allison Bundock has seen the truth of that statement firsthand. Two years ago, she adopted a blind cat named Stevie from the Washington Animal Rescue League (now called the Humane Rescue Alliance) in Washington, D.C., where she works as an animal care manager. It was Bundock’s first time adopting an animal with a disability, but after an adjustment period, Stevie flourished in his new home. Today, he jumps from the couch to the windowsill with ease, romps with his feline housemates and even enjoys leash walks outside.
“He’s such a wonderful cat, and I hope his success encourages other people to not have fears or hesitations about adopting a blind animal, maybe even make them excited to do it,” she says. “It’s a whole new experience.”
Here are some ways you can help a blind or vision-impaired pet live life to its fullest.
Create a safe, familiar space
An animal who has lost or is losing her vision may feel vulnerable and anxious, so it’s important to create a consistent routine and a safe, comfortable home environment. Block off stairs and swimming pools, cover sharp corners on furniture and remove protruding branches and other potential hazards in your yard. In time, your pet will develop a mental layout of her domain and may learn to safely navigate stairs and other challenges, but it’s good to be cautious because a bad experience can cause injury and erode her confidence.
Create a consistent routine and a safe, comfortable home environment.
When Bundock brought Stevie home, she kept him in her small bedroom and made the area off-limits to her other pets. After a few weeks, she let him explore the rest of the apartment and interact with her resident dog and two cats in short sessions. If he ever seemed uncomfortable or confused, she would guide him back to his safe zone.
Today, Stevie roams the apartment freely. Bundock accommodates his blindness by keeping her furniture in the same place and avoiding clutter “so there isn’t suddenly a box or some other obstacle sitting right where he would jump,” she says. “… But if he runs into an obstacle on the floor, he just investigates and figures his way around it.”
Set up sound, scent and touch cues
You can help a blind pet navigate his environment through his other senses. Levin recommends using scent markers, like a lightly applied vanilla essential oil by the door to the outside and lavender oil by pet beds. Wind chimes by exterior doors can help steer him toward thresholds, and a metronome near high-risk areas can warn him of sharp corners or places he can get stuck.
Tactile markers—like textured mats beneath food and water bowls and in front of litter boxes—are another type of navigation aid. Carpet runners can help guide a pet through the house, and throw rugs in front of furniture can help him remember the position of the couch and chairs. Mulch, sand and landscaping stones can enable your pet to confidently roam the backyard by alerting him to obstacles and safe pathways.
Stimulating your pet’s senses is also important for mental and physical health. “A lot of dogs who go blind later, they tend to just sit in one place. They don’t have motivation to move around,” says Debbie Bauer, author of Through a Dark Silence: Loving and Living With Your Blind and Deaf Dog (amazon.com). Sound-making toys, puzzle toys and scent-tracking games can keep your pet active and help fine-tune her sense of sound and smell. Walks around the neighborhood (keeping to the same path and using a short or rigid leash to guide your pet around obstacles) will allow her to check out new smells and gain confidence.
Even the sound of your voice can be a form of comfort and enrichment.
To stimulate Stevie’s senses, Bundock placed cat perches in front of screened-in windows where he can enjoy warm breezes and the smells and sounds of the outdoors. “When birds fly by, I can see his head following their movements like he’s able to see them,” she says.
Even the sound of your voice can be a form of comfort and enrichment for your pet. “The more I have talked with Stevie, the more responsive and interactive he has been with me,” says Bundock. “He knows my voice and faces me when I talk to him.”
Slowly introduce the unfamiliar
Blind pets can feel more vulnerable around strangers or in unfamiliar environments. One of Bundock’s biggest challenges with Stevie was getting him comfortable with new people. Initially, he was overwhelmed even when one new person would visit her apartment and would retreat to his safe space. Now Bundock tells guests to talk to Stevie and let him approach them on his own terms. “It took awhile … but now he understands it’s not threatening.”
Because blind pets can be easily startled, you should talk to them before you touch them.
Introductions to other animals also should be done slowly. Here, too, you can use sound to help your blind pet compensate. Bundock’s dog and older cat always behaved appropriately with Stevie, but her younger cat, Darla, was “more intense,” she says. So she put a bell on her high-energy youngster, providing Stevie with an audible warning when Darla was nearby.
Because blind pets can be easily startled, you should talk to them before you touch them, says Bauer. If your pet’s hearing is also impaired, you can alert him to your approach by stepping a bit heavier or tugging his bed gently before you pet him. “It kind of shakes them awake a little bit,” says Bauer. “You can also put a little piece of food in front of their nose and let them wake up that way.”
Help foster resilience
How easily pets adjust to blindness can depend on their age, personality and other factors, such as whether they were born blind or lost their vision suddenly. But with time and patience, a blind pet may surprise you.
When Bauer adopted a blind and deaf sheltie named Treasure, she assumed her new dog would be fearful and confused in her new home. Instead, “the first thing that struck me was that she didn’t really need me,” Bauer says. “... She took off and explored everything. It wasn’t what I expected.”
Bauer has since adopted or fostered several dogs with vision or hearing impairments or both. She’s had pups like Treasure who were born blind and ones who lost their vision as adults. The latter “need a little more stability in the location of things, to help them orient themselves,” she says.
Treasure, on the other hand, now works as a therapy dog and often travels with Bauer. “We stay in different hotel rooms. I go in first and make sure there is nothing dangerous for her to check out. I show her where her bowls are, where her bed is, and she pretty much enjoys checking out a new place. Her ability to make a mental map of new places is phenomenal.”