Just like people cats normally use their vision for getting around, as well as hunting and interaction with other cats. However, a cat with poor vision or even total blindness can lead a comfortable and fulfilled life.
If a cat loses its sight slowly, behaviour changes are harder to detect because the cat is able to adapt to the disability, learning where furniture and other obstacles in the home are. Sudden blindness is much easier to spot. If your cat is bumping into objects it is obvious that they cannot see normally, but actually this may only happen when furniture is moved, or when doors which are normally opened are closed. This is because cats are able to remember the normal layout of their familiar environment, only getting caught out when it is changed.
If your cat is losing its sight you may notice that it is more hesitant and that is reluctant to jump down from a height. Your cat may even climb down by gingerly reaching the feet down first. Most cats are usually happier climbing up onto objects. Cats with reduced sight may walk in a crouched position with their body closer to the ground and stretch their necks out further, using their long whiskers to feel their way. In some cats with vision problems, you may notice a change in the appearance of their eyes, which are discussed in the section below.
You may notice changes to your cat’s eyes with or without apparent changes in their vision. A milky or cloudy appearance to the eyes can be caused by cataracts, (which is when the lens in the eye becomes white instead of clear). Cloudy eyes can also caused by glaucoma, a raised pressure inside the eye, or uveitis which is the medical name for inflammation inside the eye. Eyes may be red due to high blood pressure causing bleeding inside the eye, or due to glaucoma, uveitis or a growth in the eye. Some conditions affected the retina at the back of the eye – if this is damaged the glow from the back of the eye appears more intense. Retinal detachment may be caused by high blood pressure. In a blind cat the pupils are usually very large and do not contract down to the normal slits in bright light.
If you have noticed a recent colour change in one or both of your cat’s eyes, you should take your cat to your vet to have an eye examination. In many cases, your vet will be able to tell you what is wrong and can therefore advise on the best treatment. In some circumstances, your vet may recommend that you are referred to a specialist veterinary ophthalmologist. The ophthalmologist is better equipped to be able to diagnose certain conditions, and will be able to offer treatment advice and specialised procedures. Some conditions will be managed with eye drops or oral medications, and all conditions are more successfully treated when diagnosed early on in the course of the disease.
As your cat won’t cooperate with reading a chart, testing vision in cats can be tricky, even for your vet! There are several tests which a vet will perform, some of which you can try at home.
1. Gently wave a hand towards the eye – this would cause a normal cat to blink. It is important not to create an air current when waving a hand, as even a blind cat will sense this and blink their eye as a reflex.
2. Shine a bright focused light suddenly into the eye. A normal cat will be dazzled and blink, squint or turn their head away. A blind cat usually continues to stare ahead.
3. Play a laser light is rapidly over the floor or wall in front of your cat, or drop cotton wool balls from a height beside the cat. A normal cat can’t resist watching the movement.
4. Closely observe your cat’s behaviour, as mentioned earlier.
Cats with visual impairment function very well in familiar surroundings, and it is important to keep the lay-out of the home consistent. With sudden blindness, it is best to initially confine your cat to one room, with food, water and a litter tray available (but all separated from each other). As your cat adapts to one room it can gradually be allowed to explore more and more of the house. Keep the litter tray, food, water and bed in the same place, and if your cat gets disorientated, place them in a familiar place such as in their bed so that they can realise where they are and start again.
A clean litter box should always be provided, even if you allow your cat outside. This provides them an opportunity to relieve themselves inside in a safe place should they feel anxious about venturing outside. It also is a useful point of reference as they will be able to smell it from quite a distance away. The garden can be enclosed to make your cat safe.
Safety within the home can be improved by blocking potential hazards such as fireplaces, window ledges and balconies. Ensure that doors to the outside are kept shut. Check that windows are secure as some blind cats can be very adventurous. It may be best to leave toilet seats down.
Some blind cats no longer feel secure jumping up onto things. If your cat has a favourite place such as on a tall sofa or bed, you might consider providing a ramp or a low stool or chair to make the climb easier. Cats do love high resting places. Consider providing a stool or shelf where your cat can feel elevated, although they may still help themselves to the couch or your comfy bed! Some blind cats will still use scratching posts, and one or more should be provided. Cat gyms can be helpful as these provide a scratching post, a place of elevation, a place to play and a place to rest.
It is important to spend time interacting with your cat, through stroking or playing. Toys with bells or rattles are useful as the cat can follow them, and some cats also like cat-nip impregnated mice, or squeaking mice on elastic.
Blind cats can have a very happy and fulfilled life, with a little help from their owners. Your vet will provide the best advice about health matters and nutrition. Other advice and support is available – often from owners of other blind cats. The main cat rescue organisation is Blind Cat Rescue – www.blindcatrescue.com.