Shhhhh! She’s Not Deaf, She’s Blind

The Story of How I Figured Out Abby Was Blind

I’m in school for veterinary technology, you’d think i’d notice my cat was going blind, right? My mom mentioned something to me along those lines last summer, but she’s one of those “chronic worriers” and I simply figured this was another one of her “highly improbable and need not be concerned” worries. 

I’m renting a house with a couple friends that I met at college. We are decorating the house for Halloween and decide to rearrange the furniture. Abby, my Persian cat jumps onto our sectional sofa, hangs out with my friends and I for a little bit before deciding we are being too obnoxious. She gets up, slowly makes her way to the edge of the couch and pauses suddenly. She moves her front paw forward off of the couch and then back again. After witnessing her repeat this unusual behavior multiple times, I thought to myself, “Shit, my mom was right!” 

After hysterically crying to my mom over the phone, I immediately began dialing the number of a local veterinary eye specialist to make a consultation appointment for Abby. Shortly after filling out paperwork, the tech calls Abby’s name and we follow her to an exam room. As the veterinarian walks into the room and introduces himself, I can’t help but think to myself how much he looks like an older version of Luke Skywalker. Being the first born daughter of an avid Star Wars fan, I have a vivid image of the young Tatooine farmer turned Jedi Knight plastered in my head.

Anyways, after a thorough eye examination, the doctor diagnosed Abby with late onset Feline Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA). At that point in time, we had not covered ophthalmic diseases in class so I had no knowledge of the pathology before speaking with the doctor and asking a bazillion questions. Afterward, I feel like I gained a good understanding of the disease.

Basically, PRA is a genetic disorder that attacks and kills the rods and cones, the photoreceptor cells in the retina. Late onset PRA is typically diagnosed in cats between the ages of two and five. This disease process progressively decreases vision resulting in complete blindness. Unfortunately, as of now there is no cure, prevention or treatment for PRA, but there is good news. PRA is not painful unlike many other eye conditions, such as glaucoma and corneal ulcers. 

Image of the anatomy of the eye

I will never forget the response the doctor gave me when I asked him if Abby is blind. He said, “Shhhhh! Don’t tell her she’s blind, she doesn’t know, but she can still hear.” Unlike us, who retrieve around 80% of our sensory input from vision, cats and dogs have a much more developed sense of smell and hearing. It may be harder to detect vision loss in indoor cats compared to dogs because dogs are more likely to be introduced to a new environment, such as a hiking trail or walking route. Behavior changes in pets who experience sudden blindness are much more dramatic and easily detected as they have no time to adapt. To be honest, I didn’t even realize Abby was blind until her vision was greatly diminished because she was able to adapt easily. Since Abby went blind, she has been introduced to several new environments. Her ability to adapt is remarkable. I cannot tell you how many times I have been questioned more than once by friends and family when I tell them she cannot see. My favorite questions I’ve been asked are “but she’s not completely blind, right?” and “Well, if she’s blind how is she able to get around the house without bumping into things?” She uses her tactile hairs (whiskers) to detect what is around her. Her whiskers act as a guide, allowing her to navigate around a wall, piece of furniture or object. If her whiskers come into contact with something that is blocking her path, she knows to stop and go around.

Abby losing her vision was harder on me than it was for her. Being human, we tend to think about how we would feel in a hypothetical situation in order to try and sympathize with another experiencing it. There are more changes for you or I to overcome. Abby won’t miss watching T.V., driving to the supermarket or looking at herself in the mirror. What Abby would miss is being with her family, being tucked under the covers, receiving love and affection, a bowl full of food and of course, her favorite greenie dental treats. I say this because special needs pets are just like the others, they may require some extra tender love and care but it is totally worth every minute. 

Blind Kitties Still Have Fun!

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