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What is Stumbling at Night?

Typically, dogs have very good day and night vision.  Dogs can see in lighting that is five times dimmer than people can see in. Their larger pupils can let more light in, and they also have additional light sensitive cells, which enables them to have better vision than we do.  So, if your dog is stumbling in the dark there may be a serious condition developing. The stumbling at night may be caused by:

  • Canine progressive retinal atrophy
  • Canine cognitive dysfunction
  • Glaucoma
  • Cataracts
  • Diabetic retinopathy

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Why Stumbling at Night Occurs in Dogs

Canine Progressive Retinal Atrophy

Canine progressive retinal atrophy is also referred to as progressive rod and cone degeneration. Progressive retinal atrophy refers to a group of inherited degenerative eye disorders, which lead to loss of vision. Progressive retinal atrophy usually affects both eyes simultaneously and is not painful. Night blindness is a very common symptom.

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction 

Canine cognitive dysfunction is like dementia or Alzheimer's disease in humans. It usually occurs in dogs that are over 10 years of age. It causes loss of memory, disorientation and confusion. Your dog may be stumbling at night because he is disorientated in the dark.


Glaucoma is a very common disease in dogs. The eye contains fluid, which helps maintain its shape. Glaucoma occurs when the fluid pressure inside the eyeball becomes higher than normal. Excessive pressure inside the eye can damage the eye. Glaucoma can cause pain and loss of vision and eventually, blindness can result.


As with the lens of a camera, the lens of the eye is curved and helps to focus light on the retina (image sensor).  The lens is primarily made of water and protein, which are maintained by a “pump system” within the lens.  If the pump system malfunctions, the correct balance of proteins and water in the lens are disrupted. The build-up of proteins causes the lens to progressively become opaque. This cloudiness in the lens is called a cataract. If the lens is not clear, the retina cannot obtain a sharp image. The blurry vision can be worse in the dark. 

Diabetic Retinopathy

Diabetic retinopathy is a condition which causes damage to the retina because of diabetes. The effects of high blood sugar levels can cause harm to the blood vessels in the retina. The blood vessels can either expand and leak, or they seal off, which stops the normal flow of blood. Diabetic retinopathy can lead to blindness.

What to do if your Dog is Stumbling at Night

If your dog is stumbling at night he should be seen by a veterinarian. The veterinarian will want to go over your dog’s medical history. He then will perform a physical examination which may include taking your dog’s pulse, blood pressure and temperature, checking his ears and eyes, and testing his reflexes. The veterinarian may recommend a complete blood count, blood chemistry panel and a urinalysis.  If the veterinarian believes there is an optical disorder, he may refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist. 

The ophthalmologist will examine your dog’s eye with an optical instrument (ophthalmoscope). If he suspects progressive retinal atrophy, he will perform an electroretinogram.  The procedure is not painful and most dogs do not need to be sedated. This diagnostic test measures the response of the retina to light. To check for glaucoma the doctor may use a tonometer to measure intraocular pressure. Additional optical diagnostic testing may include ocular ultrasound and electroretinography. 

There is no cure available for progressive retinal atrophy.  The veterinarian may recommend daily antioxidant supplementation and vitamins, which may help slow down the advancement of the disease. 

If your vet suspects canine cognitive dysfunction, your companion may be treated with anipryl, which is a medication used to treat humans with Parkinson’s disease. Acupuncture and Chinese herbs may also aid canines with the condition.

Patients diagnosed with glaucoma may be prescribed oral analgesics and medications, which may help to decrease excess fluid and increase drainage (beta-blockers, carbonic anhydrase inhibitors). In severe cases of glaucoma, surgery may be recommended. 

The most common cataract surgical procedure is phacoemulsification. This surgical procedure uses an ultrasonic device to break up and the remove the cataract.  The lens is then replaced with an implant. Patients diagnosed with diabetes will need a diet modification and daily insulin shots.

Prevention of Stumbling at Night

Dogs diagnosed with cataracts, primary glaucoma and progressive retinal atrophy should not be bred because they can pass the disorder to their offspring. A veterinary ophthalmologist can screen dogs for inherited conditions/diseases before breeding. The early diagnosis of diabetes can help decrease the chances of diabetic retinopathy.

To prevent cognitive decline, older dogs can benefit from being fed a diet which includes omega-3 essential fats as these fatty acids can help with cognitive health. The supplement medium-chain triglyceride oil can also help with cognitive function.  A senior dog should be provided with interactive toys, moderate exercise and be socialized (with people and other dogs), which will help him have an active mind.

Cost of Stumbling at Night

The cost of treatment will depend on the extent of the condition at time of diagnosis. The cost of treating glaucoma can average $900. Diabetes requires ongoing management; the cost of treatment can range from $300 to $4500.