It began with a hesitation.
Just a little unsure about going down the stairs, or jumping out of the car. She’s older now, her eyes are getting a bit cloudy, but still look good; probably just a ubiquitous symptom of aging.
Then came the behavior changes.
Sure, Gracie would get into stuff once in a while, if it was easily accessible. (We’ve had our share of chocolate-related emergency vet visits.) But for a dog that’s been super well-behaved her entire life, to start this new behavior at the 10-year mark, was very strange.
She was getting into garbages, compost, recycling, a bar of soap; anything she could sniff out and ingest. She broke the zipper on my camera bag to get at some treats, and somehow opened a bottle of ibuprofen at the same time. (Multiple vet trips later, it seems she most likely didn’t actually eat any pills.)
The final straw for me was last week. If you’ve ever had to wash cemented cat litter out of a schnauzer’s beard and paws, you’ll know what I mean.
Meanwhile, she also seemed to get more stubborn. Like she didn’t want the walk to end, so she’d stop at the steps and stare at me. With a little nudge and a “Come on,” she’d go inside. On our walks, she was hanging back more–either next to me or behind me–when she’d normally be pulling ahead to go, go, go. She’s getting up earlier and earlier, and won’t leave me alone until she gets breakfast.
I started thinking about dog daycare or hiring dog walkers. I bought gates to block off doorways. I took her to the studio with me, started going on multiple walks per day; anything to give her something to do and tire her out.
We took a trip up north to my mom’s farm last weekend. I thought we could all use a change of scenery, and it was a great opportunity to get her pent-up energy out.
It’s important to note that the farm is Gracie’s most favorite place in the whole world. There’s a look of sheer joy on her face that’s unique to the farm. Bounding through the grass and trees, running about 100 feet ahead, turning around as if to say, “What’s the hold up?” Sniffing all there is to sniff, with a huge smile, just loving life. It’s really wonderful to watch.
When we arrived this time, however, she didn't seem to know where we were right away. She didn’t want to jump out of the car, but once she was on the ground, she figured it out and was pretty excited.
Going into the house, she bumped into the corner of the stairs; just cut the turn a little short. She wanted to go up, but after some false starts, I just picked her up and carried her. No big deal. After all, it was fairly dark in the garage, and she’s had some trouble with stairs when there’s not enough light.
Walking around the farm, she was sticking close by us, not running around full-speed like normal. She was also seeking out and eating deer poop, which she’s never done. So, that was strange. Maybe she wasn’t feeling well.
Back at the house, she was bumping into our feet, looking just past us when we talked to her, and couldn’t find half a carrot she dropped on the floor. Sometimes the stairs would be fine, but other times she couldn’t get started, or she’d bump her nose going up, or stumble down the final steps.
I finally realized: my dog couldn’t see.
Thinking back on the timeline, I was convinced I’d poisoned her with a new chewable flea and tick treatment we tried. Or maybe she’d eaten something from the garbage or found on the ground?
Fearing a neurological problem or a brain tumor, I looked up her symptoms, and very quickly came across something I’d never heard of: Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome, or SARDS.
The more I read, the more it all started making sense. She was ticking all the boxes:
- Miniature Schnauzer
- Difficulty navigating at night
- Failure to track treats
- Marked increase in appetite
- Undetectable by basic eye exams
- Causes complete and permanent blindness over the course of days or weeks
. . .Complete and permanent blindness.
It was like a punch in the stomach.
Of course she was getting into everything: she was hungry all the time. Of course she didn’t want to do the stairs, or get too far away from us: she was going blind. I’m sure she’s also anxious and confused, and just doesn’t know what to do anymore.
I had a good cry, everything swirling around my head. I felt devastated that she’s losing her sight. I felt guilty that I pushed her to take stairs, or just-go-already, when she was probably scared. I felt terrible that I’d been angry and frustrated about her behavior.
But, I think I was the most sad that she’ll never get to enjoy the farm like she used to. Will she ever be that happy again?
Her vision has only gotten worse since we’ve been home. We have an appointment with an ophthalmologist soon, where we should get some answers. Maybe it’s not SARDS. . . maybe it’s something else that’s reversible or treatable. I bought a vision supplement to feel like I’m doing something.
In the meantime, we’re all learning to manage Gracie’s descent into darkness. Making her world smaller by restricting where she can go in the house. Helping her on the stairs, or carrying her when she just can’t do it. Giving her frozen Kongs to occupy her while we’re gone. And giving more verbal cues on where things are: the doorways, stairs, her bed, treats, and even me and Dustin. Mostly trying to keep her routine as normal as possible.
She’s doing well on her walks, and started pulling ahead again sometimes. I just have to make sure to avoid the curbs and trees. She even ran a little bit last night, though not as fast as before.
We’ll see if the supplements make any difference, and I need to do some calculations to make sure I’m not feeding her too much. Gracie seems to be taking it in stride.
I’m SO glad we spent that time with her at the farm, when she could still partially see. One last hurrah at her favorite place in the world.