One of the most common causes of sudden blindness in an elderly cat is due to high blood pressure (hypertension). The increased pressure pushes the light sensitive layer (retina) away from the back of the eye and this can happen literally overnight.
The affected cat will have very widely dilated pupils even in bright sunlight and there might be some blood visible when looking into the eyes. They will appear to be disorientated, bump into things and might vocalise excessively.
The usual cause of raised blood pressure in cats is an excess of thyroid hormone (hyperthyroid) but it can also be due to kidney disease or diabetes. This is why it’s important for the vet to take blood tests to decide which condition to treat.
We monitor cats’ blood pressure in a similar way to human doctors by inflating a cuff just above the paw on a front leg but we listen for blood flow with an ultrasonic probe rather than a stethoscope. Some cats are calmer if the cuff is placed around the tail base. A few readings are usually taken to make sure that the blood pressure has not been raised through stress.
Drugs are very successful in bringing a cat’s blood pressure down to normal but the blindness is usually permanent. Cats are extremely adaptable when it comes to finding their way around the house and finding their food but they are not safe to allow outside due to all the dangers out there.
There are a number of other causes of blindness but these generally come on more slowly:
Glaucoma is the same condition as people get where there is an increased pressure within the cat’s eye. This is usually seen as a very angry painful eye and the white of the eye appears red due to the many new blood vessels. Drops can control the condition if caught early enough but if it reaches the stage where the eye is visibly swollen or ulcerated, then removal of the eye (enucleation) will usually be suggested. Glaucoma can be found in just one eye or both.
Cataracts are much less common in cats than dogs and would be seen as a misty or pearly lens. Tests would be required to rule out diabetes which can be a cause.
Tumours within the cat’s eye are occasionally discovered when the eyes are examined with an ophthalmoscope. Loss of vision would be slow to develop in these cases and often in only one eye initially.
If you have a pedigree cat (particularly an Abyssinian) who starts to slowly lose vision early in life, there is a possibility of Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) which is a genetic disease, very similar to the condition in some pedigree dogs. There is no treatment but the cat usually has time to adapt to the slow loss of vision.
Something we hardly ever see these days is Taurine (an amino acid) Deficiency. Modern complete diets have all the taurine a cat needs but it is just possible that a cat fed exclusively on tinned tuna could develop slow onset blindness due to this deficiency. If caught early enough, the loss of vision can be stopped or even reversed.
Most cats adapt very well to blindness and go on to enjoy a good quality of life. Some adapt so well that it would be hard for a casual observer to know they were blind.
If you are worried about any problems with your cat’s eyes, please contact your vet or use our interactive Cat Symptom Guide to help you decide what to do next.