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Out of sight
by Nathan Orme
Aug 04, 2010 | 1100 views | 0 0 comments | 5 5 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tribune File/Nathan Orme - Maggie, a mixed breed dog, has had her eyesight degenerate over the last few years because of glaucoma.
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RENO — A common infirmity that afflicts our animal companions is vision problems. Pets’ sight can suffer — or disappear altogether — for a variety of reasons, from being born with a condition to a degenerative one to an injury.

If a pet owner detects a problem, a veterinary ophthalmologist can help. In Reno, Dr. Don Lavach, DVM, is one such practitioner, working out of Eye Clinic for Animals at 9720 S. Virginia St. He said about three-fourths of his patients combat eye problems using medication, while the rest need to resort to surgery. Early referral leads to a better chance of diagnosis, treatment and saving the animal’s vision, he said.

Conditions such as glaucoma, if untreated, will lead to blindness. Genetics also can be a factor, he said, and some problems can occur at any stage in life.

Cats can have many contagious diseases that could affect vision, he continued. Old cats are prone to high blood pressure, which can lead to detached retinas. This can be treated with medicine and the retina can reattach itself, Lavach said. An emerging problem for cats that veterinarians are still learning about is Bartonella bacteria, a strain of which causes the disease known as cat scratch fever. If Bartonella is left untreated, it can lead to vision problems for the cat.

Costs for eye drops or other medicine can vary, Lavach said, and surgery can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand for cataracts surgery in both eyes.

If the pet’s eyesight goes bad or blindness set in, the animal’s life is by no means over. Lavach said many animals lead excellent lives with their other senses.

The website offers some interesting tips for owners in this situation. One tip suggests keeping a radio playing softly in a single spot to help the animal with its bearings. Another tip is to scent vertical surfaces such as door frames or furniture so the animal gets close to the edge, he or she will smell it coming. Scents can vary from aromatherapy inside to cooking essences, wood oil, kerosene and pitch oil on outside surfaces. Different scents for good and bad areas is a suggestion, such as peppermint oil for good areas such as door openings or orange for bad places such as stairways. Never use too much scent, the site advises, and test the area first to see if there will be a stain.

The site also advises to watch for tripping hazards or items that could poke an eye both in the house or in the yard. Also be sure to secure the animal’s area to prevent it from wandering off, particularly outside where vehicle traffic is an issue.

“Mostly it’s common sense,” Lavach said. “You don’t want them running around across a hillside crashing into bushes.”

While items that pose a danger should be removed, an environment that is as constant as possible will help the animal relearn its way around. Lavach and the online forum suggest keeping the animal in the same environment with as few changes as possible. People who like to rearrange furniture regularly may want to keep the same floor plan.

The website also notes personality issues a pet may have when it goes blind. These can include aggressiveness trying to hide blindness or trying to hold on to an alpha position; “hunger” because of the instinct of “Where’s my next meal coming  from?”; or jealousy for the attentions of their owner. The owner must remain in control, the site says. Lavach said the opposite can also be true: A more aggressive dog can become docile with the loss of its sight.

An area to watch out for, Lavach said, is in multi-dog households. The blind dog might learn to follow the dog with sight, which can be great but sometimes the seeing dog can get bumped the wrong way and see it as a sign of aggression, leading to conflicts.

Patience is key when an animal’s vision loss is sudden, Lavach said. This traumatic change could take several months to overcome, depending on the pet’s personality. The adaptation can also depend on the level of intelligence, he said. Smart dogs might not skip a beat, whereas “some are just kind of clueless,” he said.

For those who do not want to take any chances, there is an interesting product on the market called the Littlest Angel Vest, developed by Dr. Dennis V. Hacker, a veterinary opthalmologist in El Cerrito, Calif. It is a harness fitted to the dog that holds a pliable loop in front its face — much like a football kicker’s facemask — to provide resistance if the animal comes too close to an object. These can be ordered pre-made at or there are instructions to make one at

Lavach said he does many exams on puppies, especially those that are purebred ones. He records information that is then used by the Canine Eye Registry Foundation to try and help breeders identify and eliminate eye-related genetic defects in particular breeds.

For more information, visit
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