- Deaf dogs can live normal lives — Your pup may be hard of hearing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trainable or able to live long healthy lives.
- Canine deafness can be inherited or acquired — Potential causes of hearing loss may include side effects to medication, infection, or simply old age.
- Certain breeds of dogs are more likely to be hearing impaired — Cochleosaccular, the most common type of canine deafness, refers to congenital hearing loss most often associated with white or merle coats .
Canine deafness refers to the temporary, partial, or complete loss of hearing in one or both ears. Just like humans, senior dogs can lose their hearing with age. Still, the causes of hearing loss and canine deafness may also include a traumatic injury, the presence of a foreign body, an untreated infection, or a genetic defect.
Types of deafness in dogs
There are six ways to describe canine deafness, and each descriptor isn’t necessarily independent of another. For example, the most common form of deafness in dogs, according to research , is congenital hereditary sensorineural deafness — deafness that was present at birth (congenital), is genetic (hereditary), and is caused by loss of cochlear nerve cells (sensorineural).
Congenital vs. late onset deafness
- Congenital deafness refers to any deafness present at birth. Though it’s usually inherited, congenital deafness may also be caused by viruses or toxins affecting the unborn pup before birth.
- Dogs with late-onset deafness simply experience the symptoms of deafness after birth or later in life, usually due to infection, traumatic injury, aging, or toxins.
Inherited vs. acquired deafness
- Hereditary deafness, typically congenital, refers to the role that genetics play in hearing conditions. Genetic or hereditary deafness, the most common cause of deafness in dogs, is usually seen in dog breeds with merle or white pigment coats as well as in animals with blue eyes, due to the presence of the merle gene.
- Dogs with acquired deafness may be hard of hearing due to non-genetic issues, such as infection, traumatic injury, or degeneration of the cochlea — part of the inner ear that plays an essential role in hearing.
Sensorineural vs. conductive deafness
- Dogs with sensorineural deafness have trouble hearing due to the loss of cochlear nerve (hair) cells, which is common among aging animals. This is an irreversible condition that results in permanent deafness.
- Conductive deafness, on the other hand, refers to significant hearing loss that happens when there’s a blockage of sound transmission to the cochlea as a result of developmental defects or, more commonly, the occlusion of the ear canal or middle ear cavity. With veterinary intervention, conductive deafness may be reduced or improved, and deaf pets can go on to lead perfectly happy lives.
Causes of hearing loss in dogs
Chances are your dog’s deafness is either treatable or simply part of a normal aging process. Here are a few of the most common culprits behind your dog’s hearing impairment:
- Aging. When dogs age, especially near age 12, it’s common for them to experience sensorineural deafness, which refers to permanent hearing loss related to damaged or missing nerve cells in the cochlea. Certain aging-related disorders, such as canine dementia, are also associated with exacerbated hearing loss.
- Genetics. Dog breeds with white pigmentation on their coats or animals with blue irises are predisposed to hereditary congenital sensorineural deafness. While there is often an underlying genetic cause, research suggests hereditary deafness is a complex trait influenced by multiple factors.
- Infection. Without proper intervention and treatment, doggy ear infections (also known as otitis), can cause severe damage, including hearing loss. Such infections may be a result of food or environmental allergies, foreign bodies or debris, ear mites, or residual moisture from frequent bathing or swimming. Hearing loss resulting from infection is normally temporary and tends to resolve with treatment.
- Hypothyroidism. Dogs with hypothyroidism have an underactive thyroid, meaning their thyroid gland isn’t producing and secreting enough of the hormones that play an essential role in regulating metabolism and normal bodily functions. Most common among middle-aged and older dogs, hypothyroidism increases susceptibility and the possibility of ear infection.
- Brain disorders. When a dog’s cognitive health isn’t at its best, they are at increased risk of a variety of significant problems related to overall health. Though brain disease-related hearing loss is rare, it’s certainly worth ruling out with your vet, who will likely suggest an MRI or CT scan to properly diagnose and treat the underlying issue.
Dog breeds prone to hearing loss
Though dogs of any breed can have congenital deafness resulting from a variety of causes, some dogs with a certain coat color (specifically those with all-white or mostly white coats) may be more prone to have hereditary deafness or hearing impairments. These breeds include Dalmatians, Australian cattle dogs, English cocker spaniels, English setters, Jack Russell terriers, and Boston terriers, among several others.
Dog breeds like poodles, shar-peis, and others born with relatively narrow ear canals may also produce puppies predisposed to having ear infections that cause some degree of hearing loss. However, this temporary hearing loss is often treatable with surgery or hearing aids.
Signs of hearing loss in dogs
Do you suspect your dog may be suffering from hearing loss or deafness? Assessing your dog’s behavior and body language can help give clues. Look out for the following:
- Failure to respond to sound – A dog with hearing impairment will first and foremost be unable to respond to sounds, from your vocal commands to sirens to any other noise that would normally alert a dog.
- Excessive barking or unusual voice – Because deaf animals or dogs with hearing issues can’t hear themselves, they may bark a little louder or more than usual, or sound a little different than the typical dog.
- Hyperactivity – Deaf dogs can become frustrated in trying to communicate with their owners and this can result in hyperactivity. Pay attention to when your potentially affected dog is especially hyper.
- Tilting and/or shaking head – If you notice your dog is regularly shaking or tilting their head, this can indicate confusion, which is common among dogs with declining brain function or hearing issues.
- Becoming easily startled – A hard-of-hearing dog will become easily frightened and startled, and this may seem like a sign of anxiety.
- Increased sleep – Dogs with diminished hearing ability, because they’re more numb to noise, tend to be more withdrawn and sleep more.
Diagnosing deafness in dogs
After a complete veterinary exam, your doctor may refer you to a specialist. To have your dog’s hearing loss tested, your vet will likely refer you to a neurologist for a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test. The BAER test, also used to test brainstem functionality, can assess your dog’s response to high-pitched or loud noises, from whistling to clapping to banging objects.
Treatment for canine deafness
Treatment for totally deaf dogs largely depends on the cause and underlying condition. When deafness is congenital or related to the normal aging process, there may be no available treatment to reverse your dog’s total loss of hearing.
However, if the underlying issue involves the defects of the nervous system, ear mechanic problems, or external factors like drug toxicity, loud noise exposure, infection, or foreign bodies, your veterinarian may recommend one or more of the following:
- Hearing aids
- Ear cleaning
- Ear flushes
- Ear drops
- Oral antibiotics
- Anti-inflammatory medication
In cases of tumors or more severe issues, your veterinarian may also consider surgery to improve sound conduction.
Tips for managing a deaf dog
When properly managing and caring for a deaf dog, the first thing to remember is that your dog is, well, deaf! That means they will need you for guidance around noisy traffic, busy streets, or anywhere they may be at greater risk of accident or injury than dogs with normal hearing.
- Prioritize visual cues when obedience training – Just because your dog can’t hear or has trouble hearing doesn’t mean they don’t require or aren’t going to succeed at obedience training. Teach your deaf dog hand signals for common commands. You can use American Sign Language signs or make up your own. The more often you use hand gestures, the healthier your communication and their confidence.
- Get your pup a custom tag or sign to let folks know they’re deaf – Don’t forget to include your contact information on the tag, too.
- Keep your dog on a leash – Leash laws notwithstanding, deaf dogs cannot hear approaching cars, animals, people, or even your name being called. It’s a good idea for any owner, especially those with deaf pets, to keep your dog on a leash in public.
- Be careful not to startle your dog – A sleeping deaf dog will become easily startled if not carefully woken up, so try gently tugging on their blanket or waving a hand in front of their nose so they can smell you first.
- Use rewards – If your deaf dog responds to visual commands, wakes up gently, or does anything to improve their obedience training, positive reinforcement is key. Always keep a treat nearby and give puppy lots of praise for a job well done.
Can you prevent hearing loss in dogs?
Though deafness in dogs is often hereditary and simply part of the aging process, there are some steps pet owners can take to prevent the onset or worsening of hearing loss.
Don’t skimp on regular vet visits. During your pet’s annual visit, your veterinarian will check and clean your dog’s ears and look for signs of impairment or other health issues. If you’ve noticed a difference or any concerning symptoms, be sure to voice your concern.
Keep your pup’s ear canal clean. Excessive ear wax may lead to temporary hearing loss, especially when it comes to breeds with relatively narrow ear canals. Be sure to regularly clean your dog’s ears with vet-approved cleaning solutions to help fight infection, prevent itchiness, and more.
Groom hair around your dog’s ears. When grooming your dog, be sure to snip overgrown hair around the ears to avoid blocking the ear canal.
Regularly look for foreign objects. After lots of play outdoors, it’s easy for foreign objects like grass seed to get lodged in your dog’s ear. Look for excessive head-shaking or pawing at the ear, then contact your vet before attempting to remove any items yourself. Your vet will likely use tiny tweezers and an endoscope to examine your dog.
Avoid heightened exposure to sharp, loud, repetitive noises. Harsh noises like fireworks, construction site sounds, police sirens, and the like can be traumatic, both psychologically and physically. Sustained exposure may even lead to permanent damage.
Treat infections early. If left untreated, ear infections (otitis) can cause severe damage, including hearing loss. Look out for yellow or brown material in the ear canals; this is a common sign of ear infection.
Training a deaf dog
Training a dog that’s hard of hearing or deaf doesn’t have to be daunting. Because deaf dogs have a heightened sense of their surroundings, they might surprise you with their smarts. Here are a few tips to help you succeed in training a dog with hearing loss or deafness:
- Use visual and tactile cues – Relying on visual and tactile cues is essential for a dog that can’t hear your voice. Use gentle touches, preferably in the same place each time, and learn to communicate with consistent hand signals. American Sign Language is a great place to start, but many dog owners also modify ASL to use the signals with one hand.
- Prioritize teaching focus – When coming up with visual or tactile signals, consider teaching a “Watch me” signal using reward-based training to help your dog know it’s time to pay attention to you. Teaching a deaf dog to focus is of utmost importance and will be especially necessary when their safety is at risk.
- Ensure each signal is distinct from others – Avoid confusing your deaf dog by assigning different signals for different tasks, such as “focus,” “come here,” “drop it” and so on.
- Work on startle resistance – Work on desensitizing your dog to being startled by rewarding them while they’re still awake; touch them gently in the same spot and repeat so that your dog begins to look forward to your gentle touch. When your dog is asleep, you may also want to place your hand in front of their nose so they can wake to your scent. Always treat your dog with a reward — treats and praise — when they don’t startle.
If you’re worried your dog is deaf or has some kind of hearing loss, talk to your vet about how you might treat any underlying conditions or help you and your dog better adapt to a happy, healthy life together.
Frequently asked questions
Is it hard to train a deaf dog?
Just because a dog is deaf doesn’t mean they are more difficult to train. In fact, deaf dogs are often more attuned to their surroundings. When training, start by adjusting common obedience training techniques to focus on non-auditory, visual cues.
What are some signs of hearing loss in dogs?
In addition to failure to respond to sound, a dog with deteriorating hearing may bark excessively, have an unusual barking voice, become hyperactive, tilt or shake their head, sleep more, and become easily startled.
Are deaf dogs born deaf?
Dogs can be born deaf, have certain genetic dispositions that increase their risk of hearing impairment, or become deaf after birth due to other factors.
What are the challenges of a deaf dog?
Deaf dogs can’t respond to auditory cues, making them less able than other dogs to sense danger. Obedience training that prioritizes visual cues, as well as ample exercise, is key to building confidence and comfort to ensure a happy, healthy life.
Is it hard to take care of a deaf dog?
Deaf dogs can live perfectly healthy, normal lives, and their hearing impairment shouldn’t add significant inconveniences or challenges to your life. That being said, it’s imperative that proper obedience training is conducted to ensure your dog’s safety.