When we graduated from veterinary school, my classmates and I rose to take the veterinarian’s oath. As I recall, it contained some phrases about protecting food safety and public health. But the meat of the oath, as I apply it to my daily life, boiled down to this: It is my duty to try to heal animals, prevent animal suffering, and to always act in my patients’ best interest. I have tried to live by these principles throughout my career, because I otherwise would not be able to sleep at night. (Although as I reread the oath now, I see that healing animals is barely mentioned, and that acting in animals’ best interests isn’t covered at all. No matter — I will continue to live by my interpretation.)
Euthanasia is, in some sad instances, the only way to alleviate animal suffering and act in the patient’s best interest. However, there are some situations in which owners believe euthanasia is needed, and I strongly disagree. Blindness is one of those conditions.
Start with this: Most “blind” pets actually have some visual function. Older cats and dogs may have significant vision loss, but often have sufficient residual visual capacity to function in normally, although they may have difficulty walking without guidance in the dark.
However, even fully blind animals can lead high-quality lives. And why wouldn’t they? Humans with no vision are able to lead rich and fulfilling existences, and vision is our number one sense. Pets rely first and foremost on their noses; eyesight comes second.
Full blindness occurs in dogs most frequently as a result of glaucoma that irreversibly damages the retina, the portion of the eye that actually senses light. It can be painful, and many dogs require removal of both eyes to relieve the pain. Full blindness in cats most often occurs due to high blood pressure that causes the retinas to detach from the surface of the eye. This can be reversed if it is caught and treated early; if not, it may lead to permanent blindness.
Owners of animals that suddenly go blind often initially have trouble imagining their pet leading a good life. But they soon discover that blindness does not pose an insurmountable challenge. Blind animals generally memorize the layout of their dwellings, and rarely run into walls or furniture unless the house is rearranged.
Blind dogs should be escorted by an owner on walks. Blind cats should not be allowed outside (although in my opinion, neither should sighted cats). No blind animal should be allowed near cliffs or open windows or other obviously dangerous circumstances. Blind animals should be approached cautiously because they may be easier to startle than their sighted brethren. And, as far as special care goes, that’s about it.
Blind animals are on my mind because of Nikko, a dog I treated a few weeks ago. When I first met Nikko (he had been admitted to the hospital by another doctor; I took over his care when I came on duty), I was advised by a sign on his run that he was blind, so I assumed he had weak vision due to aging. I approached him carefully, called his name to let him know I was in his run, and then evaluated him. He was fully blind — both eyes had been surgically removed. And he was definitely suffering, but not because he was blind. He was suffering because he was afflicted with a raging case of hemorrhagic gastroenteritis (severe gastrointestinal upset leading to profusely bloody diarrhea).
Over the next 24 hours, with IV fluids, painkillers, antibiotics, and gastrointestinal-protecting medications, Nikko’s condition improved dramatically. A spring came into his step when he was taken out for walks (and yes, he was walked normally, like every other dog in the hospital). His appetite returned. The vomiting and diarrhea stopped. He was a friendly, lively, sweet, adorable dog. He went home to his normal, high-quality life.
If your pet goes blind, do not despair. A good quality of life is not only possible, but is almost certain.