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Pet 411: Preparing your pet for a loss of vision and hearing

Getting older isn’t easy. That’s just as true for pets as it is for humans. Suddenly our once nimble joints start aching and the stairs aren’t as easy to climb as they used to be. 

One common condition among senior pets (and humans, for that matter) is a gradual loss of vision and hearing. While this can be very alarming for people, most pets adapt well to their change in circumstance. But there are some precautionary measures you can take to ease this transition for your four-legged companion.

That topic is on the mind of one of our Pet 411 readers, who wrote to me because he wanted to prepare for the gradual blindness and deafness his 14-year-old dog, Calvin, was experiencing. For assistance, I turned to my colleague Dr. Jeffrey Bowersox, who is board-certified in veterinary ophthalmology.

Dr. Bowersox’s first recommendation is to make sure there’s no underlying health problems by scheduling a check-up with your family veterinarian. It’s something you should be doing frequently with a senior pet, and your family vet can refer you to an ophthalmologist if your pet has an eye health issue that should be addressed. If you’d like to find board-certified ophthalmologists in your area, you can visit this site for more information.

The next step, Dr. Bowersox said, is to help your pet create a mental map of your house. If they can still hear, use verbal cues to help guide them if they get lost or confused. You’d be surprised at how quickly a pet can pick up phrases such as “left,” “right” and “slow down,” Dr. Bowersox said.

One thing to avoid: If your pet appears lost or confused, resist the urge to pick her up and put her somewhere new. Dr. Bowersox compared it to being placed in the middle of a corn maze. If you aren’t able to find some clues that tell you where you are, you wouldn’t be able to find your way out if you had to do it again.

You can also confine your pet to a smaller area and then gradually expand it. This allows your pet to memorize one area at a time, Dr. Bowersox said. Keep furniture as consistent as possible and consider adding padding to any sharp corners while your pet is learning. In addition, remember that many vision-impaired pets stay close to the walls for guidance, so be aware of any cords they could trip over or unplug.

Don’t forget your pet’s sense of touch, which can also serve as a cue, Dr. Bowersox added. For example, if you keep a mat in front of your door, your pet will seek it out if he knows that’s where he gets back inside.  Finally, you may need to put up some baby gates if there are some potentially dangerous obstacles, such as stairs.

If you’re looking for inspiration or support, Dr. Bowersox recommended visiting Blind Tails at www.blindtails.com. It’s filled with great stories and resources regarding pets and blindness.

I want to thank Dr. Bowersox for his valuable input, and I’d like to add a little bit about dealing with deafness because my own dog recently lost his hearing over the last couple of months. The most important thing to remember is to have patience, because your pets will need a little more guidance from you.

For example, if you are used to having your dog off leash, this is the time to consider keeping them leashed whenever you go outside because they won’t be able to hear commands from you. Take time to gently let them know you are around because you could startle them if they are sleeping or unsuspecting and it is possible they can accidentally scratch or bite in a defense reaction.

Also, be very careful when introducing new animals to them, as they will likely be a little more cautious or will not be able to hear warning growls or hisses from the other pets.

I hope these tips have been helpful to our reader, as well as everyone else who is caring for a senior pet. Thank you again for reading and I hope you and your pets stay cool and safe as we officially welcome summer!