SARDS in Dogs: How to Help Your Pup With Sudden Vision Loss

dog with SARDS (Sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome)
dog with SARDS (Sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome)

Alexander Sorokopud / Getty

TABLE OF CONTENTS

  1. On This Page

    • What Is SARDS in Dogs?

    • Causes

    • Signs

    • Diagnosis

    • Treatment

    • Prevention and Prognosis

We often feel we can communicate with our dogs simply by making eye contact with them, but what happens when they're no longer able to look back at us? This is a reality for pet parents whose dogs are suddenly affected by SARDS in dogs, a condition that causes rapid and irreversible blindness.

What Is SARDS in Dogs?

Sudden acquired retinal degeneration syndrome, known simply as SARDS, is a condition where a dog suddenly loses their vision over several days to weeks. SARDS is more common in older dogs (8–10 years) and occurs more frequently in spayed females.

Dogs of any breed can get SARDS. Most commonly, the condition affects mixed-breed dogs, though some small breeds such as dachshunds, beagles, and pugs are reportedly predisposed.

Unfortunately, blindness from SARDS is permanent. While this is very distressing for us as pet parents, SARDS isn't considered painful and most dogs show remarkable resiliency.

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Causes of SARDS

SARDS is idiopathic, meaning we don't know what causes the condition. SARDS isn't considered heritable, meaning it's not passed from parents to their offspring. There's a theory that the disease is immune-mediated, which means the body's immune system would be attacking the retina, including the rods and cones that allow for vision.

Some research suggests there may be a link between SARDS and hyperadrenocorticism (Cushing's disease). Other theories include toxin exposure and elevations in specific hormones. No theory is proven, and a common link hasn't been found between all cases of SARDS.

Signs of SARDS in Dogs

Typically, vision loss due to SARDS is noticed very suddenly, almost overnight. It may take several days to weeks for complete blindness. Signs of SARDS include:

  • Bumping into furniture and walls

  • Getting stuck in corners and lost in open areas

  • Standing in one place as if afraid to move

  • Pacing aimlessly

  • Reluctance on stairs

  • Dilated pupils

  • Development of separation anxiety

  • Signs of Cushing's disease, including increased hunger, drinking and urinating more, and/or weight gain

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Diagnosis

Your vet can make a presumptive diagnosis of SARDS based on your pet's history and physical exam, including an eye exam. During this exam, they will check different reflexes to see how your dog responds. They will also check the intraocular pressures to rule out glaucoma.

Confirming SARDS requires a visit to a veterinary ophthalmologist, who can perform an electroretinogram (ERG). An ERG tests the retina's response to light. With SARDS, the retina has no response to light, meaning the electroretinogram will show a flat line. If the response is normal despite blindness, your veterinarian may recommend an MRI and/or CT scan to rule out other causes of blindness, such as a brain tumor or inflammation of the optic nerves.

Treatment for SARDS in Dogs: Is There a Cure?

Currently, there isn't a cure for SARDS and blindness is permanent. Despite this, most pets adjust to their blindness within 6-8 weeks. To help your pet adjust to life without vision, you can do the following:

  • Avoid rearranging furniture or changing the floor plan in your home

  • Keep your pet away from bodies of water

  • Keep your pet on a leash when outside

  • Place gravel around the perimeter of your yard to alert your pet to the fence

  • Speak to your dog before touching them to avoid startling them

  • Keep a routine, such as walking the same path each day on walks

  • Put a bandana or other marker on your pet that indicates they're blind

  • Cover sharp corners and block off fall risks until your pet has adjusted

  • Keep your pet's food and water in the same place every day

  • Provide enrichment in the form of toys that make noise and have exciting scents

  • Consider a special blind dog halo harness to provide safe mobility and freedom

Remember that your pet may be more anxious and reactive, especially immediately after blindness. Provide them with a safe space away from children and strangers. If you give them a little patience, you'll likely be impressed by how well they adjust.

Prevention and Prognosis of SARDS in Dogs

Because the cause of SARDS is currently not known, this condition isn't considered preventable. Blindness is permanent, but most owners of dogs with SARDS report they have an excellent quality of life after the adjustment period.

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