Progressive Retinal Atrophy in the German Shepherd Dog

The health of your German Shepherd’s eyes is a concern that you may not have put much thought to. But there are some conditions, such as Progressive Retinal Atrophy, which can commonly affect purebred dogs, such as German Shepherds.

What is Progressive Retinal Atrophy?

Progressive Retinal Atrophy, or PRA, is a genetic disease that causes impaired vision and eventual blindness. The disease occurs through deterioration of the retina, or, more specifically, the photo-receptors in a dog’s eyes.

There are two types of photo-receptors in the retina: the rods and cones. Rods affect the areas of black and white vision and nighttime vision, while the cones affect color vision. The rods are usually affected before the cones when a dog develops PRA. This is why dogs often experience trouble seeing at night during the early stages of Progressive Retinal Atrophy.

Symptoms of Progressive Retinal Atrophy

While a dog is generally easily able to compensate for slight changes in vision, thus making it difficult for you to notice any symptoms at all, you may notice some slight changes in behavior, giving you clues that your dog may be developing PRA.

One of the first symptoms of PRA that you may notice in your German Shepherd is trouble seeing at night and in low light. Your dog may be reluctant to go outside at night or into any area that is not well lit.

Another symptom you may notice is that your dog is not easily able to compensate for new surroundings even in the daylight, such as if you have introduced a new piece of furniture or added a deck to your home. A dog with Progressive Retinal Atrophy may bump into objects or trip.

Your German Shepherd may also become mistrustful of new people if he cannot see properly. It’s best to introduce new people gradually.

Causes of Progressive Retinal Atrophy

The cause of Progressive Retinal Atrophy is genetic. Unfortunately, this means that if your dog has the propensity towards the disease in his genes, there is nothing that you can do as an owner to prevent him from getting the condition. However, the good news is that it does not occur through any environmental factors, and thus there is also nothing you can do to cause your dog to have this disease, such as through exposure to chemicals or ultra violet light.

Because German Shepherds are purebred dogs, it’s best to give your dog regular health checkups. This way you can monitor the possible development of Progressive Retinal Atrophy and any other genetic disease that your particular dog may be likely to have.

The only way to reduce the risk of owning a dog who will develop Progressive Retinal Atrophy is to buy from a reputable breeder. Selective breeding can reduce the risks of PRA but still will not guarantee that your German Shepherd won’t develop the condition.

Diagnosis for Progressive Retinal Atrophy

If you have noticed any of the above symptoms in your German Shepherd, or you are otherwise concerned about your dog’s eyesight, it’s always best to take your dog to a qualified veterinarian who can perform tests in order to either give the all-clear or make a diagnosis.

Usually, Progressive Retinal Atrophy can easily be diagnosed from a simple eye examination. Sometimes a electroretinogram, or ERG, may be performed prior to the eye exam, especially if symptoms of the condition have arisen early.

Sometimes other eye tests may be performed, and if your general veterinarian is unable to determine the cause of the symptoms, he may refer you to an ophthalmologist for further testing.

Treatment of Progressive Retinal Atrophy

There is no prescribed treatment for Progressive Retinal Atrophy. This is because the condition is irreversible and does not cause a dog any discomfort or pain, and no treatment is necessary.

Your veterinarian may recommend some things you can do at home to make life easier for your dog with PRA, but there will not be any need for medication or other treatment.

Some things you can do to help your dog with PRA cope better with the condition:

  1.  Don’t make any major changes in the arrangement of furniture and layout of the house. Keep your dog’s food and water bowls, bed and toys in the usual place so that he can always find them easily.
  2. Don’t let your dog out unleashed unless you have a fenced yard. It’s also advisable to walk your dog during the day when he may be able to see somewhat more clearly than in the evening. Keeping to familiar walks, instead of new parks or trails, is also helpful to your dog with PRA.
  3. Use fences, doors and baby gates to keep your dog from getting hurt or lost due to his impaired vision. Barricading staircases is particularly helpful to prevent falls.
  4. Try not to introduce too many changes into your dog’s life. A German Shepherd suffering from PRA may find it harder to deal with change, such as moving to a new home or the addition of another pet into the household. Keeping change to a minimum will help your dog to relax and cope better with the condition.

Prognosis for Progressive Retinal Atrophy

There is, to this date, no cure for Progressive Retinal Atrophy. Unfortunately, this usually means that if your German Shepherd has the condition, he will eventually suffer from permanent blindness. However, this does not mean your dog cannot still enjoy a happy and healthy life.

Most dogs cope well with blindness and it does not greatly alter the quality of their life. Generally speaking, you can treat your German Shepherd with PRA the way you did before he developed the condition, with the addition of some of the above suggestions.

If you are at all concerned that your German Shepherd is suffering from vision problems, you should take the dog to a vet immediately for testing. If the condition is not Progressive Retinal Atrophy, there may be treatment available.