Overview – Dogs
Hearing loss is one of the most common problems affecting senior pets. Through the years, most pet owners have experienced incidences where their pets
ignored them. In reality, this behavior occurs quite often in cats and can be a characteristic of certain dog breeds. Given these facts, it may be
challenging to determine if our pets have hearing loss or if they are just ignoring us. There are also certain breeds of dogs and cats that are more susceptible to congenital deafness.
According to veterinarian Simon Kornberg, BVSC, DACVIM, board-certified veterinary neurologist, some signs that a pet may be experiencing hearing loss
- Startling easily when approached from behind
- Not coming when called
- Lack of response to sounds they used to respond to, such as doorbells, whistles, or TV sounds
- Startling easily when touched
- Difficult to wake up
- Going the wrong direction or turning the wrong way when called
- Excessive barking
- Excessive deep sleeping
- Lack of usual alertness
Kornberg points out that hearing loss can be difficult to assess in dogs until it is in the latter stages, as they tend to compensate so well. If you notice
any of these, it’s time to visit your veterinarian
Not all problems may be the result of hearing loss, other issues such as wax buildup or an ear infection can also contribute to hearing loss.
It appears that dogs may be better able to adapt to hearing loss better than humans. Unless brought on by a sudden onset of illness, deafness often occurs
gradually, so the dog’s other senses increase over time, compensating for loss of hearing.
Overview – Cats
According to Cornell’s Feline Health Center “a variety of conditions—either heritable or acquired—can compromise a cat’s hearing and possibly
render the animal partially or totally deaf.”
Some cats are born deaf, and the disability cannot be corrected. Due to an anomaly in their genetic makeup, for example, white cats with blue eyes are at greatest risk for congenital deafness. Indeed, says James Flanders, DVM, associate professor of surgery at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary
Medicine, “About 80 percent of white cats with two blue eyes will start to show signs of deafness when they are about four days old as the result of
cochlear degeneration.” Another primarily heritable abnormality that may cause deafness, says Dr. Flanders, is atresia—a defect in the development
of the ear canal that may result in partial or total obstruction of the channel.
The great majority of feline ear disorders that may cause deafness, however, are acquired. These disorders include: tumors, polyps, and cancerous growths in the ear canal; hypothyroidism; certain
antibiotic and diuretic medications; and a wide variety of household chemicals that may be either ingested or seep into the depths of the ear through a perforated ear drum. Among all acquired feline ear conditions, Dr. Flanders
notes, the most common by far is otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear canal that, if untreated, can progress into the middle and inner ear.
This disorder usually results from infestation of the ear canal with infectious agents, such as yeast, bacteria, or ear mites,
and leads to inflammation. Owners should also keep in mind that a cat’s eardrum thickens with age.
Thus, hearing difficulties and potential deafness are often found in geriatric cats.
Diagnosing Hearing Loss
An electrodiagnostic test referred to BAER testing is
Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response. (BAER) testing is an electro-diagnostic test used to evaluate the hearing of dogs, cats and other domestic animals.
The RESOURCES section found at the end of this article contains information on a location to obtain BAER testing in New Mexico.
How Hearing Loss Affects Dogs
The good news is that dogs, unlike humans, generally adapt well to the loss of a sense. “They have no preconceived notions of their limitations and can
often adapt to the extent that we only see subtle cues of a loss of hearing,” Kornberg explains.
Although it’s difficult to know how dogs feel about hearing loss (since they can’t tell us), Kornberg points out that behavioral changes have been associated
with sudden hearing loss in dogs. “This may be indicative of anxiety,” Kornberg says. “Dogs who never had hearing in the first place do not suffer
from this anxiety, as they have no reference to know what they are lacking. But in acquired hearing loss, there is now a disconnect in how they perceive
things both in their environment and what we want from them, and this can definitely lead to some level of anxiety.”
Kornberg says senior dogs may undergo a period of transition where they must learn to adapt to hearing loss and where feelings of anxiety might be more
pronounced. During this time, your dog can benefit from support and reassurance.
or example, Kornberg recommends practicing using flashing lights or vibration cues such as tapping and clapping and focusing on getting your pet comfortable
to being touched spontaneously by rewarding him or her with treats. “An experienced trainer or a behaviorist can definitely provide some insight into
‘retraining’ your pet and reducing anxiety,” Kornberg says. “Also, lots of people shy away from giving anti-anxiety medications to their pets, but
like humans, dogs can sometimes benefit from these medications during the adjustment period.”
Finding Ways to Communicate with Your Deaf Dog
According to Kayla Fratt, certified dog trainer and International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants using a vibration collar is “You essentially use a very low-level vibration as a cue to teach your deaf dog to look at you,” this is done much like
teaching a hearing dog to respond to her name.”
A vibration collar is NOT the same as a shock collar. Vibration collars produce a slight shaking, much like the shaking you feel when your mobile phone
is set to vibrate and goes off in your pocket.
The idea behind a vibration collar is that every time you press the button on the remote control and the collar vibrates, your dog should come back to
you. “It’s important to always pair the vibration with a treat so your dog is always excited to feel it and come running back,” Fratt says. And always
do a lot of practicing in your living room before you head somewhere else with a lot of distractions, like the dog park.
Another great communication tool is sign language, as dogs often pick up on clear and consistent hand signals better than voice cues, according to Fratt.
“In fact, many hearing dogs respond well to sign language cues such as sit, lie down, and stay, and you can use those same signs with your deaf dog,”
Sign language isn’t difficult to teach, but it does require practice and you need to be consistent and clear. “For example, don’t use a sweeping upward
palm for ‘sit’ half the time and a raised fist the other times,” Fratt says. And although she points out that sign language might be easier to teach
if you start training with your dog while she can still hear (so you can help her along with voice cues as she learns what the signs mean), any dog
can learn it at any stage.
Here is a link to Hand Commands for Communicating with Deaf Animals
Safety Precautions for Deaf Dogs
It’s a good idea to always keep deaf dogs leashed to make sure they are safe. “You can let them drag the leash behind them for easy recapture,” Fratt says.
“Even if your dog is very well-trained using a vibration collar, remember that such a collar can fail.”
Fratt also recommends attaching bells or lights to the collar so you can see where your dog is at all times. “Ensuring that your dog is microchipped, friendly,
and well-trained is a good way to ensure that she’ll end up back at your side if you lose track of her,” she says.
Accommodate the Needs of Your Deaf Cat
Give a deaf cat a point of view. You should approach a cat with hearing problems from the front rather than behind to avoid startling or scaring him. Keep him
safely inside your home to protect him from cars and predators.
Safety Precautions for Deaf Cats
Cornell’s Dr. Flanders recommends the first thing you’ll want to do is confine the animal strictly to the indoors, out of harm’s way when it comes to outdoor
sounds that it can no longer perceive and respond to—the roar of an oncoming car, for instance.
Indoors, he points out, you must always be aware of your cat’s hearing loss and adjust your behavior accordingly. He suggests the following: “Avoid startling
the animal. Never approach it from behind without signaling your presence. Clap your hands sharply or stomp on the floor. The vibrations will let the
cat know that you’re nearby. If the cat has been trained to respond to verbal cues, you’ll have to replace those cues with visual commands—
hand signals, for example, or flicking a light switch on and off.”
George M. Strain, PhDProfessor of NeuroscienceComparative Biomedical SciencesSchool of Veterinary MedicineLouisiana State University
BAER testing in New Mexico
Information obtained from Louisiana State University
Dr. George AbernathySunrise Veterinary Clinic132 Rio Rancho Blvd.Rio Rancho, NM505-892-6538