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For years, our Golden Retriever, Shakira, had the ability to track an incoming missile – a yellow tennis ball, I mean – better than the air defenses of most of the world’s countries. Her ability to lock on to a target and pull in the prize, coupled with her speed in the 100-yard dash, would have made NFL scouts drool like a Bloodhound, sure they’d found the next hall of fame wide receiver.
Shakira is an athlete, a hard-bodied, golden phenom who never has an off day. If you threw it, she would retrieve it. And beg you to throw it again. And again. My arm would fall off long before my tail-wagging retriever would allow me to put down the Chuckit without protest.
These days, though, she wouldn’t notice if I stopped throwing the ball because she can’t see what I’m doing anymore. In just two days, 12-year-old Shakira went from being able to track an airborne tennis ball at a dead run to not being able to see a spoonful of canned dog food held two feet in front of her nose.
I hoped her blindness might be an immune mediated inflammation of the optic nerve, which could have been treated and might have been cured. But in the back of my mind, I feared that it was something called SARDS, or Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome. SARDS strikes female dogs more frequently than males and is more commonly diagnosed in the winter, although no one really knows why in either case. What we do know is that there is no treatment for SARDS and the condition is permanent.
Our Shakira is now, and will always be, blind.
I've treated many blind dogs over the 31 years I’ve been a veterinarian, dogs who've lost eyesight from causes ranging from diabetes (common) to progressive retinal atrophy (very common in some breeds like Miniature Schnauzers and Shelties) to shotgun blasts (fortunately, less common). When Teresa and I were first married, our first “child,” a Miniature Schnauzer named Bode, also went blind in just a couple of days during a bout of pancreatitis. But Bode was an indoor dog who knew the paths of our home very well; unless we moved the furniture, he got around just the same as when he could see.
Shakira’s life is very different. She lives on a 150-acre horse ranch, and for her there’s nothing as important as our twice-daily routine of my throwing the tennis ball for her down our lane, across our lawn and into the woods until she's panting tired. Without her eyesight, I worried that the thing that made her happiest would be something she could no longer do.
I am happy to report that I was wrong. And I should have known better – I can’t tell you how many times in this veteran veterinarian’s career that I’ve seen someone’s beloved pet adapt to a challenge and live just as fully as before.
So it is with our Shakira. She can no longer see the tennis ball, but she still finds it every time – and on a dead run! When I throw it, she waits and listens for the “whoosh” in the direction my arm is moving, stands still until the ball hits and then runs for it. She knows our ranch so well that she runs along well-worn paths and ducks under the fence with ease. She then uses her keen sense of smell to find the ball.
I've thrown for her at least 200 times now, and she has retrieved her ball every single one of them. I do throw the ball in areas that are safer for her (not in heavy brush or in piles of rocks), and I talk to her more so she knows where I am, but that makes her adaptation no less amazing. If you didn’t know she was blind, you’d never notice it as she makes her way around our ranch.
My whole life I’ve been aware of the power of what I call “The Bond,” that special connection we have with our animals, and the many ways they help us live our own lives. Seeing our Golden Girl take in stride what would send many of us into mourning is just another reminder of how many ways our animals help us.
Her message is clear: Enjoy what you have, and don’t worry about what you don't have. There’s joy in every day, if you just look for it. Or smell for it, in the case of Shakira, who will not let her handicap slow her down for a minute.
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