Dogs with visual impairment often have concurrent conditions that will benefit from physical therapy or rehabilitation. These can include injuries, as well as arthritis.
With a few considerations, we can support dogs with visual impairments to participate in rehabilitation to improve and maintain their mobility and overall quality of life.
Causes of blindness
Blindness can develop in dogs for a multitude of reasons, including as part of the ageing process. Blindness can occur alongside conditions such as arthritis, hip and elbow dysplasia, sarcopenia, and trauma-related conditions.
Some of the causes of blindness include:
- diabetes mellitus
- retinal dysplasia and detachment
- Cushing’s disease
- kidney, heart or liver failure
- corneal ulceration
As rehabilitation therapists, we may not be treating or working with the primary causes of blindness. But a loss of sight or hearing can absolutely occur alongside a physical injury, a degenerative musculoskeletal condition, arthritis or various inflammatory processes. We may see patients that have an impairment in their vision who also have impairments in their mobility and function.
Adaptations to the loss of vision
We can support dogs with tactile tools that help them navigate their home environments successfully. These include:
- Muffin’s Halo can provide both protection and sensory feedback around the face, shoulders and chest of blind dogs.
- Place a border of bark or gravel around trees and along fence lines in the yard – this allows the dog to feel the changes in surface, which they will associate with an obstacle ahead of them.
- Use runners or carpets in hallways or on the insides of rooms. Again the change in the surface from the runner to the floor beneath will indicate that a wall or physical obstacle is close by.
Dogs will use their sense of hearing and smell to navigate their environment. Different rooms or areas of the house may have a different natural scent, such as a kitchen vs a bedroom. We can add scents with essential oils to specific rooms or areas, add a dab of oil to a dog bed or safe space, close to water bowls, etc.
For blind or near-blind dogs, verbal cues should become a big part of the interaction between the dog and their humans. Reassurance and other verbal cues will help a dog develop trust and will help maintain a strong relationship between owner and dog as blindness progresses.
The rehab environment for a blind dog
Rehabilitation can be just as valuable for a dog with impaired vision as for one without. Rehab can include physical hands-on rehabilitation techniques such as massage and manual therapy, as well as therapeutic exercise and even hydrotherapy.
Consider the environment that blind dogs will be entering as they come to our facility for the first time. We need to think about the following:
Entry and walkways
From the parking lot all the way into the consulting room, what does the walkway look like? Are there multiple tight turns and changes in direction along the way? What is the surface like? Are there obstacles that the dog needs to be able to avoid?
Consider how you can make this journey as simple and easy as possible for a dog with impaired vision. A clear pathway made from a different material to the surrounding floor can help them move through narrow areas or around corners and obstacles. Consider moving obstacles that might be difficult to get around for the blind dog.
Especially for a first visit, we want to limit any unnecessary social contact to reduce stress for these patients. Allow them to become familiar with the environment before expecting them to also become familiar with resident dogs or a flow of patients entering and leaving the practice.
Consider the sounds that the patient will be exposed to as they arrive and during your treatment. Loud noises may contribute to sensory overwhelm, can lead to feelings of disorientation, and will certainly make navigating the environment more difficult for an anxious dog. We may be accustomed to loud noises such as those from hydrotherapy rooms, where sounds reverberate and underwater treadmills hum, but our blind patient may find all strange noises jarring and disorienting.
You can use the blind dog’s sense of smell to their advantage in helping them navigate your practice. The use of calming essential oils in the treatment room will help them recognise the area as a place to relax and unwind, while more stimulating scents in the hydrotherapy room or the exercise area can help them form an expectation of activity.
Visual Impairment in Hydrotherapy
In her webinar on the conditions to consider during hydrotherapy, Dr Tanya Grantham discusses visual impairment. These are some of her considerations before using hydrotherapy as a part of the rehabilitation program:
Degree of blindness
There is a spectrum of visual impairment, and where an individual patient is on that scale will determine how we approach their rehabilitation and hydrotherapy. Dogs may be completely blind or able to discern light and some shapes. We need to know what we are dealing with in tailoring our approach.
Acute or chronic
In dogs with chronic, slow-onset blindness we often see adaptation to their condition and a relatively good ability to navigate their environments. In dogs with an acute onset of blindness, adaptation may not be as easy. For this reason, they may not be as open to hydrotherapy as dogs with slower-onset blindness.
Dogs that are highly strung and anxious may not be candidates for introduction to hydrotherapy. Dogs that are calm and relaxed and have a strong relationship with their owners may be easier to introduce to hydrotherapy. We need to bear these individual differences in mind and never force the issue.
Previous exposure to water
Familiarity with your facility and hydrotherapy prior to the onset of blindness will greatly assist the blind dog, as they will be performing an exercise they already know. Dogs that have never been exposed to water or who had an aversion to swimming before their blindness will find it much harder to adapt to hydrotherapy.
Other sensory deficits
Blindness can be coupled with a loss of hearing or a reduction in other senses. In these cases, an introduction to the water may not be appropriate.
If we do decide to introduce a visually impaired dog to hydrotherapy, we must be very cognisant of using tactile feedback or touch to support and guide them through the water and the introduction.
Visual impairment does not necessarily mean the patient cannot participate in hydrotherapy, but that decision must be made based on the patient and their adaptation to their condition.
Dogs with visual impairments will need additional support and care, but with a bit of consideration and help they can live full and happy lives.
As rehab therapists, we can play our part by supporting visually impaired dogs to maintain healthy mobility and function and to fully recover from injury. We also play a critical role in guiding owners to adapt, using some of the techniques just discussed.