SARDS and the Irish Wolfhound

One cold fall morning Kingsland Taos galloped and trotted in the meadow and woods with his sister and cousin. There was no suspicion this would be the last time he ever did this.

When I returned from work that evening instead of coming to greet me with the other hounds he was standing utterly still. Hearing my voice he tried to come to me.... and ran right into a tree.

When I got him in the house I noted his pupils were widely dilated with noresponse to light or other stimuli. I had an old ophthalmoscope at home and on exam the optic nerve and all blood vessels in his eye looked normal. I called my vet and was introduced to SARDS or Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome.

What Is This Disease?

Sudden Acquired Retinal Degeneration Syndrome is a disease in dogs that causes sudden blindness. It can occur in any breed - more often seen in bitches and has been reported more in non sporting and toy breeds. In the LCS data there were only 2 reported cases but the incidence in IWs is not known. There are about 4000 cases reported yearly in the U.S. No genetic inheritance pattern has been described.

The cause of SARDS is not known. It has been associated with abnormalities of the adrenal glands in some cases (but not the majority). Reports of elevated adrenal hormones are common. No pituitary or adrenal tumors have been reported in SARDS dogs. There is speculation it may be an autoimmune disease because of similarities to the human immune-mediated retinopathy but no anti- retinal antibodies have been detected in SARDS dogs. Some reported cases suggested a toxin. At this time the etiology (cause) is still described as idiopathic - unknown or just strikes with no reason.

Examination with an ophthalmoscope (used to see the back of the eye) frustratingly at first is NORMAL although your dog is BLIND. However in a few months atrophy of the retina will be obvious. There is loss of the rod and cone cells by aptosis-meaning these cells which are essential for vision simply die. The diagnosis is usually made by history and exam but the definitive test is called ERG or electroretinography. This just measures activity in the retinal cells and is flat in SARDS - showing the retinal cells are non functioning.

Clinical Signs

Symptoms include sudden permanent blindness. Sometimes the blindness occurs more slowly over several days but it can happen within hours....the slow phase of pupillary reflexes may be retained but the owner will notice the widely dilated pupils as well as the obvious blindness.

Increased appetite and thirst with weight gain, increased urination, and fatigue are often noted even months before the onset of blindness. Some dogs show personality changes. Some dogs are totally asymptomatic until blindness strikes.


Alfred Pletchner DVM developed an endocrine-immune blood test and reported some SARDS dogs had abnormalities. There are testimonials available by owners that treatment with steroids and thyroid medication returned vision to their dogs (all I could find were toy breeds). This treatment has not been verified by formal studies or peer review. It is hard to believe the totally destroyed cells of the retina would respond to steroids and thyroid hormones but the testimonials are moving.

There is no official recommended treatment for the blindness at this time.

Euthanasia was recommended in hounds that were unable to adjust to blindness or had continued symptoms of fatigue or personality changes.

Taos’s story

In the morning Taos ran and played with Tempe and Praises, ate, and went down to their place without missing a step. Eight hours later he was totally blind. It was just hard to accept.

My vet was kind enough to come over that evening to verify my exam. She felt this was clearly a case of SARDS. I kept saying this just does not happen to Irish Wolfhounds....but there was my boy unable to see. Because of the possibility this could be immune mediated steroids were started at a high dose. Even if this was probably not going to help the need to do SOMETHING was strong.

What a terrible few days. His bladder would fill up from increased thirst- he couldn’t find the door to go out. He had never had a problem with urination but now had to stand outside and drip before the stream started and then would have to go out 5 minutes later. He was so unhappy and his whole world disrupted. I feared euthanasia would be necessary.

Then after 4 days we just stopped the steroids which had little chance of helping anyway and accepted total blindness would be our new normal. Things improved quickly.

Although he would never run free in the fields again he was able to walk in the yard on his own as long as I was there. If he got close to an obstacle or ditch etc I yelled wait and he would stop immediately until I arrived to guide him around it. This was the biggest obstacle and after his “wait” was solid he had so much more freedom.

He learned “step” and could go in and out of our house (which has steps) without difficulty. He learned “jump” to get in the car and still enjoyed rides with his nose out the window. 

He had to stay in the kennel and yard during the day. We took everything possible out of his yard and he learned where the door to the doghouse was very quickly.

He had to always stay where I was when in the house or be shut in the laundry room to prevent crashes.

The other hounds did not seem bothered at all by our new arrangements and nobody ever challenged or growled if he bumped into them.

Taos had NO symptoms before the sudden blindness and after the initial few weeks our quality of life was good. He was a calm and accepting hound all his life- never fearful of new things or noises etc and I think this helped his acceptance. I have never had such trust in my relationship with a hound and the next two years of his life were incredibly rich for me. If your hound can accept the blindness and still find enjoyment in each day it teaches you a valuable lesson. I hope to never see this again but if your hound is ever stricken with this I wish to say life can still be good. That selective IW intelligence is an asset!