What do you do when your dog is going blind? In short, you diagnose, tend to what you can, and if needed, purchase a Halo Vest. Read on for a breakdown of how and why your dog can go blind, plus tips on how to best serve the needs of blind dogs as learned through trial and error by Dorie Stratton, inventor of the Halos For Paws™ Halo Vest.
Dorie Stratton wasn’t always the expert on blind dogs, though she spent years serving in a rescue group and working as a pet therapist with Hospice. Her first experience caring for one was Popcorn, a West Highland Terrier she saved from euthanasia when a friend asked her to take him after his owner passed away. Since Popcorn had cataracts and couldn’t see, the late owner’s son assumed the dog was a lost cause. “We fell in love with him and wanted to help him,” said Dorie, “so we took him to Auburn University, to see if we could get him cataracts surgery.”
He was approved for surgery.
“We lived with him blind for 6 weeks before that happened,” Dorie said. “He was a very smart dog. He adjusted to our home and life very easy and he wasn’t really bumping into things. If he was, I would have become very distressed. He adapted very well, he got his sight, he was better, lived a few years and went to heaven after that. He had a special place in my heart. That was my first encounter with a blind dog. It was a positive experience. They can sniff, take direction, and I had no problem.”
But not all blind dogs are so effortless. Her second was a Scotty she got after receiving a call from the SPCA asking if she could foster him.
"He was the total opposite, bumping into everything and crying. It really upset me and distressed me. I had to carry him around. Of course, we fell in love with him, too. I kept thinking there’s gotta be something I can do to help this dog. And this vest idea with the halo just popped into my head! Then I Googled it and I saw other people had similar ideas but nobody had done anything about it.”
They say blind dogs see with their hearts - soothing their masters over a lifetime with undying loyalty and affection. While for some dogs, going blind is an inevitable tragedy, your understanding and preparation are invaluable in helping your dog maintain a happy life without eyesight. A dog can often adjust quickly to blindness in part due to good instincts and their strong sense of smell, touch and hearing.
Look for these signs if you suspect your dog is experiencing difficulty with vision:
- clumsy behavior like bumping into walls and furniture
- startling easily
- inability to locate toys or water bowl
- apprehensive about going out at night
- excessive sleeping
- loss of playfulness
- disorientation or confusion
- changes in the appearance of the eyes.
If you notice these behaviors in your dog, you should seek immediate veterinary care, particularly with a veterinary ophthalmologist. A veterinarian won’t necessarily have the specialized knowledge to diagnose the root cause of a dog’s blindness, which can be as varied as stars in the sky. We’ve broken it down into groups.
Why Your Dog May Be Going Blind
Never assume it’s too late - you have options to stop your dog from going totally blind, check with your local veterinarian!
Canine eyesight has evolved to suit their nature as nocturnal hunters. Although dogs can’t focus on near objects, are partially color blind, and have poor detail vision, they have certain receptors superior to human vision for detecting moving objects in dim light. Dogs lose eyesight for many reasons including cataracts (cloudy lenses caused by a wide variety of ailments), glaucoma, cancer, injuries, retinal detachment, and diabetes. Three out of four dogs will go blind from cataracts within one year of a diabetes diagnosis. Cataracts could be the first sign of developing diabetes. Interestingly, diabetic cats do not go blind or develop cataracts.
Although cataracts are said to cloud the lens, the lens is actually inside a clear capsule. It is the clear sack containing the lens that fogs the inside of the capsule. The clouding can be minor to the point to where it doesn’t really affect vision and that is called an incipient cataract. An immature cataract causes some blurred vision and over time becomes a mature cataract, clouding up the entire lens, blinding the eye to reception. As a cataract matures, the pupil in the center of the eye can change colors to blue, black or white. A hyper-mature cataract will wrinkle the lens capsule and shrivel the lens itself. If there is a clear area, some vision can remain, so cataracts may not guarantee absolute blindness. The onset of cataracts can take years or it can create blindness quickly within a few days or weeks.
Diabetes in dogs (as well as humans!) is on the rise. One in ten dogs is projected to develop diabetes worldwide. Cataracts from diabetes can develop fast - if your dog has clear eyes and then suddenly has white eyes, take your dog to the vet immediately to get checked for diabetes.
Development of cataracts may be the first indication that a dog is diabetic. Other symptoms include:
- extreme thirst
- more frequent urination possibly with accidents in the house
- sudden unexplained weight loss
- lethargy or depression
- abdominal pain.
If your dog shows any of these signs, seek veterinary treatment immediately. As with humans, treatment for diabetes can range from a change of diet and exercise to daily insulin shots and, as with any disease, the prognosis is better with early intervention.
Heartworm medicines and preventatives, flea/tick medications and vaccinations can cause cataracts.
Progressive Retinal Atrophy / SARDS
The retina is the tissue lining the eye’s inner surface containing the rods and cones that register light and color, like a camera aperture. Progressive retinal atrophy can also cause cataracts, starting as night blindness and progressing to light blindness. The pupils may become dilated or suffer abnormal reactions to light. Sometimes they retain peripheral vision as only the center becomes blinded (most likely to occur that way in Labrador Retrievers.) Nervous system disorders that swell or change retinal cells can occur in most breeds. There’s also a fast-acting degenerative disease known as SARDS or Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome.
Progressive retinal atrophy is really an umbrella term that could be any ground of diseases that contribute to worsening eyesight. This is why it’s important to get a full check-up at the vet if you suspect your dog is going blind. While a dog can live a happy life without eyesight, the blindness can also point to a disease that needs to be treated. The onset of retinal atrophy can occur anytime in a dog’s life due to genetics, blunt trauma, cancer, toxins and nutritional deficiencies.
Inflammation of the uvea of a dog’s eye can be quite painful and lead to blindness. Anterior uveitis is generally a secondary condition triggered by an autoimmune or metabolic disease, an infection or a virus. Symptoms include squinting, eye redness, discharge, swelling or a changed appearance to the center of the eye. Severe uveitis can lead to cataracts. Look into your dog’s eyes every day! They will reveal signs of health or problems. If your dog injures its eye in any way take them to the vet because sometimes you can’t tell if there’s been damage to the eye and if you wait too long it could be too late.
An unbalanced milk replacement can cause cataracts in puppies, though this type of cataract can improve as the puppy get older.
As dogs become elderly, small cataracts develop slowly and shouldn’t cause serious vision problems. If the dog is older and cataracts come on quickly, go to a vet immediately for a full check-up and diagnosis.
Some people say that blind dogs rely on the other four senses more than on sight and so it shouldn’t be that important of an adjustment for a dog, but that is not necessarily true. It’s easy for us to say, but they do rely on sight for a good amount of getting around. Don’t buy into the idea your blind dog doesn’t need supplementary intervention when they’re losing vision.
Choosing a Blind Dog Mobility Aid
Dorie likens her halo vests to ‘a white cane for blind dogs.’ Each is custom-made to fit your unique dog, whose precise measurements you fill out online. A measuring and sizing chart shows you how to measure your pet so they can have their own halo vest mobility aid made for them.
“Our customers and repeat customers - they do rely on the vests,” Dorie said. “My Scotty, who is my third blind dog, he was adopted 3 years ago and has some type of problem with his retina. It’s hereditary from bad breeding and he has a hard time navigating. He can’t smell that well.”
“He has a hard time navigating unless he has a vest on.”
“I have to pull him on a leash through the house or I have to put his vest on because he'll just bump into everything,” she said. “He’d rather sit in the corner and not move than go anywhere. We engage him and put his collar on and take him for a walk. We put a vest on him and he tries to follow our voices, I slap the side of my thigh or I have a clicker I click and they follow. I don’t believe they can just rely on their other senses. The people who purchase our vest, it really helps them and their dogs live a better quality of life.”
The Halo Vest is handmade by five women, all professionals from the corporate manufacturing world. Dorie’s next-door neighbor Ellen worked as a seamstress for Disney World. Another friend sewed for Levi-Strauss and another at Lee Jeans. The Halo Vest just popped into Dorie’s mind one day.
“I bought a very light cotton vest and I went and got a halo,” Dorie said. “My friend said ‘you need a strong plastic wire like refrigerator wire.’ We put galvanized wire inside the plastic wire to make it strong. I went to my next door neighbor, Ellen, with a sewing shop; she used to work for Disney making costumes in Florida before she retired. She put the vest together and we had a vest and the dog had a happy life.”
Then a local veterinary ophthalmologist saw the vest.
“She said ‘where did you get that?’ I said I made it - it takes about two hours. She said ‘you’re kidding. Can you make me some? Blind dogs need these vests! You need to start a business.’”
Dorie was in her mid-50s at the time and, as a retired business owner who had sold her five travel agencies to American Express, she wanted to have fun, not start a new business all over again. But with Ellen roped in from next door, she went to work.
“I started it with the paperwork, I incorporated my patent, got trademarks,” Dorie said. “I put it on the internet; we slowly built up; did three, four vests a week; did more marketing - it just grew! Now we have a business we sell all over the world.”
Her biggest market is the USA, followed by Australia, the UK and fourth is Canada.
“Australia is rather special to us because we have sheep in Australia - we have a halo vest for sheep,” she said. “I don’t hear too much about sheep. They say sheep are very dumb and I never knew that.”
Dorie can casually see when a dog has eye issues because she works so closely with blind dogs all the time.
“I try to keep abreast of all these issues,” she said. “The dog we adopted I made the halo vest for, he had a condition called SARDS. That’s the bad one. It really opened my eyes to these diseases that dogs have with their eyes.”
Originally she thought maybe they’d make 2000 Halo Vests and save the world with those 2000 and all the blind dogs would be covered. We’ll just say if you are having eye issues with your helpful hound, you are not alone.
“We had no idea what we were venturing into when we started this - we had no idea,” Dorie said. I learned once we started the business, it’s mostly cataracts, diabetes, and SARDS. A lot of people don’t know that to have a cataract surgery you have to be a candidate - you have to meet certain criteria - they get the surgery and their dog is still blind.”
Cataract surgery is $4000 dollars now, she said. The industry standard used to be $1100.
“With SARDS, dogs go blind overnight and people aren’t aware of that and they really freak out,” she said. “I get a lot of phone calls from people and they say ‘my dog went blind overnight and the vet doesn’t have any idea.’ Vets don’t have much idea of SARDS. Veterinary ophthalmologists do, but not regular vets as much. It’s a sad disease.”
Halos for Paws has just released a lighter, lower-priced version of the of the Halo Vest. It’s a lighter vest with a lighter halo and it runs between $29.99 to $49.99. The original vests range from $78 to $150.
“We’re excited about what we do and we love helping all these puppies that need help,” she said. “So we give back, we’re just happy - we’re coming out with a new vest!”
Sources and Further Information for Owners of a Dog Suffering Blindness:
- "Blindness". 2017. Diabetes In Pets. http://petdiabetes.wikia.com/wiki/Blindness#cite_note-0.
- Boyle, J. P., A. A. Honeycutt, K.M. V. Narayan, T. J. Hoerger, L. S. Geiss, H. Chen, and T. J. Thompson. 2017. "Projection Of Diabetes Burden Through 2050: Impact Of Changing Demography And Disease Prevalence In The U.S.." http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/24/11/1936.
- "Cataracts In Dogs - Symptoms, Treatment And Prevention - Dog-Breeds.Com". 2017. Dog-Breeds.Com. https://www.dog-breeds.com/blog/cataracts-in-dogs/.
- "Diabetes, Dogs And Blindness". 2017. Vetinfo. https://www.vetinfo.com/diabetes-dogs-blindness.html.
- "Loss Of Vision And Blindness In Your Dog". 2017. Reach Out Rescue & Resources. http://www.reachoutrescue.org/info/display?PageID=11145.