Looking For Love with All the Senses

By Elana Scherr | Photography By Brandon Lajoie
Katrina and Joseph Cardenas almost missed out on Nala. It was 2015, they were recently engaged, and packing to move to their own house. They’d been staying with Katrina’s mom, and less than a month before moving day, they went outside to find a straggly, skinny, rashy, little stray on the neighbor’s lawn. “There was a big storm coming,” Joseph says. “We didn’t want to leave her out there, so we called her over, and she came right away. She was so friendly it seemed she must have an owner.”

“She loves snacks,” Katrina says, giving Nala a chin scratch. “She can follow her nose to exactly where the food is.” It was snacks, actually, that first led Katrina to worry about Nala’s vision. When the pandemic sent everyone home from their offices, Katrina noticed Nala would occasionally trip over items left out of place. She wondered about her eyesight, and to test it, asked Nala to play one of their favorite games, throwing a treat up in the air for Nala to catch. Nala couldn’t do it like she used to, and after a vet visit and a referral to a dog optometrist, Nala was diagnosed with advanced glaucoma. In dogs, as in humans, glaucoma is a buildup of fluid behind the cornea. It can be caused by disease, injury, or genetics, and it can happen slowly, or almost overnight. It’s not easy to recognize the signs of oncoming blindness in dogs, because they are so skilled at navigating with their other senses.

By the time Nala was missing her thrown treats, she was already completely unsighted. “There are treatments for some forms of glaucoma if you catch it early enough,” Katrina says, “but it’s hard to know when a dog is having trouble seeing. If it hadn’t been for working from home, it might have been even longer before we realized something was wrong.”
The next day they took the pup to check for a chip or other sign of ownership, but despite her sweet disposition, there were no previous claims on the dog, so the Cardenases took her home for good. Just a few weeks later, and they might never have met — which would have been a shame for everyone involved, because Nala was going to change their lives as much as they would change hers. At this point in the story, as if she knew we were talking about her, Nala scrambled up onto Joseph Cardenas’s lap, and politely licked his chin. He hugged her, and she stretched over his shoulder to get a nose – boop and a head pat from Katrina. There’s nothing unusual about a dog demanding cuddles from her people, but Nala can’t see Joseph and Katrina; she lost her vision about two years after they adopted her. It obviously doesn’t keep her from knowing exactly where the love is, or the snacks.
While lack of vision doesn’t bother most dogs, glaucoma itself is painful, causing migraine-like headaches in both humans and pets. The Cardenases initially tried to control Nala’s discomfort with eyedrops in order to avoid surgery, but it quickly became clear to them that she was having good days and bad days on the meds. “Some days, she just didn’t want to get out of bed,” Katrina remembers. “I could tell it was hurting her, and I realized that she wasn’t afraid of losing her eyes — I was.” Joseph have no regrets about Nala; her life is full and she makes our life full.”

Some viewers have questions about life with a dog who can’t see. Nala was unusually young when she lost her eyes, but some level of vision impairment is common as dogs age, and most dog owners will eventually deal with a dog who can’t see as well as they used to. Because Nala had been blind before her surgery, Katrina says her adjustment wasn’t difficult. They do pay attention to what they leave lying around on the floor, and because Nala likes to jump on furniture, if they make any big rearrangements, they’ll walk her through a couple times so she can learn the new layout. “At most it takes her a day to remember,” Joseph says, pointing out that Nala not only knows their home, but their in-laws’ as well. Katrina adds that she encourages visitors to make a little noise or hold their hand in front of Nala’s nose before petting her so as not to startle her, but that’s good advice for meeting any dog. “We let her set the pace, do her own thing,” says Katrina, who encourages anyone concerned about adopting a dog with impaired vision to go right ahead and enjoy it. “I wish I could rescue all the disabled and senior dogs. There’s no reason to overlook a dog with a vision problem, they aren’t any different than a sighted dog. They take patience and love and they respond to it and have a great life.” 

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