Today, I was reminded that sometimes veterinary science just doesn’t have an answer. It’s as if Mother Nature throws a dog a curve ball with a problem that has no solution.
The condition to which I’m referring is sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome, or SARDS.
You may get a clue from the word “retinal” that this is an eye problem. SARDS causes sudden blindness — with additional tricks up its sleeve: It mimics other conditions with symptoms such as hunger and thirst.
Doris the Dachshund
I heard Doris before I saw her. A persistent, penetrating, high-pitched bark heralded her arrival at the branch surgery. In a small waiting room, her woofing caused quite a stir among the other patients, who soon realized Doris was all bark and no bite.
When it was Doris’s turn, it quickly became apparent why she was noisy — she was blind. Faced with a stressful situation (visiting the vet) and being blind, her fight-or-flight response was dialed up to “Bark to keep people at arm’s length!” Happily, once in consult, the sniff of a treat quieted her down, and her mom’s reassurances did the rest.
Doris’s condition is stable, and she was there for a checkup and vaccine. But it did set me thinking about this unusual condition and how raising awareness about it is a good idea. Indeed, SARDS aside, it might prove useful to look at improving life for blind dogs.
Symptoms of SARDS
The first SARDS case I ever saw presented because the dog suddenly started bumping into things. Indeed, her behavior changes suggested she had gone from fully sighted to blind in just 2–3 days.
During the consultation, it became clear that the dog was also unusually thirsty and had an appetite set to “Supersize Me.”
The symptoms are quite vague and include:
- Weight gain
- Pot belly
- Hair loss
- Lack of energy
- Dilated pupils
If you are a vet-in-the-making or someone who has a Cushingoid dog, you may recognize the first set of symptoms as typical of Cushing’s disease. You are right on the money, because SARDS mimics this condition without actually being Cushing’s disease. The difference is that whereas Cushing’s has a treatment and control, the same isn’t true for SARDS.
A brief digression: Cushing’s disease is when the body produces too much natural steroid. Constantly high levels of steroid cause bloating, hunger and thirst. While there’s no permanent cure, there is a medication, Vetoryl, that controls the condition and brings the dog back to normal.
Going back to Doris the Doxie, the combination of blindness and a huge appetite led to catastrophic weight gain. She had gained an extra 20% of her body weight (and she wasn’t slim before!) in just 4 months.
No one is sure why SARDS develops. However, it is more common in some dog breeds than in others, including:
- Miniature schnauzers
- Brittany Spaniels
It also seems middle-aged female dogs are more at risk, and a common factor is being overweight. Oh dear, little Doris certainly ticked all those boxes as a middle-aged female Dachshund with ample layers of love around her midriff.
While the thirst, hunger and lack of energy develop before the blindness comes on, when the latter happens, it is indeed sudden. The rapidity of vision loss means the dog doesn’t have time to adapt and struggles to cope in a newly dark world. Signs of this include:
- Sudden reluctance to walk
- Freezing on the spot and refusing to take another step
- Bumping into objects placed in their path
- Uncharacteristic unwillingness to use stairs
- Misjudging jumping on/off furniture
- Not being able to locate a favorite toy in plain sight
- Large, round pupils that don’t get smaller, even in bright light
If you notice this, get your dog checked right away. “But wait,” you say, “there’s no treatment, so why the urgency?” It’s important the vet rules out conditions that are treatable, such as high blood pressure, because prompt correction of hypertension may save the dog’s vision. So while SARDS isn’t treatable, other problems are.
Even though Kiki is blind, she still enjoys chasing the ball:
Life With SARDS or a Blind Dog
Little Doris enjoys life (especially the eating) because she has a fantastic human who guides and cherishes her. For many people, a blind dog might seem to be an insurmountable hurdle, but after a period of adjustment, most 4-leggers cope just fine.
There are things you can do to help the dog adapt. For example:
- Declutter: Now is the time to clear the floors of old shoes and magazines that might trip the dog up.
- Consistency is key: Avoid moving the furniture and redesigning the layout. Leave things just as they are so the dog knows where things are.
- Familiar walks: Stick with the walks your dog already knows and loves, so they don’t get disoriented.
- Invoke other senses: Use the dog’s sense of hearing, smell and touch to guide them around the house.
- Place a wind chime or bell near the back door, so the dog can find their way back after going to the toilet.
- Place rugs of different textures on the threshold to each room. That way, each room has a texture signature the dog can recognize and therefore orient themselves.
- Give each room a scent signature: Use a different essential oil in each room so the dog knows where they are by the aroma.
- Radio signals: Tune radios into different channels (say, talk radio, pop music and country music) and leave them on a low level in different rooms. If the dog knows there’s talk radio on in the room where the food is, this helps them find dinner.
- Bell the cat: If you have other pets, consider putting bells on their collars. This helps the blind dog know where they are so they aren’t caught by surprise
- Talk before touching: Blind dogs are easily startled. Get into the habit of talking to the dog when you enter the room and most certainly before you touch them.
So while SARDS has no medical treatment, Doris is proof that tender loving care can make up for a lack of medicine. Now all we have to do is get her weight under control — which is another story for another time.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 13, 2017.