Part 4 of the Daxington Post series by Danielle Kirkman as told to Cheryl Kirkman (Mom)
It was a day I will never forget …. a cold January day in New England. I was playing “fetch” with little Danielle. She always loved to “go long” and try to catch the toys I would toss before they landed. I was surprised to see the toy hit the ground near her precious dappled paws and to have her turn around with that “Hurry Up Mom” look on her face. She simply couldn’t see that the toy had already landed. I watched her response to treats and toys and knew, with a feeling of despair, that something had gone terribly wrong. By evening, I had hit google and was terrified that she had the unknown disease known as SARDS. My husband tried to reassure me that evening when he got home, but already I knew. A dog Mom always knows.
On Monday, we took Danielle to a special clinic called Eyecare for Animals in Warwick, Rhode Island, USA. The doctor confirmed my suspicions and told me to live with it – Danielle would adapt. Adapt? She was not even 5 years old?! The vet’s bedside manner was brusque and I plunged even further into a sense of despair. The one positive recommendation this doctor made was to get the book “Living with a Blind Dog” written by Carolyn Levin – truly a life-saving, hope-rejuvenating handbook.
The next step in the process was to perform a test known as an electroretinogram (ERG) which is performed for all animals with acute vision loss. This test measures retinal function. If the result of the test is negative, it is considered to be a definitive diagnosis of SARDS.
In the weeks to follow, I immersed myself in the online literature to undersstand more about the disease, evaluated treatment options (discussed below), reached out to friends for advice (although I was disappointed that some suggested that it would be merciful to consider letting her go) .... Anyway to make a long story short, Danielle and I agreed to grab the proverbial bull by the horns and stand strong against SARDS!! Now, nearly four and a half years later, Danielle and I are committed to raising awareness about canine disabilities - both visible and invisible. "Where there is love there is life; where there is life there is hope." - Allan Stratton, Canada's Secrets
What is SARDS?
Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome (SARDS) is characterized by sudden vision loss in the dog; and we do mean sudden. In Danielle’s case – we are talking THREE days!! As the name implies, this disease affects the retina, which is the back part of the eye responsible for sending visual signals to the brain for interpretation. Due to an unknown cause (or causes), SARDS patients suddenly lose retinal function and become blind. There may be a subsequent deterioration/ atrophy of the retina that may cause additional complications. Other key changes reported include increased appetite and thirst.
According to PetMD, “SARDS is most often diagnosed in older animals. The median age for the condition is 8.5 years. Dachshunds and Miniature Schnauzers are particularly afflicted. Pugs, Brittany Spaniels, and Maltese are other breeds that show a predisposition for the condition. Sixty to seventy percent of the dogs with the condition are female, usually spayed. Interestingly, one study found that 46 percent of SARDS cases were diagnosed in the holiday months of December and January.” Some dogs may exhibit unexplained weight gain, excessive thirst and increased urination. Blood work is recommended to rule out any systemic problems, such as a condition called Cushing’s that is characterized by high blood cortisol.
What Causes SARDS
There are many theories about what causes the onset of SARDS. Many experts attribute the disease to adrenal exhaustion; in fact there are treatment protocols being advanced in clinics to address the depletion of the adrenal gland hormones. According to Pets Magazine, “The cause and retinal changes of SARDS are unknown and poorly understood. The cells of the rods and cones of the retina suddenly undergo programmed cell death or apoptosis. Inflammatory, autoimmune, or allergic causes, although suspected, have not been confirmed. The lack of inflammation associated with the condition and the poor response to treatment as an immune related disease suggest a non-immune related cause.” (reference: https://www.petsmagazine.com.sg/wellness/others/321/sudden-blindness-in-senior-canines
Others suspect endocrine disorders, autoimmune disease, toxicity (such as toxic flea and tick repellants), infection, neoplasia, etc. Vaccines and medicines have been listed as possible triggers. There is even a group of researchers that believe that the onset of SARDS could be triggered by an emotional response.
Naturally, I went home and reflected on the vaccines that my vet gave to Danielle– as many as three per visit. Efficient, we thought …. Never suspecting a potential link with SARDS. Additionally, Danielle was a patient on Atopica to relieve her excessive itching – that too became suspect, especially because another dog on the same medication was diagnosed with SARDS within a few days of Danielle ….As a dog parent, you search for an explanation and worry about what you may have missed ….
HOW IS SARDS treated?/
What is the Prognosis for SARDS patients?
One of the most useful references I have found is a Facebook User Group called SARDS Dogs United (https://www.facebook.com/groups/405209912943724/438169159647799/).
There are many useful links and resources and there are members who have tried the three most common treatment paths:
(Please note, only you and your veterinarian can choose which treatment protocol is best for you and your pet)
Each case is different, and the decision is a very personal and often difficult one to make. With Danielle, I opted for a holistic lifestyle combining a healthy diet, herbal supplements and traditional Chinese medicine. Unfortunately, there is currently no proven treatment or prevention for SARDS and the blindness it causes is irreversible. Fortunately, SARDS is not believed to be a painful condition and that it does not necessarily reduce a dog’s life expectancy.
Generally speaking, dogs adjust very well to being blind. It may take a few weeks to months for your dog to fully acclimate, most owners of dogs with SARDS report that the pets do have a very good quality of life. Safety precautions should be taken for all visually-impaired pets, particularly around swimming pools, stairs, roads, other animals and small children, etc. There are many resources for owners with blind pets to help them adjust to living with blind dogs. We have mastered several commands to navigate stairs and terrain changes; Danielle understands that “careful” means to proceed with caution. She and her two dappled siblings wear collars equipped with bells to help keep track of each other’s whereabouts
Based on my experience, and those shared by other SARDS dog owners, periodic blood work is critical to monitor any changes in your pet’s health.
The prognosis for a SARDS dog was nicely summarized by Dr. Ken Tudor He writes, “SARDS is a frustrating condition. Without a cause we have no way of knowing how to prevent it or how to treat it to stop the progression of the disease. Although blindness is certainly a sad condition for dogs and owners, these dogs can continue to have a good quality life.”
On a personal note, I want to share how very proud I am of Danielle …. When she was first diagnosed, people cautioned us against moving furniture or making any drastic changes. My husband John and I were just getting ready to retire and move to Georgia – nearly 900 miles away !! Danielle handled the changes in her environment with courage and determination. She quickly mapped her new location and adapts to changes incredibly well. She has dealt with her blindness with dignity and when I look at her and see the way her dappled spots spell out the word “lucky” (see photo), I know that was a message meant for me !!!
Facebook Page: SARDS Dogs United
Danielle Kirkman (told by Cheryl Kirkman)
USA Georgia Editor
24th April 2018