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Genetics, Blindness and Golden Retrievers

by Katie McKay | Sep 04, 2020

My first dog on my own, not a family dog, was a golden retriever. Like many of you, I fell in love with the big goofy people loving breed and have had one my whole adult life. Ok, they are like potato chips, I often have more than one at a time. I am also dealing with a lot of medical side of the breed on a daily basis with NRGRR, so naturally I was really surprised to see that I had never blogged about the issues that can commonly strike goldens and cause blindness. Recently, I have heard about two dogs with just that, Pigmentary Uveitis (Golden Retriever Uveitis) and Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). Let’s dive in to high school science class…… 

Remember this guy? The Punnett square was really when I first found my love for puzzles and science.Punnett_Square I know you all remember the excitement, but just in case, I’ll refresh. These little tables are used to examine the probabilities of offspring inheriting a trait, when crossing multiple traits from the parents, in other words, why your parents both have brown eyes, but yours are blue (and no its not because you are adopted like your sibling told you). The trait is made up of a dominant and recessive allele, where you inherit one from each parent. Often times if you get even one of the dominant alleles, you will have the trait. You will only have the recessive trait, if you inherit both recessive alleles. Our current understanding is that both GRU and PRA are genetically inherited disorders that are passed from one generation to the next. 

GRU, Golden Retriever Uveitis, has been around for about 30 years and is seen in golden retrievers across the United States and Canada. It is not as common outside North America. From what has been studied, this appears to be a dominant trait, but for reasons unknown, it does not present in 100% of individuals, as dominant traits normally would. This is exactly why we might see the disease present in some siblings and not others. I learned about this disease when I took my golden to the vet because of red eyes that just wouldn’t seem to go away. She tested the pressures in his eyes and explained to me that uveitis is common in goldens and can eventually lead to glaucoma. Luckily his pressures were normal and glaucoma was ruled out, but dry eye, conjunctivitis, environmental allergies/irritants and ulcers can all look very similar. The difference for my dog was that he wasn’t painful and that appears to be the one symptom that sets uveitis off from these other less serious conditions. How do you know your dog’s eyes are in pain? Rather than just red, runny eyes, dogs with uveitis may paw at their eyes, not be able to hold them open, or have trouble seeing. Don’t forget about the usual, I don’t feel good symptoms like not eating, hiding, sleeping more or having trouble seeing. Recently my golden friend Jack was having trouble going up and down the stairs at night. His mom took him straight to the vet for a check-up and he was eventually diagnosed with GRU and glaucoma. 

Progressive retinal atrophy or PRA is caused by the bilateral (both eyes) degeneration of the retina. Its progressive because the loss of vision occurs over time until the dog is totally blind. Typically we start seeing signs of this around 6 years of age, but there is another form of the disease that can be seen as early as 4 years of age. Unlike GRU, PRA is an autosomal recessive trait, which means that you have to inherit both recessive alleles to have the disease. Goldens, labs and yes the ever popular golden doodle should be tested prior to being bred. We know the exact genes and mutations that cause this disease and there are ways to test for them so it is easier to identify this before it gets passed. Dogs that have one of the recessive alleles will not develop the disease but will carry it, which means that if they are bred, they are 50% likely to pass that affected allele to their offspring. The moral of the story is, we know a lot about PRA and by testing and responsible breeding, we can keep dogs from developing it. This is a good thing! Because unlike GRU, PRA is not painful and it’s really difficult to notice when it first develops. Most owners report the first sign as night blindness. Affected dogs tend to be more nervous at night, reluctant to go into dark rooms or bump into things when the lighting is low. Most of the time, it takes about 1-2 years before the dog is completely blind. Your vet checks your dog’s eyes at least once a year and can see changes to the blood vessels, increased dilation of the pupils and suspect PRA, but typically will refer you to a veterinary opthalmologist for confirmation. The testing there can show PRA in dogs even before they have symptoms! 

There is a form of PRA called sudden acquired retinal degeneration or SARD that has an unknown cause and causes blindness within days to weeks. This is different from PRA because it is often seen in middle to older-aged dogs.  

Ok so we know the medical side, but what about trying to navigate parenting a once healthy dog who is now going to be completely blind? That can feel overwhelming and confusing, so I reached out to the best resource I know with real world experience, the NRGRR family. Here is some great advice! 

Start training before your dog looses all vision, it makes it easier for them and for you to adapt. 

Wear a bell and ring it in their presence, after they lose their sight, they will know that the bell is the way to locate you in the house or the yard. Call them to you and ring it so they learn to associate the bell with your location. 

Stay away from trying to use ramps. Teach them that listening to you will let them know that they need to step up or down, use cue words to indicate step up or step down. At the bottom, use another word, like all done or good job. 

Use a crate or tether when riding in the car and use a harness to help them in and out of vehicles. Make sure they know not to jump in or out without you. 

Purchase a leash or vest indicator to let others know that your dog is blind. This helps prevent them from being startled by strangers who want to pet and approach. 

Protect your dog from other dogs. Let the dog who can’t see greet the other dog safely first, even if this means holding the other dog to allow your dog to sniff. 

Audio cues and commands are extremely valuable! (left, right, stop, wait, sit) 

Use touch to help them navigate and know when you are approaching. A very inventive young man used to blow gently on his dog’s face to wake her when she was sleeping (she was deaf and blind). 

Dogs adapt very, very well with their other senses. They will likely learn their way around the house in just a couple of days.  

Another great suggestion was the book Living with Blind Dogs by Caroline D. Levin. The book covers information for a dog born blind and a dog that becomes blind. 

There are a lot of resources for help if your dog has lost or is losing their sight, many more than I can list here. And the good news is that we know a lot about PRA and GRU thanks to science, which means we have a lot of information at our disposal to help our wagging balls of fluff enjoy a great quality of life, despite not being able to see.

Cheers!
Katie

Neuse River Golden Retiever Rescue
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