Can I help my dog's sudden blindness?

(Q) My German Shepherd is eight years old. The vet said he has retinal degeneration and there's nothing that can be done for him. He's getting around the house all right, as long as I don't move anything. I walk him on the lead and he seems happy enough, but is there anything else I can do for him to make his life any better?

(A) Vet Roberta Baxter says: Retinal degeneration means that the membrane that lines the back part of the eye is no longer working properly, and the affected dog's eyesight will gradually diminish. Partial or complete blindness will result. In most cases it's not possible to halt this process; unless the retinal degeneration occurs secondary to another treatable problem.

A second opinion consultation with an ophthalmology specialist might put your mind at rest, but it's unlikely that there's anything you can do.

As dogs go blind, they often carry on normally, showing few outward signs of their disability. As long as you go for regular familiar walks, and don't move the furniture around, you'll be surprised by how well your dog will cope. Dogs rely much more on their sense of smell. Make sure you have your GSD on a lead near roads and other dangerous areas where he could hurt himself.

Sight for sore eyes

It's important to look after your dog's eyes and be aware of any problems. Vet Vicky Payne from East Sussex gives a breakdown of the most common eye problems affecting dogs.

  • Conjunctivitis: Inflammation of the tissues around the eyeball. Mild cases may be resolved by bathing with cold boiled water or black tea but others will need antibiotic drops from the vet.
  • Entropion/ectropion: These are conditions of the eyelid where it turns in (entropion) or out (ectropion). They're usually inherited conditions but entropion can also be caused by pain and spasm in the eye. In most cases surgery is required.
  • Glaucoma: This is a serious condition caused by increased pressure in the eyeball. It's painful and can quickly cause a dog to go blind. The most noticeable sign is a bulging eye; there may also be more obvious blood vessels in the white of the eye and the dog may show signs of pain. In many cases the eye needs removing eventually.
  • Cataracts: Can have varying appearances from bubbles or scars in the lens to a totally white lens. Surgery is available from specialists to remove cataracts but isn't suitable for all dogs.
  • Nuclear sclerosis: Often mistaken for cataracts, this hardening of the lens happens in older dogs and gives the lens a blue-grey appearance. Vision is usually only mildly affected.
  • Retinal dysplasia: Several inherited diseases can cause the retina to become detached or to wither away (atrophy). Inflammation caused by various diseases or from parasites can also affect the retina, as can diabetes and vitamin E deficiency. In some cases it can be a long time before the dog goes blind.

If you're worried about your dog's eyes, visit your vet.