Blindness is common in pets, and while we are able to address some vision loss conditions, we have few or ineffective treatment options for others. Thankfully, pets rely on vision less than humans because they navigate their world using scent, so blind pets can adapt by sharpening their other senses. Recent studies show that blind pets can rewire their brains and use scent mapping to “see” the world in a new way. Pets’ whiskers also can feel and sense vibrations and allow pets to hear in a range beyond human ears. Because pet senses align them with superheroes, vision loss doesn’t prevent them from leading happy, fulfilling lives. However, Envision More Veterinary Ophthalmology knows living with blind pets can be challenging, so we’re offering some advice to put you on the right track.

Blind pet safety concerns

Safety comes first when you’re teaching your blind pet to navigate the world. They may not be able to anticipate visually apparent dangers, but you can take steps to safeguard them inside and outside your home.

  • Home safety — Walk around your home, looking for pet-level hazards. Block off stairs, fireplaces, and other dangers with baby gates. Remove or pad sharp objects and corners, and avoid placing new items in your pet’s space. Your pet will map your home quickly, but will become disoriented if you move anything. 
  • Yard safety — You can keep dogs outdoors on a leash or in a securely fenced area, but blind cats should stay indoors. Walk the yard frequently to check for holes, downed branches, and other hazards that could injure your pet. Try placing a windchime near the house so your pet can quickly re-orient if they get turned around.
  • Walks and outdoor safety — Always keep pets on a short leash using a harness or head collar for the best control and guidance. Use the same route to help pets navigate their walk, and identify your pet with a visible “blind dog” collar, harness, or leash so approaching strangers do not startle them. Be cautious and pay attention to body language when meeting new dogs, because your blind dog cannot see any cues. 
  • Safety in new environments — If you’re traveling with a blind pet, walking them from room to room on a leash can help them quickly map the area. If they have trouble navigating new places, you can purchase a “halo” type vest with a lightweight bumper that will protect their face from object collisions.

Blind pet training strategies

Once you’ve blind-pet-proofed your home, you can start training them on how to get around better on their own. You can use your pet’s other senses, including hearing, touch, and smell, to teach them new skills. 

  • Texture — Place textured mats at the base and top of each staircase, and use a tread strip on each step. Supervise and assist your pet with each step at first, until they get the hang of things. You can also use different textures indoors or outdoors to indicate doorways, corners, and transitions. 
  • Verbal cues — Pair your pet’s actions with words or phrases like “Step up,” “Step down,” or “Stop,”  which can then become cues to let your pet know what’s coming next on a walk or in a new place.
  • Scent markers — Use commercial scent markers or your own system of pet-safe essential oils to flag different home areas and speed up your pet’s home mapping. 

Supporting and encouraging your blind pet

Your blind pet needs your calm presence to feel comfortable and confident enough to investigate and learn. Pets who go blind suddenly may struggle with fear, anxiety, or depression at first, and you will need to encourage them to get up, move around, and interact with their world. Encourage them to explore with food, praise, favorite toys, and love, and avoid hovering and intervening. Pets have to learn navigation themselves, and too much help can slow down or stop this process and create a clingy, low self-confidence pet. Supervise and encourage, but let your pet make their own mistakes. Avoid picking up or carrying a small dog, which will reduce their mapping ability and may totally disorient them if you put them down facing a different direction or in a different area.

Playtime and engagement for blind pets

Once pets have learned basic navigation skills, most regain their self-confidence and start acting like themselves again. Some blind pets adjust so well that they fool strangers into thinking they’re sighted. Blind pets can continue to enjoy the same fun activities, including running, playing with toys, chewing, chasing, and fetch, with only a few minor modifications.

  • Toys for blind pets — Choose toys that have interesting textures, are scented (e.g., toys with catnip or flavor-infused rubber), or make noise and are easy to find.
  • Training for blind pets — Training helps build the human-pet bond, and keeps your pet’s mind and skills sharp. Clicker training engages an emotional brain area and creates lasting positive associations, which you can use to shape new behaviors for navigation or for fun.
  • Playing with other pets — Blind pets can safely engage with other, familiar pets after an acclimation period. Pets notice altered behaviors and usually will quickly realize that another pet is blind, and adjust their own behavior. Another household pet will sometimes become the blind pet’s “seeing eye” assistant and form a deep, close bond.

Many blinding ophthalmic conditions can also cause pain, so regular check-ups with Envision More Veterinary Ophthalmology are important to maintain your pet’s eye comfort. Contact our expert ophthalmology team to schedule an initial or recheck consultation, or learn more about living successfully with blind pets.