WHAT?? I’m not ignoring you – just can’t hear you!
Hearing loss and deafness are relatively common among our canine companions but there are many causes, degrees of hearing loss and ways of addressing the situation. As with humans, your pooch can experience temporary either partial or total deafness in one or both ears due to an infection or wax build-up in the ear canals, or permanent hearing loss due to an untreated ear infection, congenital defect (i.e. born with it), old age or an injury.
Read on for a detailed discussion of the symptoms, causes, types, diagnosis and treatment of canine hearing loss and deafness, as well as tips on living with a hearing impaired canine companion.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss in Dogs
Remember that your pooch may begin to experience some hearing loss as she ages so the symptoms may creep up on both of you. If, on the other hand, the hearing loss is caused by a trauma or injury, the hearing loss may occur from one day to the next. Here are some of the more common symptoms that many indicate hearing loss in one or both ears:
- Little or no response to sound, including things she would normally have responded to such as squeaky toys, your voice, her name, whistling, other dogs barking, footsteps and doorbells.
- Failure to wake up or respond when you enter the room or arrive at the front door.
- If you startle her when you wake her up this indicates that she did not hear you approaching.
Heather Pate, who owned a deaf Harlequin Great Dane named “Chance” for more than 10 years, wrote the following “Twelve Quick Facts About Deaf Dogs” in 2002, based on her personal experiences with Chance and her contacts with other owners of deaf dogs:
Twelve Quick Facts About Deaf Dogs:
- Deaf dogs don’t know they are deaf.
- Deaf dogs don’t care that they are deaf.
- Deaf dogs are not suffering by being deaf.
- Deaf dogs are dogs first.
- Deaf dogs are representatives of their breed or combination of breeds second.
- Deaf dogs are individual dogs with their own quirks and personalities third.
- Deaf dogs are not more likely to become aggressive than any other dog in the same circumstances.
- Deaf dogs may startle when awakened suddenly but can easily be conditioned to awake to a calm but alert state.
- Deaf dogs are no less healthy than most hearing dogs.
- Deaf dogs can be easier to train than hearing dogs.
- Deaf dogs are very attentive to visual signals, including facial expression, body language and hand signals.
- Deaf dogs get along just fine with other dogs and people, as long as they are socialized from puppyhood on – just like hearing dogs.
Causes of Deafness or Hearing Loss
Deafness which is congenital, geriatric or caused by a specific trauma is often permanent and untreatable. However, acquired deafness which is due to an infection, wax build up or some other ear canal blockage is often temporary and treatable.
Congenital: If your pooch was born deaf it may have been due to either a genetic trait or a birth defect. While hearing loss and deafness are generally more common in senior dogs, there are particular breeds which tend to have white, spotted, dappled or merle hair coats which have higher rates of congenital deafness. Having said that, depending on which list you look at, more than 50 dog breeds may be more susceptible to congenital deafness. Dalmatians are most commonly affected but other at-risk breeds include the Akita, American Staffordshire Terrier, Australian Heeler, Australian Shepherd, Beagle, Border Collie, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Bull Terrier, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Collie, Dappled Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, Dogo Argentino, English Bulldog, English Setter, Fox Terrier, Foxhound, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Great Pyrenees, Ibizan Hound, Jack Russell Terrier, Kuvasz, Maltese, Miniature Pinscher, Miniature Poodle, Old English Sheepdog, Papillon, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rottweiler, St. Bernard, Schnauzer, Scottish Terrier, Sealyham Terrier, Shetland Sheepdog, Siberian Husky, Toy Poodle and West Highland White Terrier.
Acquired: Acquired deafness refers to the situation in which your canine companion had normal hearing but develops partial or total hearing loss through a specific trauma, infection, ear canal blockage or age-related degeneration. There are many causes of acquired deafness or hearing loss, including the following:
- Natural nerve degeneration caused by old age
- Repeated exposure to loud noises – constant use of earbuds to listen to heavy metal music is a no-no for your pooch!
- Blockage including wax build-up, yard debris and fluids
- Injury, including any trauma to the ear canal or ear drum or head trauma causing a brain injury
- Bacterial or yeast infection in the outer, middle or inner ear
- Inflammation or swelling of the ear or Eustachian tube
- Tumors of the ear or Eustachian tube
- Exposure to heavy metals including mercury, arsenic or lead
- Drug toxicity: certain drugs have hearing loss as a side effect or can cause deafness if used incorrectly. These include furosemide, cisplatin, chlorhexidine, ethanol, aminoglycosides, erythromycin and chloramphenicol.
Diagnosis of Hearing Loss in Dogs
Deafness and hearing loss may be either conductive or sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss means that sounds do not reach the nerves in the inner ear because there is, for example, a blockage in the ear canal. Sensorineural means that the nerve receptors in the ears cannot transmit sound signals from the ear to the brain or the brain centers responsible for hearing cannot interpret the auditory data because of a congenital defect.
If your pup is exhibiting any of the hearing loss symptoms listed above, you will want to take her to your vet for testing. Your vet will examine your pup’s ears for wax accumulation, hair growth, foreign object blockage, infection, inflammation or injury and may conduct hearing loss tests. If there are signs of an infection, your vet will take an ear swab and culture to determine the nature of the infection and the proper course of treatment.
If your vet eliminates the most obvious causes of the hearing loss, she may want to conduct a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test to measure your pup’s brain’s response to auditory stimuli. The BAER test is sometimes also referred to as the brainstem auditory evoked potential (BAEP) test or the auditory brainstem response (ABR) test. The procedure is quick and virtually painless for your pup. The BAER evaluates and records the brainstem’s electrical response to auditory stimuli, generally a rapid clicking sound made in each ear through headphones or foam insert microphones. Your vet will put subdermal electrodes (small disks with sensitive prongs) in and around your pup’s ears and neck. The electrodes may cause mild discomfort but most dogs don’t react to the sensation. If your pup is nervous or excitable, your vet may want to sedate her for the test because your pup will need to lie quietly for about 15 minutes for the test to be completed. Your vet will hook everything up to a computer and measure the electrical activity of your dog’s brain in response to the sounds administered separately into each ear.
Treatment of Hearing Loss in Dogs
Once you have determined the extent of the hearing loss as well as the cause, you can decide how you want to proceed. If your pup has congenital or geriatric deafness, there is generally no treatment option to correct the deafness. Remember, however, that this doesn’t mean your pup is suffering – it just means you may have to make some adjustments in your own behavior to accommodate your canine companion’s situation.
If the defect causing the hearing loss or deafness is in the middle or outer ear or involves inner ear inflammation, you may want to consider surgery to correct the issue. However, hearing loss due to congenital defects often involve the intricate inner ear mechanism or indicate nervous system defects and may therefore not be treatable. In addition, drug toxicity, heavy metal exposure and exposure to loud noises often cause permanent damage.
Barring an untreatable and total deafness, you may want to consider hearing aids for your pooch. Yes, hearing aids and cochlear implants are now available for dogs and are similar to devices used for humans. Please note that the canine hearing aids can be expensive and your pup may not respond well to having something in her ear or on her body. Remember that your pooch is perfectly happy with the hearing loss – it is you who has to adjust.
If the hearing loss is caused by the presence of a foreign body or blockage in the ear canal, treatment may be as simple as removing the object, ear wax or fluid, or trimming overgrown ear hair. Your vet can do a thorough ear lavage and, if there is any infection may prescribe a daily ear flush and/or topical ointment to be used for several weeks, along with oral antibiotics. Ironically, your vet may also insert a longer-lasting wax-based medication into your pup’s ears if you cannot do the daily at-home ear washing.
If the hearing loss is caused by a tumor, your vet may be able to remove the obstruction surgically to open up the ear canal for sound conduction.
Adjusting to a Hearing Impaired or Deaf Canine Companion
While your pup won’t generally mind the hearing loss or deafness, you, as the pet parent, will need to take additional steps to protect your loved one because she is missing one of her essential protective mechanisms. You will need to monitor her more closely to ensure that she doesn’t inadvertently step in front of a car or bicycle, or wander into the path of another dog who is trying to warn her off without realizing she can’t hear him. Here are some to-do’s to ensure that your deaf or hearing impaired baby continues to lead a safe and ‘sound’ life:
- Don’t leave her outside without a fence or leash.
- Remember she can’t hear you or approaching vehicles.
- Teach her hand signals to replace verbal commands.
- Stomp on the ground to get her attention – she will feel the vibration.
- Try to approach her from the front so that she can see you so that you don’t startle her.
- Make sure she is microchipped and always wearing her collar with ID tags that identify her as deaf.
- Teach any young children in your family to take extra care with their hearing impaired or deaf canine sibling.
Lastly, take comfort in the fact that most dogs with hearing loss live normal and happy lives. If they have canine siblings, they will often take their lead from the other dogs and romp around like anyone else. Your deaf or hearing impaired pooch can easily learn to respond to hand signals, facial expressions and other visual stimuli, including pointers and flashlights. So, go out and have fun – with care – with your precious pooch!
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