What is Macular Degeneration?
Dogs, like humans, have a retina in the back of their eyes that collects light and sends it to the brain for interpretation. In the center of the retina is the macula, which specializes in seeing color, objects in low light, and details or small items. Macular degeneration occurs when this area breaks down and the macular cells detach from their supportive tissue underneath. The result is that the dog has trouble seeing in the dark and picking out details of their surroundings. Dogs first lose their sight at the center of an image, making faces and objects difficult to see.
A veterinarian might explain that macular degeneration is a painless, progressive blindness with a genetic or age-related cause and no current treatment. It is more common in females.
Symptoms of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
There are several noticeable symptoms that might indicate that your dog has macular degeneration, including:
- Decreased night vision
- Dilated pupils
- Signs of gradual vision loss during the day
- Difficulty climbing stairs
- Not being able to find treats or their water/food bowls
- Avoiding jumping onto furniture that they used to with ease
- Light sensitivity
- Bumping into things or tripping over them
- Acting confused, dazed and easily startled
The signs and symptoms may be so subtle that you might not notice them at first, but they are progressive in nature and won’t go away on their own. However, dogs are adept at compensating with their other senses and may appear to be improving when they’re really just adapting.
Types of macular degeneration
There are 2 types of macular degeneration:
Inherited macular degeneration may appear in young or middle-aged dogs, sometimes suddenly. Purebred dogs are more susceptible to this type. The age-related type occurs gradually in senior dogs.
Causes of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
The causes of macular degeneration are not well understood, but may include:
- Normal effects of aging
- Excessive exposure to sunlight
- High blood pressure
- Exposure to cigarette smoke
- Warfarin or other anticoagulant medication
Warfarin is known to cause subretinal and macular hemorrhaging in humans, and because the nature of the condition is the same in dogs, it may affect them in the same way.
Diagnosis of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
Diagnosis of macular degeneration is typically made by a veterinary ophthalmologist, if one is available. Examination of the eye may reveal small hemorrhages in the macular portion of the retina. For a definitive diagnosis, specialized tests may be used that involve microscopic examination of the macula with special equipment. Such testing may show small tears in the macular “fabric” and its supportive tissue.
Treatment of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
Research at the University of Pennsylvania using genetic testing and microscopic examination in dogs has provided evidence of a hereditary pattern involving a mutation in a gene known as Best1. Its presence is indicative of macular degeneration, and its discovery uncovered an association between macular degeneration in dogs and in humans. It also suggests that a treatment with genetic manipulation is possible in both dogs and humans.
In the study, harmless viruses carrying the Best1 gene were introduced into dogs, resulting in a healing process between the macular cells and their supporting tissue underneath. This is not currently a treatment for the disease in dogs, but may support a future treatment.
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Recovery of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
Follow-up appointments with an ophthalmic veterinarian can show whether the degeneration is getting worse through observation of the dog’s behavior, along with an exam of the retina and macula with an ophthalmoscope and/or microscope.
Since there is no specific treatment for macular degeneration in dogs, the best route is to manage the environment to help make your dog’s life as comfortable as possible. This can include limiting outdoor night activity, or using a leash. You may want to surround the trees in your yard with wood chips to make them easier to find in the dark.
Inside, avoiding moving furniture. If you do bring in a new piece of furniture, or have to rearrange what’s there, try walking your dog through the new space on a leash a few times to get them accustomed to the new environment to help them form a “mind map” to maneuver around obstacles. Don’t leave objects on the floor where the pup might trip, and put down a non-moveable rug on slippery floors, and add mats to the top and bottom of the stairs so Fido can tell whether they’re about to go up or come down. Keep food and water bowls, and their bed, in the same places. If there are sharp edges, pad them to avoid injury.
If your dog has been accustomed to jumping up on furniture, provide them with small doggy stairs or a ramp to help them get up. Do not leave stairwell doors ajar, or put a gate across the opening to avoid accidental tumbles. You can also use scents to identify toys and specific areas around the house.
Dogs with macular degeneration are easily startled by what they can’t see well, so help them out by making noise when you approach them by walking heavy-footed or speaking to them. Advise all visitors or people you meet on the street to address the dog and let them smell their hand before attempting to pet them.
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Cost of Macular Degeneration in Dogs
The cost of treating macular degeneration in dogs is $500 on average.