A few months ago I was extremely sad to find out that my beloved doggy Zoë suddenly went blind from an incurable and unfortunately under-researched disease called SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome). Being a qualified dog behaviourist, dog rescuer and founder of HK Rescue Puppies (I have fostered/ rescued/ homed well over 200 puppies & dogs in HK in the past 7 years), I was amazed that I had never heard of this disease before (the Optimologist from Peace Avenue, Dr. Derek Chow told me that he diagnoses 1 to 2 dogs a month with the disease in HK and I researched on the internet that over 4,000 dogs a year contract the disease in the USA alone). It is apparently more prevalent in female, spayed dogs over 6 years old and can be associated with Cushings disease (although not in Zoë’s case). Another theory is that it is caused by over exertion of the Adrenal gland, resulting in a deficiency of the natural steroid, Cortisol, which somehow affects the retina and stops it from functioning permanently.
Zoë exhibited all of the symptoms of SARDS over the 2 months preceding her diagnosis: increased water consumption and urination, increased appetite, weight gain, bed wetting, confusion, restlessness, heavy breathing/ snoring, behavioural changes (she cried when I was not with her & stood still, staring into space for extended periods) and lethargy; none of which I would have ever associated with blindness. As Zoë is still fairly young (she turned 6 on 26 April 2013) and had never had any eye injury or eye infection, it never even occurred to me that she was going blind. Looking back, I think she had short periods of loss or partial loss of vision for about 2 months and it slowly got worse.
I took Zoë to the vet on 4 February 2013 because she was exhibiting the above symptoms and throwing up as well. As my beloved Zara (RIP) had shown some of the same symptoms prior to her dying of liver cancer in 2012, I thought Zoë might have a kidney or liver problem. Her urine was tested and she was given a full blood test. Everything was normal apart from she had low potassium levels (which the vet said would indicate that she was sick from something she ate or drank – a dead barking dear was found the next day in the river that she drinks from, so I assumed she got sick from that). She was put on antibiotics and Potassium tablets & I brought her home.
I waited until the course of antibiotics was finished, but she still wasn’t back to normal. She stopped throwing up and seemed slightly more lively at times but was still exhibiting most of the above SARDS symptoms. On walks in the woods she was taking longer to come back to me than usual and was extremely lethargic on the way home. On 14 February 2013 I brought her to the vet again and he said that he couldn’t find anything medically wrong with her but suggested that I put her on anti-inflammatories for a few days to see if that helped (in case it was something that hadn’t show up on the blood and urine tests). He also suggested that it might be behavioural (this was feasible, as my parents, helper and 2 foster pups had just left, so I thought she might have been upset that our pack had suddenly decreased in size).
She seemed slightly better for about a week or so but then the bed-wetting increased and at times she looked really dazed, confused and dizzy. She also started drooling heavily and staring into space a lot more. Then one evening I got out her favourite treats and held one in front of her. She could smell it but didn’t appear to be able to see it. A few seconds later she looked like she could see again and took the treat. She may have gone in and out of blindness or I may have been reading her eyes and head following my movements, as her being able to see me (when in fact she was probably using her sound and smell sensors to follow my movements). Even in the weeks following her diagnosis, it looked like there were moments that she could see, but then she would stumble or walk into something. For a while it looked like she may have been be able to see shadows during bright periods of daylight, but Dr. Derek said that (if that was the case) then it would soon go, (as would the other symptoms in a few months.
On Monday 4 March 2013 Zoë walked into a drain wall when we were outdoors and then into one of my dining chairs when I got home. I was shocked and upset and immediately called the vet and said I thought she had gone blind; he referred me to Dr. Derek and I drove her to Peace Avenue Animal Hospital in Mong Kok. Dr. Derek was very nice and did a full retinal examination and diagnosed SARDS. He said it was a very sudden and permanent condition with no known cause or approved cure. He was very sorry that he couldn’t offer me a cure but he kindly gave me some advice on how to adapt my lifestyle to living with a blind dog. He said there was nothing I could have done earlier to stop it progressing and nothing I could do to make the eyesight come back. Needless to say I was devastated and there were a lot of tears in the following few weeks. I subsequently did a lot of reading up on the internet and found it very sad that more is not known about this dreadful disease and that nothing could be done to save her sight. I have taken things one day at a time and have adapted my life accordingly to give Zoë the best life possible. Some people asked if I would put her down and I asked them if they would put their children down if they went blind! Such a thing is inconceivable to me. Her life will not be as adventurous as it once was, but she can still lead a great life and has actually adapted to her situation better than me!
Some of the following tips about “Living with a Blind Dog” were given to me by the Optimologist, some I got from asking around, some from the internet and some from trial and error. I hope they will be useful to any other dogs owners who find themselves living with a blind dog:
· Put an easy to grab type harness on your dog (like the one in the photo of Zoe) instead of a collar and use a wide, extendable lead (not the thin, wire type) to walk your dog. Lock the lead at a safe length when walking on/ near roads and unlock the lead in safe areas to let your dog sniff and move around. Hook the lead to the back of the harness (not the front) so that you can easily pull your dog back from any potential dangers. Never let your dog off lead outdoors in unsecured areas or in areas with potential dangers.
· When you are walking your dog or moving around your home, talk calmly, gently and frequently to your dog to let them know where you are.
· Use set words to tell your dog that there is an obstacle in their path and to guide them (like “Step”, “Stop”, “Jump” “Left”, “Right” etc.). When using “Left” or “Right” pull the lead gently in that direction to help guide them in the correct direction.
· If you have other dogs or cats, then tie a small bell to each of their collars so that your blind dog can hear where they are too.
· If you have furniture that could be bumped into that would cause something on top of it to fall down from a height (picture frames/ statues etc.), then move those objects to a safer location so that nothing can fall on your dog’s head if it bumps into something.
· If you live in a house with stairs, then you need to be extra careful to keep your dog safe from falling down the stairs. Stick 2” wide non-slip floor tape to the entire front length of each step & place a non-slip carpet at the top, the bottom and the corner sections of each set of stairs. If necessary, place a child gate at the top and bottom of each set of stairs. Accompany your dog up and down the stairs whilst holding their harness (If they are a small dog, then you can add a short lead to the harness). Do not let your dog negotiate stairs on their own in your home until they have shown that they can navigate them safely every time. If you need to go out and leave your dog(s) alone then make sure you have a closed stair gate to keep them on one level. I have found that Zoë needs help going down the stairs first thing in the morning, but now she seems to be able to get up and down them fine (on her own) for the rest of the day. I have a spiral staircase to the roof and when she hears me open the roof door she can get up the stairs on her own (she likes sunbathing on the day bed on my roof) but needs help every time coming down them (she just stands and waits for me at the top of the stairs until I come to get her to help her down – she also never tries to go up the stairs unless she hears me open the roof door).
· Do not move the furniture around in your home and do not leave any potential obstacles in areas that are normally free of obstruction (shopping, the vacuum cleaner etc.).
· When feeding your dog, make a noise by tapping the dog bowl when you put it down, so that they can easily find it (I have found that Zoe’s sense of smell has gotten worse since she went blind; she can smell there is food in the room but has trouble finding it and gets stressed when she can’t. The tapping helps – hopefully her sense of smell will improve with time).
· Stimulate your dogs mind with playtime and training. If your dog likes to play, buy toys with noises in them, I found a great ball with bells inside it (I think it was designed for cats) that I can roll around for Zoë to find. If you have a dog with a better sense of smell who likes a challenge, then you can also use Kong type toys filled with something yummy and place them somewhere that your dog can search for them and find them without bumping into anything. You can also teach them requests and tricks through sound and touch. Use pats and words of praise or small, strong smelling treats to further entice their senses of smell and taste. Until her sense of smell improves, I have found that I sometimes need to gently touch Zoe’s mouth with the treat (when she has trouble finding it).
· It is very stressful for your dog when they first go blind. The action of chewing releases endorphins that calm stress, so it is best to provide your dog with an adequate amount of safe chew toys or flat, raw hide chew bones to help relieve the stress.
· Your dog will probably not be able to get as much exercise, so you will need to reduce their food intake accordingly so that they do not become overweight. Do not try to overcompensate the blindness by giving them too many treats.
· The vet recommended that I stick with the same walk every time, so that Zoe knows where she is, but she soon got bored with this, so I started to vary the walks and she was much happier having different smells to sniff. I am lucky that I have a number of great walking options from where I live, so I have about 6 different walks that I stick to. This gives her variety throughout the day and the confidence to know where she is in an area close to home.
· All dogs (especially blind ones) need a calm and assertive pack leader, someone they can trust to make all the important survival decisions for them. Being a good pack leader is not about domination or control, it is about respect and understanding. You need to be able to communicate with your dogs in a way they understand.
· We are all human, so there are times in our lives when we get upset. If you really need to cry or vent then try (where possible) to do so away from your dogs (out of sight and out of earshot), then take a deep breath and go pack to being the pack leader that they need. In the beginning I found it very difficult not to burst into tears when I saw Zoë struggling with something. I live opposite a 10 foot storm drain and a few days after her diagnosis, Zoë was meandering along on a walk beside my other dogs and I, when she suddenly and quickly made a 90 degree turn and ran straight into the drain. I was so shocked! Luckily it had some water and wet leaves in it to soften the fall and I pulled her straight up with the extendable lead and harness. I burst into tears at the thought of her possibly being hurt, but she just came out, had a shake and walked over to her favourite bush and started eating her daily veggies (she is like a goat). It was as if nothing had happened! I went from tears to laughter in an instant. Dogs are so resilient and adaptable; we can learn so much from them!
Hazel Black - Chairman of HK Rescue Puppies & a qualified dog behaviourist.