An Adult Dog Goes Blind: Adjustment (Part 2 of Series)
An Eye That No Longer Sees
Expectations vs. Reality
In an earlier article about my eight-year-old female dog going blind, I ended on a note of optimism. I was reading a book about what to expect during the adjustment period and what I could do that might help her adapt. Optimistic, I expected to fill the next segment—Part 2—with positive anecdotes and an expression of hope for the future.
That was the ideal scenario…but not the reality.
You Can't Predict How Humans--or Dogs--Will React to Change
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from this experience, it’s that dogs, like humans, are unique as individuals. Every dog has her or his own personality and temperament, a mix of genetics and environment that drive all behaviors not hardwired. A dog reacts to major changes in her (or his) life circumstances according to the traits she possesses and how she handles adversity, whether she's stoical, high-strung or somewhere in between. Even dogs have coping mechanisms. Similar to the behavior of humans, the ways they cope aren’t always positive.
This, then, is the story of one dog, the blindness that occurred in the middle of her eighth year and its effect on her life…and mine. Since I’m retired and at home most of the time, I’m able to care for her. Being around also gives me plenty of opportunity to observe how she is coming to terms (or not) with her loss of vision.
Did I Make the Right Decision?
Since I conducted thorough research before deciding against salivary gland redirection, do you think I made the right choice?
When my eight-year-old female miniature schnauzer, Puppy Girl, showed signs of blindness in mid-summer, 2013, her primary vet referred her to the ophthalmology veterinarian who had treated her a year previously for keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS). This is a disorder in which the lacrimal glands stop producing tears, causing extreme dry eye syndrome. Her KCS was apparently caused by an immune system failure and did not respond to treatment.
The ophtho vet wanted to re-route one of her salivary gland ducts into the conjunctiva sac. This procedure causes a dog’s saliva to empty from the duct onto the eyes, but research convinced me it often causes more problems (some requiring additional surgery) than it helps. I read about side effects on veterinary medical websites. In forum comments going back four years, only one person didn’t regret having the procedure done. I decided against the surgery, opting instead to continue the regimen of frequently cleaning her eyes and keeping them lubricated with an ophthalmic ointment that dissipates slowly.
The specialist vet said Puppy Girl's corneas showed scarring and confirmed she was going blind. I’ve diligently cared for her eyes since her dry eye disorder was diagnosed, and learning there was corneal scar tissue was a shock. I didn't believe she could have suffered the excruciating pain of a corneal ulcer without my realizing it because she whimpered after she hurt her foot. (I later read on a veterinary website that scarring from chronic KCS is more common than exception, even with dedicated care.)
The vet said in six months the blindness should be complete, and he would discuss an operation to remove her eyes. I took my dog home.
Back at Home....
Even though I’d been fairly certain Puppy Girl was going blind—she consistently ran into walls and furniture and seemed terrified of the steps leading to the yard—hearing the diagnosis was emotionally painful for me. Back at home, I sat beside her on the sofa and stroked her back for a long time, talking softly to her and calling her, “…Mama’s sweet girl.”
Finding Out What to Expect
A book my grandson gave me, LIVING WITH BLIND DOGS, by Caroline D. Levin, RN., is a valuable educational resource for pet parents with blind or low-vision dogs. It confirmed my emotion over Puppy Girl’s blindness is normal, an expression of grief stemming from my love for her.
The book describes ways in which dogs react to blindness, whether gradual or sudden. Some behaviors listed I’d already noticed in my schnauzer girl. The book prepared me for others.
For example, some dogs bark more after going blind; others bark less. There was a dramatic change in Puppy Girl’s barking patterns. She barked more and differently than in the past. The differences encompassed actual sounds, timing, volume, frequency and (apparently) motivation.
Anyone who lives with a mini schnauzer will tell you the range of “voices” this remarkable breed uses to communicate can be delightful. That is, they’re delightful under normal circumstances. The present situation and her modified barking patterns weren't normal, and many times I had no idea what she was trying to tell me. At times, her barking became frantic, lengthy staccato bursts of NOISE that accelerated to HOWLING. I felt she was desperately trying to communicate with me, only I didn't understand this new language.
A Good Resources for a Blind Dog's Human
A nose is a nose is a nose....
Sensory Enhancement to Compensate for Loss of Sight
I read books written by people with blind dogs and veterinary articles about blindness in adult dogs. I wanted to know as much as possible about how dogs experience blindness so I would be prepared to help her.
I thought her superior doggy nose would meet the challenges of blindness to overcome the problems she faced daily. I expected her to develop a heightened awareness of solid matter so she could avoid obstacles and stop bumping into things with her head, face and body. I thought this sensory blossoming would happen quickly. Three months later, I’m still waiting for the enhancement of her other senses to kick in and replace what she lost with her eyesight. I remind myself the author of LIVING WITH BLIND DOGS wrote that most adult dogs adjust to blindness within three to six months, but it may take others a year. Patience, Mama....patience.
A Blind Dog Can be a Happy Dog
Barking. Barking. Barking.
And Other Issues
The barking was only one indication that life was radically different for Puppy Girl. While she practically ceased barking at the mail carrier and other delivery people—my feisty little protector who had always considered it her job to alert me of their presence—Puppy Girl increased barking at me.
She began waking before daylight and barked to wake me. My natural biorhythms are not set for early morning. I spent most of my life rising two hours before my body and mind were ready to greet the day, a necessary adaptation to hours of school and the business world. When I retired, I expected to sleep until at least 8:00 a.m. if I felt like it. Before she lost her sight, Puppy Girl liked to sleep in as well.
With the loss of her vision went her sense of night and day. Her internal clock got hopelessly out of whack. Like newborn human babies who sleep all day and stay awake at night, her days and nights were “mixed up.” This unfortunate state of affairs continues.
I blamed depression for her increased daytime sleep and lack of interest in her toys. A small toy basket containing her favorites sits in the den and has for years. With the loss of her sight, she stopped getting her toys from the basket and wouldn’t play even when I handed one to her. It was sad then, and still is, to watch her ignore toys she formerly enjoyed.
Her appetite, on the other hand, increased. Perhaps food seemed the only pleasure she had left, and now she started fussing for her food two hours before her former schedule. I compromised with the half banana that's her mid-morning treat, but held firm on regular meals.
The enthusiasm she'd always displayed for walking around the back yard barking at squirrels disappeared. Wearing her harness seemed to comfort her when I took her outdoors on leash, but she walked slowly and sometimes froze in place. At this writing, there's been some improvement, and she lets me walk her around the back yard. She's also mastered the four back steps. As I say, "step up" or "step down", she does.
Research studies show animals have emotions, and depression is an emotional state. I wasn’t surprised Puppy Girl seemed depressed after losing her eyesight. I’ve experienced depression following traumatic changes in my own life, so why shouldn’t she react the same way to trauma? She's getting older, and the ordeal of blindness may have accelerated the aging process. Arthritis makes me feel older than my chronological age, so blindness may affect my dog the same.
The Huggies Quandry
To Diaper or Not to Diaper?
Perhaps the worst side effect of her blindness is the effect it’s had on a dog who practically housebroke herself as a puppy, with a near-perfect record ever since...until blindness struck. Her potty behavior changed abruptly, possibly the result of other factors too.
Here’s some background. Within a week of my realization she was losing her sight, Puppy Girl was struck by a terrible illness known as hemorrhagic enteritis, or HGE. This deadly disease can quickly be fatal without the appropriate treatment, and it landed her in the animal emergency hospital’s ICU. Vets there could not tell me how she acquired it (the cause remains a mystery), and she leads such a sheltered life it’s difficult to conceive how she picked up whatever organism is to blame. She was very ill and lucky to survive. It took her a week to fully recover after she returned home.
During that time, she wore a diaper—Huggies Little Movers, size four. Since her tail was docked short before I got her, diapers for human babies fit her just fine and cost much less than those made especially for dogs. The back of the diaper is roomy enough not to restrict her stub of a tail, allowing her to raise or even wag it (which, I must tell you, looks incredibly funny). I know how important a dog's tail--even a docked one-is to the dog, so I made sure she had "tail-moving room" in the seat of the diaper.
Even after the diarrhea ended, I was worried about a relapse (which my research warned me happens with some dogs). It wasn’t her first experience with the temporary use of diapers. (Read my HGE hub to learn why.) She didn’t appear to mind wearing them and even remembered their purpose. Is my dog smart, or what?
I still took her outside to potty regularly, but noticed that unless I was nearby when she felt the urge, she couldn’t seem to find the back door, nor did she search for me or bark once sharply (as was her lifelong habit) to let me know she needed to go out.
Before the onset of blindness and her HGE attack, she always came to get me, with the one recognizably special bark before racing to the back door. That was her signal for, “Mama, I need to go out and potty.” It worked consistently for eight years, but now her potty signal bark was AWOL.
She urinated in the diaper at least once every couple of days…just often enough for me to be afraid to leave off a diaper unless I could watch her constantly. On one occasion while I was folding laundry, she walked down the hall and, somehow—don’t ask me how she did it as I wasn’t there to observe—she managed to push her diaper down far enough to poop on the floor. When I saw her a few minutes later with the diaper drooping below her stubby tail, I went looking around the house and found the “deposit” she’d left in the hallway. I used an enzymatic cleaner so she wouldn't be tempted to use that place again.
Since the elastic of the disposable diapers quickly loosens as she moves around, I bought some size 3T toddler’s cotton knit training pants. Pulled on over the Huggies, one of these keeps the diaper from sagging or sliding down, but looks so funny I call her “Droopy Drawers.”
I don’t think she is physically incontinent, because she will wait to relieve herself when I say, "Outside to potty." However, when she wakes from an extended nap, I know to take her out immediately, or she will “go” in the diaper.
Just this afternoon, she was napping in her favorite chair, the den recliner, and came to find me at my computer after she awoke. It was obvious she wasn’t fully alert, so I stood up to take her outdoors. Too late! She squatted and wet the diaper. Disposable diapers are convenient and protect the furniture and floors, but I can’t help but wonder what the supermarket checkout person thinks when I (with my gray hair) place a package of Huggies Little Movers on the counter!
Perhaps her "accidents" result from a combination of the psychological effect of wearing a diaper plus the difficulty she faces when she needs to go and can't find me. I take her outside frequently these days--it’s almost like potty-training all over again—but I’m concerned that even after she fully adjusts to blindness, the need for the diaper might remain. I can’t watch her every minute. In short, what seemed like a temporary measure may become permanent if she accepts it as the “new normal.”
Life is Different at Our House, but That's Okay
Another problem is when she gets “stuck” somewhere in the house and won’t move. While she can now get around the main traffic paths of our one-story rancher fairly well, I keep the doors to bathrooms and one of the extra bedrooms closed. When she comes to an obstacle in an area not yet “mapped” in her mind and doesn’t know how to get around it, she simply stands there…and stands…and stands until I find and rescue her. At least the need to check on her frequently keeps me from sitting for too long a stretch at my computer.
I try not to leave her alone at home for more than an hour, two at the most, when I have to go out. I put her special calming music CD, “Through a Dog’s Ear”, playing on a loop so she will relax while I’m gone. Still, I worry that she’s wandering around in my absence, tripping over floor lamp bases or getting entangled in electric cords. (Did I mention I’m a worrier?) I need to find a reputable bonded dog-sitter who will come to my home and stay with her if the need arises. This shouldn’t be an emergency-initiated task. (Note to self: find good dog-sitter.)
The author of LIVING WITH BLIND DOGS cautions that some dogs equate their blindness with being attacked, and that makes sense to me. After all, as my daughter reminded me, Puppy Girl can’t understand the concept for why the world as she knew it suddenly went away.
A dog that feels “attacked” by blindness may lash out, so it’s important not to startle her. When I walk into a room, I talk softly before I get close to her. I never touch her without first speaking in a soothing voice. This works well when she’s awake, but it’s difficult to rouse her from a deep sleep, even if I talk loudly. Abruptly touching her when she’s asleep in the chair is not a good idea. (For some reason, I can move her over in the bed at night when she’s asleep without any reaction other than a “grumble.” Perhaps that’s because she’s already lying next to me, and her subconscious recognizes it is Mama who is moving her back onto her own pillow. This is good; otherwise she’d keep inching over until she pushed me off the bed!)
I tried—just once—leaving her asleep in the recliner when I went to bed. Fortunately, I was still awake and reading when I heard the noises as she bumped into things when she jumped or fell down from the chair. By the time I got to the den, she was in the dining room “stuck” with her nose pushed up against a chair leg. Rather than tell her to follow me, I spoke soothingly, picked her up and carried her to bed.
At least she’s stopped kicking like a bronco when I lift her from the floor as she did when it first became necessary. (She’d fallen and hurt her leg while trying to jump onto the bed.) Since then I have to pick her up and put her on the bed every night, and she now allows me to put my arm beneath her back legs, the other arm across her chest and hold her carefully as I lift. She must feel safer when I do this, because she accepts it. Small blessings.
And something else came from Puppy Girl’s blindness. Only when she was a puppy did she want to sit in my lap. As an adolescent, she decided that she wasn't going to be a lapdog. For years I’ve yearned for her to sit in my lap contentedly, but it wasn’t to be. Until now. Perhaps she needs comfort or simply closeness to me, but at least once a day when I’m sitting—sometimes twice—she either puts her paws on my leg and waits for me to lift her or jumps into my lap, though it’s not always a perfect landing. When this happens, I stop what I’m doing and hold her. She puts her head on my shoulder and relaxes as I stroke her back with one hand and support her bottom with the other. One day she even fell asleep in my arms. Small blessings indeed. I enjoy every moment of these special times that I never expected to have.
Update: December, 2013
At this writing I am discussing with Puppy Girl's vet the possibility of bilateral enucleation (removal of both eyes) to ensure that she doesn't feel pain from severe chronic dry eyes. Although I continue frequently cleaning the collected mucous from her eyes and applying Genteal P.M. ointment every one-to-two hours, day and night (I've trained myself to wake and check her), it's possible that she feels pain and hides it. The thought of removing her eyes is, of course, upsetting to me, but reading accounts of the benefits and how dogs react after the surgery (on a support website for people with blind dogs) encouraged me to consider it. I do not want her to be in pain if it can be avoided. Many pet parents say their dogs recuperate quickly and begin acting like their former selves after the surgery...even becoming playful once more. I think I owe it to Puppy Girl to consider what is best for her in this situation.
Yes, enucleation is a very difficult decision, but I realize that I'm reacting as a human. Since she is already blind, the only changes Puppy Girl will notice is the loss of any discomfort and the near-continuous ministrations to her eyes. Yes, she will look radically different (photos on the support website prepared me), but I can let her schnauzer eyebrows grow long and fluffy again to at least partially cover the surgical scars.
Thank you, readers, for caring about my dear Puppy Girl!
Highly Recommended by Jaye and Puppy Girl
An amazing CD that uses music in a special tempo to calm your dog
First Part of This Story
- When Your Dog Goes Blind
When an adult dog suddenly goes blind, it's traumatic for pet and pet parent alike. A blind dog can adjust to life without sight and get along fine, but it's difficult to believe that at first.
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