Sunday, 11 May 2014

When darkness falls

This article of mine appeared in the UK magazine Dogs Monthly in June 2012. Despite it's length I hope you have time to read it. I promised to post it after the A-Z Challenge for 2014 where my theme was 'Dogs'.

When darkness falls

When sudden blindness strikes a dog it can be scary for all concerned and turn lives upside down

My daughter and her husband live in the country outside Oxford in Michigan, USA. Their first dogs were Golden Labradors puppies from the same litter named Sam and Maxie.

Sam (right) and his sister Maxie as puppies

When Sam was 11 he suddenly went blind. My wife and I were on holiday at my daughter’s home when he first had problems. Up until then he had always been fit and strong, but then when you tried to stroke his head he would pull away and give a high- pitched whine quite unlike his usual deep bark. This became more frequent and would occur without you touching him.

Sam was obviously distressed over the next day or two as his symptoms persisted. You would hear his whine-come-bark when no-one was near him.

Sam always liked to travel in a car, but when it was decided to take him to the vet his behaviour in the car was not like him at all. There was no way he was going to sit still and without warning his high-pitch whine startled Rachel while she was driving - and us as well. Sam kept up the noise throughout the journey.

At the vet’s practice he paced the waiting room frequently, whining. Not even the free treats available quietened him for long. The vet immediately recognised that Sam was not the dog he had known since he was a pup and was concerned enough to take X-rays of his head. The films came back clear. Tablets were prescribed with advice to see how he progressed over the next week or so.

Back in England we had to rely on weekly telephone calls to learn how Sam was faring. Rachel said that he appeared psychotic; always hungry, he would eat anything and everything he could find or get at in cupboards. He became very chubby and difficult to control, making feeding Maxie, and their other dogs even more traumatic and chaotic! Everyone was hoping that Sam’s medication would kick in and the real Sammy would return.

Sam did not improve. Two incidents occurred that made Rachel and Steven realise he had gone blind. Once when offered food, unusually on a spoon, he missed and tried to eat from the empty end.

It was also a daily ritual, when Rachel came home, for the dogs to leave the garage and rush out to greet her car. One day Sam came out as usual and ran straight into the side of the vehicle.

The vet was concerned at the speed at which Sam lost his sight. Consequently he was referred to a veterinary ophthalmologist. After several tests they diagnosed that Sam had sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome [SARDS].

SARDS is not treatable, but is one of the ‘better’ blindness problems in that it does not affect anything else. Dogs retain their sense of smell and their hearing, which may even improve in time. The downside to SARDS, however, is that the dog does not have time to adapt to his loss of sight.

Sam had to learn to live with his blindness; and so did Rachel and Steven. Furniture was padded and rugs placed at the entrances to rooms to stop Sam turning too early and head-butting the walls. Sam even managed to get ‘lost’ in a walk-in wardrobe on occasion.

Scenting areas also helped him to find his way around – such as where the stairs started in the garage and round the dog flaps in the doors. It helped if people talked a lot and didn’t baby him too much. He still got confused but adapted all the time.

Rachel hoped that the other dogs in the house might help. However Sam’s sister, Maxie, was generally too lazy and Gem, a black Labrador cross, was just an opportunist who waited for Sam to drop a treat; she knew that she could nip in and take it before Sam located it. Initially Gem became a real drama queen, sulking because she was not getting so much attention.

Bells were fitted to the collars of the other two dogs and worn round the wrist of anyone taking the dogs for a walk, so that Sam could locate them by sound.

The house had to be kept tidier and furniture not moved about since it was important for Sam to know where it was. The door to the basement had to be kept closed to avoid the risk of him falling down the spiral staircase.

Garden furniture, tractors and equipment had to be kept in the same locations. Sam soon found his own way out of the house through the dog flaps and into the outside compound. Rails were fitted to the ramp leading to the dog flap into the house to prevent Sam falling off the sides. And when the snow was deep – Michigan gets a lot each winter - paths had to be dug with the tractor so that Sam could get around.

It wasn’t long before Sam had adapted so well to his loss of sight that he could take himself off alone for long walks around the property, but Rachel and Steven always made sure that he wore his bell so they knew where he was. They treated him exactly the same as the other dogs and never went out for a walk or on a road trip to the corner store in the car without him.

Sam in his twilight years

The biggest problem with Sam was during the night; when he woke up he didn’t know whether it was night or day. Awake, he wanted to be fed - even if it was 2.30 in the morning – and his high-pitched whines soon disturbed everyone.

Despite establishing a routine and even trying pills to make him sleep, it took a while before he would go through the night. Ten months later there were occasions when it was a case of ‘Sam’s up so everybody up.’ Rachel and Steven even adopted a shift pattern to look after Sam during the night.

So it was not just Sam that had a confusing time with his blindness: everyone had to learn how to adapt and to ensure that he remained as independent a possible. There were tears for sure – but, thankfully, laughs as well. One thing was definite though, Labradors like Sam have very hard heads - and they need it for those times they bang into things!

Blind Sam lived with Rachel and Steven for a further two years before he suddenly gave up wanting to find his way around and wouldn’t go out for walks; he seemed to go downhill very quickly after Maxie, his sister and long-time doggy pal, died. In May 2010 he was gently put to sleep.

© Bob Scotney 2014


Jo said...

What a sad little story. Never heard of SARDS before. I am glad he managed well for a while but how sad that his sister died. Thanks for sharing that with us.

Carol Graham said...

Of course, this broke my heart. I have been following your blog since I realized both of us wrote dog stories for the A - Z challenge. Precisely why this is pulling at my heart strings now -- our dogs are 18 and 14 and the 14 year old just lost her hearing. We feel their pain, don't we?

Carol @ Battered Hope

Bob Scotney said...

Carol - what the article doesn't is about the deaf dog that joined the household with blind Sam. Cody had a favourite spot to stretch out - unfortunately right where Sam would walk when he came in through the dog flap. Cody would not hear him coming and Sam could not see Cody in his way!

R. Mac Wheeler said...

oh, my chest is tight

a touching story

they are such loving creatures. Hard to imagine them suffering.

L. D. said...

I really appreciate being able to read this. We have a 16 year old small poodle that has lost most of his hearing. He doesn't react to thunder nor does he really hear us when we speak to him. His eyes are both affected with cataracts but he sees out of one eye. We know our road will not be easy but I see things that my wife refuses to see that will mean us losing him sooner than we would wish. His life quality is still great with our extra care on duty all of his waking time. Thanks again for sharing this.

Jean Knill said...

Such a sad story, Bob. But useful, just in case - fingers crossed. Thanks for sharing it.