Having impaired vision is a challenge for any animal, but many pets are surprisingly adaptable to a life without sight—cats in particular.
“I always tell my clients that if I could be any species and be blind, I would be a cat,” says Dr. Kate Myrna, chief of ophthalmology service at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.
That’s because felines, she says, are so good at adjusting to vision loss that, on occasion, some clients of hers can’t even tell that their blind cat is actually blind. There is a perception that blind cats are exceptionally difficult to take care of, but Myrna says owning a blind cat is both doable and extremely rewarding.
Dr. Bruce Kornreich, associate director of the Cornell Feline Health Center, agrees.
“Just knowing that you’re helping out a cat that’s been dealt cards in life that are out of his control is very gratifying,” he says.
Kornreich says blind cat owners should be patient, caring, observant, intuitively aware and dedicated.
“It’s going to take some time to help the cat get to a place where he or she feels completely comfortable,” he adds. “Watching, especially in the beginning, is so important.”
Taking these seven steps to prep yourself, your cat and your home will go a long way toward making your cat feel happy, be healthy and stay safe.
Never Let Your Blind Cat Outside
This is the golden rule of owning a blind cat, Kornreich says, not only because you risk overwhelming his other senses, but also because he’ll have a much harder time making his way back inside. One exception to the rule might be for a blind cat who walks with you on leash.
“This probably depends upon the cat, but if he can be brought outside to an area with which they are familiar and the experience does not intimidate the cat, this may be okay,” Kornreich says. “If a cat shows any signs of being scared or reluctant to do this, though, it would probably be best to refrain from this activity.”
If your blind cat gets out without you realizing, Kornreich says you should follow the same procedures you would if a sighted cat gets lost — alert neighbors, post signs, inquire at local shelters — but you should note wherever possible that the cat is blind and that he should be approached very gently.
Leave His Environment Alone
Keeping the cat’s litter box, food and water very near one another is a good idea, and while they can do quite well navigating by their noses, it’s nonetheless quite important and helpful if you leave these things in the same place.
“If you move things around, that’s an automatic challenge you’re creating for the cat,” Kornreich says. “Consistency is very important.”
Myrna adds that having two litter boxes might be a good idea, especially if your house is big.
“You should also choose an open litter box to start so that it is easy to approach,” she adds. “Covered litter boxes will be harder to smell and may make a blind cat nervous in the beginning.”
Keep Your House Clean
Think about how startled you get when something falls from your counter or desk when your back is turned. That’s the life — always — of a blind cat, Kornreich says.
“Make sure there aren’t things left around that can startle the cat, that he can knock over, or that can fall on top of him,” he says.
An exception might be toys that the cat is familiar with, which cat can recognize by their scent. New toys, especially ones that make noise, should be introduced slowly so they do not cause distress or create uncertainty. Cats are naturally skittish about sudden, unexpected noises. For blind cats, this can be a source of anxiety that they simply don’t need in their lives.
Use Scent to Help Him Navigate Stairs
Stairs are tricky for blind cats. It’s not mandatory that you block stairs to prevent your cat from going up or down them, but Kornreich says it’s something you might want to consider.
If your cat loves spending time on multiple floors of your house, Myrna suggests a trick to help your cat understand how to navigate a staircase.
“Cats are profoundly scent-driven, so you can tag certain areas of the house with a consistent smell,” she says. “Lavender could be used to mark the base of the stairs and vanilla for the top of the stairs.”
And because they might be tentative to jump, you can also create small, makeshift staircases that lead up to your cat’s favorite sitting spots. Marking these stairs with two scents achieves the same result — they help your cat know when he can expect to stop climbing up or down and when he will be on solid, level ground.
Let Him Be Around Other Cats
“I wouldn’t treat a blind cat any differently than a sighted cat in terms of bringing it into a house with other cats,” Myrna says.
Any new cat — or human for that matter — is going cause at least a bit of anxiety for a blind cat, but introducing a blind cat to a sighted cat means the latter can help the former get around once they get to know each other and feel comfortable around each other.
“To introduce a blind cat to a sighted cat, let them smell and hear each other through a door and then let them interact gradually,” Myrna says. “In terms of meeting new people, the rules are simple: Just make sure to make a verbal cue before touching the cat, and go slow, allowing the cat to smell and explore. Do not pick up a blind cat without warning as it will be very disorienting.”
Additionally, if you’re considering adopting a blind cat who is familiar with or bonded to a sighted cat, Myrna suggests adopting both if you can so that the blind cat already has a partner to make adjusting to your home a lot easier.
Monitor His Weight
Because getting around is more challenging, some blind cats, especially older ones, may choose a more sedentary lifestyle. Some still love to run, jump and even catch mice, Myrna says, but others don’t, and owners of those types of blind cat will need to work with their vet or a veterinary nutritionist to make sure their diets are adjusted to make up for the lack of activity.
Additionally, Kornreich says cat-safe toys with bells or rattles or anything that stimulates them through non-visual, sensory engagement may help coax the blind cat into getting some exercise through play.
Maintain Good Eye Health
Perhaps the best way to help a blind cat is to prevent a cat from going blind in the first place. While some cats are in fact born blind and some cases of blindness aren’t preventable, there are indeed diseases and conditions for which blindness is a symptom.
“It’s very important that you take your cat to the vet immediately if you notice him acting unusually with respect to the way he’s getting around — being startled easily, bumping into walls,” Kornreich says. “These are signs of impending blindness. The same goes if you see a cloudiness or redness in the eyes or if you’re seeing any unusual discharge coming from them.”
What are some of the causes of cat blindness? Some are age-related, which means owners need to be particularly vigilant when it comes to aging or aged cats, Kornreich says.
“Two fairly common conditions are cataracts, where the lens of the eye clouds up, and glaucoma, where the fluid pressure in the eyeball builds up and causes blindness,” he says.
Additionally, retinal detachment — which is exactly what it sounds like — is associated with high blood pressure, kidney disease, and/or hyperthyroidism. Cats with feline leukemia, peritonitis, toxoplasmosis and the herpes virus should also be watched closely for symptoms related to blindness, Kornreich adds.
Many of these conditions are irreversible, but Kornreich says others can be reversed and cured, and vision can be saved with swift action from the owner and the cat’s vet.