Home-made obstacle course offers early warning on eyesight problems

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 May, 2011, 12:00am

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Tony Smyth's dog Olga developed glaucoma and went blind. 'It happened suddenly. But once I noticed, I took Olga to see the vet,' says Smyth, who lives with 11 dogs in Yuen Long. 'At first I thought, my goodness why didn't we notice this earlier? You feel so disheartened that it came on so quickly ... but sometimes there is no way you can know about it. It just happens.'

To reduce some of the swelling and pain that developed, Smyth treats his seven-year-old Husky with two different types of eye drops three times a day. 'There was some swelling of the blood vessels [in her eye], which is quite painful and itchy,' he adds. Another of Smyth's dogs, Karloff, an 11-year old Husky, is also blind.

'Dogs can become blind when they are young or old; it's the natural progression of life or sometimes unnatural progression. It's stuff that happens to all of us,' says veterinarian Kylie Griffin, at The Ark Veterinary Clinic. She adds, in general, for younger dogs that go blind, the onset occurs much faster than in older dogs. While blindness can be genetic and breed related, Griffin says, other possible causes include retinal inflammation and infection, which can result from a host of incidents from accidents to tick fevers.

If you suspect your dog is going blind, you can perform a quick test at home. Griffin suggests moving around some furniture to make an obstacle course. Then turn off the lights and watch if your pooch bumps into objects. Make your dog do it again and, if you notice any sudden changes in your pet's vision or appearance of the eyes, Griffin recommends a visit to a vet.

Owners may not realise their four-legged friend has a visual impairment until vision is completely lost. She says: 'Dogs can easily learn to walk around the house without being able to see. So with older dogs, some owners won't even notice their dog is blind.'

One of the most common reasons for sight loss is cataracts, the vet says. Cataracts happen when a cloudiness forms in the lens, preventing light from passing through to the retina.

Depending on the density of the cloudiness, a dog's vision can become completely blocked, resulting in blindness. However, if cataracts are caused by an underlying condition, not a genetic disposition such as diabetes, it may be treatable by an ophthalmologist. 'It can be repaired, but it's not cheap,' Griffin says. She estimates a treatment for replacing the dog's lens with an artificial one costs about HK$15,000 to HK$20,000 per eye. And, while cataracts can form in any breed, Schnauzers, Spaniels, Retrievers, Poodles and Terriers are particularly susceptible.

Vision problems can also be caused by glaucoma, which Griffin describes as sustained elevated pressure within the eye. A clear fluid called aqueous humour that flows into the eye becomes blocked and doesn't drain properly. As the fluid builds up, pressure increases inside the eye that can cause irreversible blindness. If caught early, some treatments may be able to slow down or prevent total visual impairment.

According to Griffin, nuclear sclerosis is a condition sometimes mistaken as cataracts. Again, the eye appears cloudy but, it looks slightly bluish. 'With nuclear sclerosis, the lens becomes less elastic due to age, which is unavoidable. But a dog can still see normally, just not as well as before,' Griffin explains. Dogs with pushed-in faces, such as Shih Tzu, Pekinese, Pugs and Bulldogs, are also at risk of a severe problem called macropalpebral fissure syndrome. Griffin explains that nasal folds with hair can rub against the eyes, causing chronic irritation and dryness. To treat this condition, the vet recommends surgery to alter the shape of the eye about the same time as desexing is performed.

'For a lot of people, surgery sounds like a nasty thing to do, but in the long run you need to keep the hair right back and clean, or they will end up blind from scarring,' she says. 'I understand that people buy these dogs for their pushed-in faces, but if they don't [do corrective surgery early], by the time they want to do something, it's too late.'

In dealing with Olga's new condition, Smyth says: 'I don't come up to her too quickly now, and I make sure she can hear me. When people get dogs they need to be aware of possible eye diseases. But blind dogs can still live a very healthy, fulfilling life. They shouldn't be discarded because they are blind or sick. They can adapt well to their situation and be just as happy.'