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The Daily Vet by petMD

The Daily Vet is a blog featuring veterinarians from all walks of life. Every week they will tackle entertaining, interesting, and sometimes difficult topics in the world of animal medicine – all in the hopes that their unique insights and personal experiences will help you to understand your pets.

What Causes Sudden Blindness in Older Dogs?

Many dog owners have experienced blindness in their dogs associated with various diseases. Cataracts and blindness are an inevitable result of diabetes in dogs. Kidney failure and resulting hypertension can result in retinal detachment and blindness. A less known cause of sudden blindness in dogs is Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome, or SARDS.


Dogs Affected by SARDS


SARDS is most often diagnosed in older animals. The median age for the condition is 8.5 years. Dachshunds and Miniature Schnauzers are particularly afflicted. Pugs, Brittany Spaniels, and Maltese are other breeds that show a predisposition for the condition. Sixty to seventy percent of the dogs with the condition are female. Interestingly, one study found that 46 percent of SARDS cases were diagnosed in the holiday months of December and January.


Cause of SARDS in Dogs


The cause and retinal changes of SARDS are unknown and poorly understood. The cells of the rods and cones of the retina suddenly undergo programed cell death or apoptosis. Inflammatory, autoimmune, or allergic causes, although suspected, have not been confirmed. The lack of inflammation associated with the condition and the poor response to treatment as an immune related disease suggest a non-immune related cause.


Symptoms of SARDS in Dogs


Prior to blindness, many dogs will show navigation difficulty around the house and yard. They may bump into things or show caution in movement. Blindness is considered permanent, although some owners of younger dogs stricken with the condition report intermittent sight. Because blind dogs quickly accommodate to vision loss, these observations may not reflect actual recurrence of vision.


Forty to fifty percent of dogs with SARDS also have increased water consumption, increased urination, increased food consumption, and weight gain. These symptoms persist after the onset of blindness, especially the change in food consumption. Because these are the same symptoms associated with a hormonal condition called hyperadrenocorticism, or Cushing’s disease, a link with SARDS was speculated. Actually, studies indicate that few SARDS patients have Cushing’s.  


Living With a Dog Affected With SARDS


A recent survey of owners of dogs affected with SARDS indicates that owners perceive the quality of their dogs' life as good. Of the 100 dogs represented in the survey, only nine owners reported that they thought their dogs' quality of life was poor. Owners also reported that navigation abilities in both the house and the yard were moderate to excellent. Forty percent of owners reported moderate to excellent navigation even in new and unfamiliar surroundings.


Forty-eight percent of the owners found no need to make special provisions for their blind dogs. Despite the decrease in play, increase in sleep, and other signs of depression, few owners found that their relationship with their dogs changed with SARDS. In fact 40 percent indicated that their relationship was improved, with most indicating a profound improvement with the relationship.


Although 62 percent of owners in the survey felt that blindness was the most important factor in decreased quality of life, few thought that euthanasia was appropriate. In fact 95 percent of owners indicated that they would discourage euthanasia for dogs with SARDS. This included five owners who did euthanize their dogs due to SARDS but in retrospect felt that it was unnecessary. Interestingly, of the five owners indicating that euthanasia was the best choice for SARDS patients, only two of them actually euthanized their dogs.


SARDS is a frustrating condition. Without a cause we have no way of knowing how to prevent it or how to treat it to stop the progression of the disease. Although blindness is certainly a sad condition for dogs and owners, these dogs can continue to have a good quality life.


Dr. Ken Tudor


Image: BobMacInnes / Flickr


Comments  3

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  • my 7 yr old pug has sards
    12/05/2013 08:49pm

    bart has had sards for almost a year now. he is doing quite well, sometimes i forget he is blind. he does amazingly well in the back yard, usually making it back to the door on his own. sometimes he will listen for my voice to get up the 2 steps to the deck. rarely he will get stuck in a corner inside the house.
    as far as changes, he has gained a dislike for the oldest of my other 2 pugs. she is 15, deaf and blind. whenever she gets near him he will start growling at her and attack. they can be in the bed asleep, and if she moves, he will attack. that is the only concern i have with him.
    his sense of smell and hearing are spectacular. he now loves to get in the dishwasher which he never did prior to his blindness. i let him get his joy however he can ! i can just touch his leash and he goes balistic. still loves his walks!
    i would never have considered putting him to sleep.
    if anyone is considering that, please give your pup some time to see how he/she adjusts

  • BP
    12/05/2013 11:12pm

    I've had several kitties with high blood pressure and, sadly, one went blind due to retinal detachment. (My bad for not being on top of things.) However, she never skipped a beat when it came to moving around the house.

    It seems that as they age, blood pressure is usually an issue.

    It's my opinion that not many people have their pets' blood pressure monitored. Could some of the SARDS blindness be the result of untreated high blood pressure?

  • 12/06/2013 12:41am

    SARDS does not occur because of retinal detachment caused by hypertension. It is an unknown degeneration of the retinal cells themselves. Monitoring for blood pressure is a good idea but it won't predict SARDS.

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