Apodaca: Lessons learned from an ailing family pet

Since my dog lost his vision, I've listened to experts and consulted websites for advice about coping with a sightless pet. But aside from all the practical tips, I've learned that living with a blind dog is a lesson in patience, commitment and letting go of anxiety over carpet stains.

It is, most of all, a lesson in love.

I have no doubt that all you pet owners instantly recognize this kind of unconditional, unrestrained love. We cherish our animal friends, and take our responsibilities for their well-being as sacred and unshakable. We strive to calm their nerves and ease their suffering, and hope for the wisdom to know when enough is enough.

Who among us hasn't consoled a friend who mourned their pet's passing as they would of any other family member, or swapped tales of dogged devotion with passersby?

One friend even risked her life to save her dog after he fell through the ice on a frozen pond. Without a moment's thought for her own safety, she jumped in after him, followed by her other dog. Suddenly realizing that they all might die, she summoned an extraordinary adrenaline rush to heave both animals out of the water and then drag herself from its icy grip. Numb and exhausted, she carried her dogs nearly a mile back home before collapsing in a puddle at the feet of her astonished husband.

"You have to understand," she later told me. "My dogs are my children."

When we first learned that our Petey might be vision-impaired, my husband and I weren't overly concerned. He was getting on in years, so it seemed natural that his vision might be weakening, just as I now use reading glasses to decipher microscopic print.

We were also far more concerned at the time with his other mystery ailments, from distressing intestinal eruptions to neurological issues. The kind folks at Corona del Mar Animal Hospital had referred us to an internist, and over many months Petey was put through a battery of tests and dietary and drug regimens as his weight and health fluctuated wildly.

There were days when we braced ourselves for the worst, but after time his condition stabilized. So when the internist recommended that we also consult a veterinary ophthalmologist, we didn't give much credence to the possibility that he might actually be going blind.

A Labrador mix that we adopted from a rescue network when he was about 1, Petey has a genetic recipe that's stacked against him in the vision department. Labs are pretty much programmed to develop glaucoma, which can be kept in check through medication. But sometimes the drugs fail, and surgical techniques have uneven results.

Before we even realized it, Petey had gone completely blind in one eye, which we had removed to alleviate pain from fluid buildup. Our one-eyed pirate dog then began suffering the same mounting pressure in the other eye. The only chance to save it was a laser procedure, we were told. It didn't work, and left him completely sightless. There was nothing else to be done.

There have been tears — mine, as well as Petey's perpetual weepiness — and some self-recrimination as I've wondered if we've made the best decisions. But the end result was, in hindsight, probably inevitable.

Don't despair, we were told: Dogs adjust to blindness. They rely on other senses. They draw comfort from your scent, use their hearing as a guide, and navigate tolerably well in familiar surroundings. They respond to your touch, and calm at the sound of your voice.

I've read other advice: Don't rearrange the furniture. Give your blind dog lots of massages. Keep him on a short leash during walks. Don't coddle him, let him gain confidence by getting his bearings on his own. Try not to get stressed out; he'll sense it and take his cue from you.

"What's wrong with your dog?"

That's the question I always receive from children as I walk Petey around our neighborhood and by the Back Bay. Kids aren't put off by his unusual appearance, and almost always ask if they can pet him. "He'd love that," I tell them. "He can smell you, and he'll remember who you are."

"Does it hurt him?" they ask.

The truth is we don't know how much pain he's in. As I write this, we're grappling with yet another problem, an infection likely caused by Petey's rubbing and scratching at his remaining eyeball. So he's back in the dreaded cone, bumping and scraping around the house and backyard as we load his eye with yet more drops, which he acquiesces to after some gentle coaxing.

He just smashed a plate when his cone swiped it on a pass. It was one of many that we've collected on our travels and keep on low shelves in our kitchen. It wasn't expensive and it's not a great loss. Note to self: Keep breakables out of cone's path.

But there are bigger lessons to be had from my blind dog, and I'm trying to stay attuned to them. I don't know when enough will be enough, but I know that today we still have our walk and a little massage to look forward to. For now I only hope that will be enough for us both.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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