Spring 2013 Magazine

Casa Canine

Tyler's Descent into Blindness:
Canine Retinal Degeneration

By Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D.

Tyler arrived at Greyhound Adoption Service in Salisbury, MA on a hot July day. The drive from a Florida racing kennel had taken a full 24 hours. The greyhound jumped from the transport vehicle and stretched his lean body, glad to be on solid ground. Just 21 months old, Tyler was a friendly, lovable boy on his way to his forever home. After state-regulated quarantine time, and complete medical work-up, Tyler was ready for adoption. He joined his new family at the end of August.

None of the paper work that came with Tyler from Florida, including health certificate and veterinary documents gave indications of anything wrong with his eyes. During Tyler's month at the greyhound rescue, neither the staff nor the veterinarian during his medical work-up noticed anything wrong either.

But in his new house, Tyler's vision problems became dramatically apparent. The main living quarters of Tyler's home were on the second floor of the house. Rescued racing greyhounds rarely have experience with stairs. On his first day home, Tyler's adopter helped him up the stairs and he seemed to learn quickly. The staircase and living room had the same dark carpeting. Within a half hour, Tyler fell down the stairs. Later that day he tripped over the family's dark colored Labrador retriever mix. As the week went on, he continued to trip over the Lab. At night, his lack of vision became more obvious, stumbling and bumping into the curb on walks. He was dependent on the people in his life to guide him and grew extremely anxious when they were gone. The usual attempts to mitigate his separation anxiety only seemed to make things worse.

Two weeks after bringing Tyler home, the adopters took him to see veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Nick Cassotis of Port City Veterinary Referral Hospital in Portsmouth, NH. The examination confirmed that Tyler had retinal degeneration in both eyes. Tyler 's vision in ambient light was poor and night vision absent. He was going blind.

Tyler's adopted family spent the next seven months trying to integrate him into their home and help him cope with his blindness. But his anxiety and frustration continued to increase. After about five months, the family's small white poodle growled when Tyler got to close to his food bowl. Tyler lashed out at the small dog, grabbing and shaking him. At this point the family had fallen in love with Tyler and could not imagine parting with him. They sought help to try to make the situation work. Two months later, another incident of food aggression occurred and this time the poodle was injured. In consultation with the greyhound rescue, Tyler's family made the difficult decision to surrender him for placement in a home more suitable for his special needs.

How did everyone miss the symptoms of Tyler's progressive blindness? He was seen by at least 4-5 veterinarians as well as cared for by numerous kennel staff in Florida and MA before he was adopted. Signs were there from his very first race and throughout the course of his brief racing career - repeated bumps, collisions and confusion on the track. Symptoms like his inability to follow and find a tossed tennis ball were attributed to lack of interest. Who would have thought of sight problems in a sight hound? The problem was not negligence but rather a lack of awareness. Eye health is one of the least discussed aspects of canine health.

Retinal degeneration is a serious eye condition that occurs in dogs. The retina is the area in the back of the eye where special cells called rods and cones are stimulated by light and send impulses to the to the brain for interpretation. With retinal degeneration, the cells of the retina do not function fully or may be completely dead, causing decreased or absent vision. The condition can be diagnosed by a thorough eye examination by a veterinary ophthalmologist.

Retinal degeneration can be caused by glaucoma, infections and detachment of the retina. One form, progressive retinal atrophy (PRA), is genetic, inherited in many breeds of dogs, among them collies, English spaniels, Irish setters, Labrador retrievers, miniature poodles and miniature Schnauzers. The onset of PRA can occur early from 1-3 years or later in life 6 years and over. PRA can affect cats, too. The specific cause of retinal degeneration in individuals is often unknown.

The prognosis for retinal degeneration is eventual blindness. There is no cure or treatment. The greatest challenge is the adaptation of the dog to waning sight. Given the right environment, dogs can adapt quite well. A home that remains constant, everything in its place, makes it easier for a dog to learn to navigate through rooms. Precautions like gates at stairs, fencing around pools, secure yards with no obstacles help keep the dog safe. In the way that some blind humans rely on dogs to guide them through the world, so too will a blind dog look to his human family for help. There are several informative websites and books that offer practical help for families with blind dogs. See blinddogrescue.org and blinddogs.net.

After he was returned to the greyhound rescue, Tyler was seen again by Dr. Cassotis. The examination confirmed advanced retinal degeneration in both eyes. Tyler will likely be completely blind within months, an exact timeline hard to predict. He has no pain or irritation. The rescue will place him in a home that meets his special needs. An adult family where he is an only dog would eliminate conflicts. He is less anxious with his person around so someone who works from home or is retired would fit the bill. And wherever he goes, they've got to promise not to rearrange the furniture!

Recognizing that your dog has vision deficits is the first step in dealing with the problem. An eye exam should be part of your dog's annual veterinary wellness visit. Dr. Cassotis says, "Examining the retina should be performed during annual examinations. It should especially be requested from owners when they feel vision may be limited. If further opinion is desired, then a referral to an ophthalmologist should be sought." If you notice that your dog exhibits some of Tyler's signs like stumbling or bumping into things, lack of night vision, or inability to locate objects like toys, take your dog to get his eyes examined. If there is a serious eye condition, the sooner you know what is going on, the sooner you can set up your home as a safe haven for your dog and help him adapt to his progressive sight loss. Retinal degeneration is not a death sentence. Dogs are resilient and rely on their other senses more than we humans do. They can adapt to their blindness with your help. The prognosis is a long and happy life together.

Deborah Schildkraut, Ph.D. is a writer and columnist for PETroglyphs and an author of children's books about dogs. She lives with her husband and her two canine companions, Gus and Hazel.

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