Blindness in Dogs Can Occur Suddenly and Without Warning

Sudden onset of blindness in dogs is called SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome). This canine blindness occurs with little or no warning. Sometimes the dog loses sight overnight, other times it happens during the course of a week or two. Joe, at left, lost his sight within one week at the age of ten. While the condition has been studied for years, there are still many unanswered questions regarding this canine eye disease.

Snapshot: Sudden Blindness in Dogs (SARDS)
A quick look if you're in a hurry. Come back later when you have time to read the complete guide.
  • Cause: SARDS is an autoimmune disease. This means the afflicted dog's body forms antibodies that attack his own retinal cells, causing canine blindness.
  • Precursors: Around 90% of dogs with SARDS have a history of one or more of the following: skin allergy, food allergy, allergic reaction to vaccines, anemia, excessive thirst, excessive hunger, excessive urination.
  • Behavior flags: A dog experiencing the onset of SARDS may be reluctant to jump on and off of furniture or to walk up or down stairs in low-light conditions.
  • Treatment: Some vets have had success in returning eye sight to 50% of SARDS dogs by prescribing prednisone.The other dogs are unaffected by the drug and remain permanently blind but feel no pain due to the condition.

Definition of SARDS (Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome)

This condition usually results in sudden and total blindness, although sometimes it takes place over the course of a few days or less frequently, several weeks. Because the blindness is sudden and total, the dog has no chance to gradually adjust and often will be confused.

SARDS is not specific to certain breeds nor is it inherited. Iit does appear most often in middle age or elderly dogs, usually in females.

Precursors (present prior to the onset of SARDS)

Dogs diagnosed with SARDS have a history of one or a combination of the following behavior and medical conditions. These may occur weeks, months or even years prior to the SARDS diagnosis.

  • Uncomfortable using stairs or jumping on/off furniture or into/out of a vehicle at night or when lights are low inside the home.
  • Willing to chase a ball that is thrown at a distance but not if it is thrown close to the dog.
  • Runny eyes.
  • Seasonal skin allergies.
  • Always seems to be starved, followed by weight gain.
  • Drinks a lot of water, followed by excessive urination.
  • Allergies to foods.
  • Reaction to vaccinations.

Sudden Blindness in Dogs - Diagnosis

If you suspect your dog has SARDS, or if any of the above medical or behavior precursors are noticed, your best friend should be examined by a veterinary opthalmologist. Since Progressive Retinal Atrophy, an inherited condition, also causes complete blindness, your dog will need to see an eye specialist to make a diagnosis.

The opthalmologist will test the dog's eyes by shining a blue light (SARDS dog's pupil will constrict); red light (SARDS dog's pupil will remain dilated and will not constrict); and electroretinogram or ERG (the SARDS dog's ERG will be flat).

Sudden Blindness in Dogs - Treatment

The most common treatment for this form of blindness in dogs is a steroid and antibiotic given together in an attempt to suppress the dog's autoimmune response. This is not successful in all dogs.

An experimental treatment was tested at Iowa State University in 2007. This treatment uses human immunoglobulins in an attempt to restore sight. It is given either intravenously or directly into the eye using a needle. Experiments have met with limited success and also exposes the patient to risks. The immunoglobulins can cause a sever allergic reaction, no one knows what the long-term effects will be, and the eye may be further damage by the insertion of the needle.

It is best to discuss treatment options with a veterinary opthalmologist to make an informed decision on your dog's care.

Helping your dog adjust

Most dogs will not benefit from treatment and will remain blind. But they can still lead a happy and fulfilling life with your help. Do not move furniture or his bed. Feed him in the same place and keep the usual routine (walks, time outside to relieve himself, etc.) Buy squeaky toys with a variety of sounds. (See the photo below of Joe and one of his favorite squeaky toys.) Even if you have a fenced yard, take him outside on a leash. You are his eyes.

If you have other dogs in the household, put bells on them so your blind dog knows where they are. Being blind is new and confusing, so your dog is counting on your to help him adjust.

My Experience: Sudden Blindness in Dogs Leads to Anxiety

When our dog Joe (see photo) became blind with SARDS he understandably began to experience dog anxiety. He became fearful and defensive. He went into his dog crate and did not want to come out. If we tried to coax him out, he snapped at us. When he did come out of his house, Joe refused to let us guide him by hanging onto his collar. He refused to move very far and would not get onto his bed.

I began giving Joe homeopathic drops to combat the anxiety, prescribed by Dr. DeHaan, a holistic veterinarian in North Carolina (www.aholisticvetcom). I put 15 drops of the treatment (see photo) on his food twice a day. In less than a week, Joe started hanging out on his bed rather than his house. He seemed happier. He was not afraid to walk around the room and allowed us to lead him by the collar to go outside.

Although Joe's anxiety level improved a great deal, he still would occasionally growl at us when we tried to coax him outside and also whined a lot as if trying to express his anxiousness at certain times. Living in a multi-dog household, I believe Joe was fearful of walking into another dog. I decided to try a collar called Adaptil®, which uses a synthetic version of the pheromone that a nursing mother dog produces naturally to soothe her puppies.

The rubber-like collar comes with a ring on the inside of the collar (see photo) that must be pulled to activate the soothing pheromone. The collar can be easily adjusted to fit a range of sizes. I ordered the Medium-Large size for our 80-lb. Joe. I put the Adaptil collar over Joe's regular collar. While there was no visible difference at first, Joe's whining began to subside around a week and the occasional challenging growl is now a thing of the past. I bought the collar online for $20 and replace it every four or five weeks. Be sure and shop around if you decide to try the Adaptil collar, as there are many sites selling this product and the prices range greatly, from $20 to $40.

Joe is now a much happier boy and we are now much happier dog parents.

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