Thursday, December 18, 2008

Adjusting to Life with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) - Living with a Blind Dog

I have been an animal lover all my life and have owned a number of great pets. Pets show the unconditional love all people long for, and some people (who have great insight) accept and cherish pets. I am one of those people.

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine being the owner of a disabled pet, a blind dog. But, in 2001, that is the pathway I began to travel after adopting Sage, a black and white Springer Spaniel.

“I’m afraid I have bad news for you – your dog is going blind.” Those words from a trusted veterinarian send shock waves into the hearts and minds of pet owners. How do they and their beloved dog successfully travel the pathway of life with Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA)? It’s not as difficult as one might think, and there are great lessons along the way.

Emotionally the pet owner goes from shock, to sadness and on to denial, fear, and even anger. Finally, acceptance and determination set in, especially when the owner observes those qualities in his/her dog. At least that’s what happened to me.

It was February 2001. The month prior my husband and I adopted a beautiful black and white Springer Spaniel named Sage. I noticed immediately there was something a bit different about her. The people from whom we adopted her said she was “a sweet dog, a bit spacey, but sweet.” She would stare at a spot on the floor or up on the ceiling for several minutes. Other than that, she appeared “normal”. So, she came to live with us. Most dogs need an adjustment period after going to a new home, and Sage was no different. However, she was hesitant to walk up a few front porch steps, and she stumbled on the back porch steps. One day we came home from work to find our sofa shredded. And, she continued to stare down on the floor and up on the ceiling. I wondered if she had a balance problem. Springers are known as upland game bird dogs; perhaps someone had shot a gun too close to her head and caused an inner ear injury. It would be a few more weeks before my husband and I discovered the real reason for her strange behavior.

PRA is a genetic disease of the retina; the retina slowly thins and the retinal vessels begin to disappear, gradually affecting the dog’s eyesight. This disease impacts about 30 dog breeds, according to Dr. Justin Johnson of Casper, Wyoming, the veterinarian who diagnosed Sage. Breeds prone to the disease include miniature poodles, cocker spaniels, akitas, Tibetan terriers, and Labrador retrievers. Many are diagnosed between the ages of three and five, Dr. Johnson says. Some breeds, such as collie, Irish setter and Norwegian elkhound, can develop the disease at a very early age, as young as 3 –4 month old pups. Sage was only 1 ½ years old when she was diagnosed with PRA; within another year and a half, she was completely blind.

The most commonly observed symptom of PRA is the dog’s reaction to low light, according to Dr. Johnson. “The symptoms are most noticed during times of dim light – the dog seems to have impaired vision or ‘night blindness’,” he says.

Diagnosing PRA is done by ophthalmoscopic examination using an instrument called an indirect ophthalmoscope; the examination requires dilating the dog’s pupils using eye drops. Medication can be used to help slow down the progress of PRA, however, the diagnosis remains the same: blindness.

Cataracts and glaucoma also characterize PRA, and the disease progresses to the dog’s inability to see in the daylight. Interestingly, dogs adapt to the slow progress of PRA very well, and the many emotions a pet owner goes through do not necessarily reflect the dog’s attitude.

“Owners of dogs diagnosed with PRA are at first quite shocked because people rely on vision so much,” says Dr. Johnson. “Dogs engage their many senses and adapt to gradual vision loss. As the one sense decreases, the other senses heighten, especially smell and hearing. As long as owners don’t change the furniture too frequently, blind dogs navigate homes quite well.”

Dogs do pick up on their owner’s emotions quite easily. Therefore, an owner whose dog has PRA needs to be careful to not transfer emotional upheaval to the pet. Dogs affected with PRA may lose their sight, but the other senses heighten to such high degree, other people may not know at first the dog is blind. The senses of hearing and smell, for example, become sharper in a dog with low or no sight, especially in the hunting breeds such as Springer spaniels. Sage’s sense of smell is very acute–the hunting instinct is intense, and when we walk, she puts her nose to the ground frequently to catch the many scents along our walking route. A new path especially captures her nose’s attention, and she becomes very excited when her “schnoz” (to coin Jimmy Durante) picks up those new scents!

A dog with PRA can teach its owner and others great lessons in life. Patience, courage, determination, and self-confidence are some of the lessons we as people can learn from a blind dog, a disabled pet in general, and of course, also from our physically-challenged fellow human beings. We able-bodied persons have a tendency to let little challenges get the best of us; that may be why pet owners with a newly-diagnosed PRA dog run the gauntlet of emotion while our affected dogs simply absorb and adapt to the new situation. Watch a 3-legged dog, for example: the dog doesn’t sit on the sidelines at the dog park and watch its friends chase the ball; it still wants to run and play, and often does, just with a less agility and possibly more carefully. However, if we humans sprain an ankle or break a leg, we bemoan our misfortune and complain how it adversely impacts all we need to get done. A temporary set-back for us often makes us feel inconvienced at the least and most often like the world has collapsed. Does a blind or deaf or 3-legged dog act that way? Most times, not. We can learn much about patience, courage, and adaptability from our disabled 4-footed friends as we can also learn from our physically-challenged fellow humans.

There are some things a PRA dog cannot do – fetch a ball, for example. But, an owner can improvise how he/she plays with a blind dog. Sage likes rope toys, and when she was younger, she loved to play tug-of-war with my husband or me. She also played in an agility tunnel, searching for treats in the tunnel like they were pheasants in the field. She might not be able to compete in agility, but she enjoyed the challenge and the game! Additionally, I taught her words and commands that sighted-dog owners don’t generally use, but that keeps her mind busy and her activity instinct on track. She knows the words ‘step-up’ and ‘step-down’ (great for navigating stairs and for going up and down curbs) and ‘stop’ (keeps her from crossing the street before me and from getting into things she shouldn’t!). Sage still enjoys long walks in the neighborhood, swimming in a slow-moving creek, and simply being a companion dog lying at my feet. Loss of eyesight hasn’t changed any of that.

In addition to not moving furniture, there are a few other tips to assist the owner of a PRA dog:
1. Be creative with different scents to mark specific areas in your home -- just make sure its safe for your dog. You can use different scents of flavored extracts or even something as simple as hanging a car air freshener or potpourri sachet on a door. Using different scented candles in each room may also help your dog distinguish from different rooms in your house.
2. Use textured materials to mark areas as well. Throw rugs and decorative pillows are great (and people don't even realize their "real" purpose). Indoor/outdoor carpeting, wind chimes and something as simple as cedar chips or decorative bricks or blocks can help guide your blind dog along its way outside.
3. Use bells or jingling tags on your other dogs. Not only does this help your blind dog to find and/or follow your other dog(s), but it will also keep your blind one from being startled by your other dogs. You can also use bells on your shoes to help your blind dog find you and to follow you more closely on walks.
4. Don't underestimate the power of gentle touch and voice. Both help reassure your blind dog.
5. A tabletop fountain can be used as a water bowl. Get a simple one with a large bowl; the sound of running water helps orient a blind dog and helps it find its water bowl. Some dogs like drinking from running water as well. This tip can be especially helpful if you and your blind dog move to a new home.
6. Blind dogs run into things, and corners of tables or hallway walls can impose an injury. Cover these corners with padding like a soft fabric to lessen the impact on your blind dog’s face or body.

So, how does one live with a blind dog? Almost exactly like one lives with a sighted dog. There are adjustments both dog and owner must make, but as long as the dog knows it is loved and cared for, that it has a stable home with its human “pack”, and that it has consistency in life, a PRA dog can share a wonderful companionship with its owner for many, many years. PRA doesn’t impact the length of life nor even really the quality of life the dog enjoys. Moving furniture in the house often is not a good idea and catching and fetching a Frisbee probably isn’t a top sport; however, living a happy life is still very possible for a PRA dog and its owner. Sage and I are testament to that fact. Creativity, consistency, and courage are the keys.

Sage is now nine years old, and her tail continues to wag despite her handicap. If anything, I’ve grown to love and appreciate her more through the PRA experience. I respect her courage, her grit, her zest for life, and her extra-special senses; I see more ability in her than disability. I’ve grown; I’ve changed for the better, all thanks to a blind Springer Spaniel.


Kathy said...

Thank you for words of hope... our "baby" was recently diagonosed with PRA, and your story has touched my heart.

Wyoming Sage said...

Thanks, Kathy, for your kind words. I hope your special one is adjusting. It all takes time and I hope you will find the experience as meaningful as I have. I have written a book about Sage that you may enjoy. Our website is I continue to be amazed at how our pets adapt, much better than I would, that's for sure! Blessings!

Paul de Leeuw said...

Great article. My springer spaniel
"Charlie" was diagnosed when he was 4. While I was devastated and shocked and could not possibly conceive how he would live a quality live, Charlie has taught me differently. He is 7 now and completely blind but that does not stop him from playing,being inquisitive and loving. His spirit through all of this has been an inspirationand certainly a lesson for me to get on with life no matter what is thrown at us.