Dealing With Deafness in Dogs

Hearing loss is common, but manageable, in aging gompanions.

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Deafness and hearing loss can occur in dogs for a variety of reasons. Living with a deaf dog may be confusing for owners who do not have the right tools and knowledge. Fortunately, most deaf dogs can live long, happy lives. The key is to learn effective communication and proper care of your deaf dog.

The canine ear has an intricate structure consisting of tissue, nerves, cartilage and tiny bones that work together with the brain to conduct and interpret sound. Damage occurring to one or more of these sensitive areas can cause partial or complete loss of hearing.

Causes of Deafness and Hearing Loss in Dogs

Chronic severe ear infections, tumors, parasitic infections, drug toxicity or traumatic injury can harm the tympanum (eardrum) or the inner/middle ear, resulting in temporary or permanent deafness. Brain disease, such as a tumor or stroke, that damages the auditory nerve or other parts of the central nervous system that control hearing can also affect hearing. Perhaps the most commonly seen cause of deafness is that due to old age. Nerve degeneration in geriatric dogs typically results in a gradual hearing loss. This is similar to what occurs as some humans age.

Deafness in dogs may also be congenital, meaning it was present at birth. It may or may not be hereditary. Certain dog breeds are more commonly affected by congenital deafness, including the Dalmatian, English Setter, Havanese, and more. In addition, congenital deafness appears to be associated with pigmentation; pure white or predominantly white dogs have a higher rate of congenital deafness.

Diagnosing Deafness in Dogs

Many dog owners will not notice deafness at first, especially if it occurs gradually. The owner of a dog that was born deaf might not realize that something is wrong until the dog appears to have difficulty learning the simplest of voice cues. Simply testing the hearing by making a sound (like a clap or whistle) out of view of the dog can give you an idea of the dog's hearing. However, dogs with partial hearing loss might still hear high-pitched or very loud noises.

The only way to be certain a dog is completely deaf is via special neurological testing. The brainstem auditory evoked response test, commonly abbreviated as BAER, reads electrical activity in the ear and brain to measure their response (or lack thereof) to sound stimuli. This is a virtually painless test that takes only a few minutes to complete. To have this test done on your dog, you will need to find a BAER testing location near you. Due to the type of equipment needed, BAER testing is typically only available at vet schools or specialty hospitals.

Treatment and Prevention of Deafness and Hearing Loss

There is no definitive cure for deafness in dogs. Infections and injuries to the ear or brain may respond to anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics, but the damage caused may be irreversible.

Everyday ear care can help prevent ear infections. Caring for the ears is especially important in dogs with floppy ears, like Basset Hounds and Cocker Spaniels. If an ear infection occurs, prompt and thorough treatment can prevent damage that can lead to deafness.

Responsible dog breeding can prevent congenital deafness. Dogs with known deafness should never be bred. However, two healthy dogs with normal hearing can still produce deaf offspring.

The good news is that deaf dogs can live normal lives. If you have a deaf dog, there are many steps you can take that will help with training and communication. 

Living With a Deaf Dog

Deafness in dogs is actually not that uncommon. Some dogs are born deaf. Others develop hearing loss at some point in their lives. Many senior dogs will begin to lose their hearing at some point. It may surprise some people to learn that a deaf dog can live a very normal, happy life. Sadly, some people feel that deaf dogs should be euthanized, but the reasoning behind this is fueled by myths about deaf dogs. Don't be fooled; deaf dogs can be wonderful dogs! If you have a deaf dog, then you already know this. If you are thinking about adopting a deaf dog, please don't let the deafness deter you.

In reality, the challenges surrounding deafness in dogs will fall more upon the dog owner than the actual dog. However, these are not challenges, but simply a different way of doing things. The owner of a deaf dog must learn alternative means of communication. One can easily communicate with a deaf dog through body language and train a deaf dog with hand signals. In fact, because dogs do not primarily communicate verbally, you will likely find that visual cues are more effective than verbal ones, even in hearing dogs. 

Though a deaf dog will make up for a lack of hearing by utilizing his other senses, it is important to know that his deafness can make him vulnerable in some situations. A deaf dog out on his own will not hear a threat such as oncoming traffic or nearby predators. His sense of sight and smell might not pick up on the threat until it is too late. If your deaf dog gets off his leash and is in danger, you will not be able to use a verbal method to retrieve him. For this reason, it is especially important to keep deaf dogs on a leash or in a fenced-in area. However, this rule applies to all dogs, as even a loose hearing dog can find danger.

In order to get the attention of a deaf dog at a distance, some owners train their dogs to use a vibrating remote collar (NOT a shock collar). The dog can be trained to respond to the vibration that the owner activates remotely. 

Bottom line, if you have a deaf dog, there is no reason to worry. Additionally, there is little reason not to consider adopting a deaf dog. When it comes down to it, deaf dogs are not very different from hearing dogs. They bark, they interact with people and other dogs, and they are well aware of their surroundings. They adapt. All you need to do is know how to adapt as well.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.