Pet Care

Deafness

What Is Deafness?

Deafness in dogs can either be a temporary partial or total loss of hearing—due to a wax build-up in the ear canals—or permanent hearing loss due to a host of causes such as severe, untreated ear infections, congenital defects, old age and injuries. One or both ears may be affected.

What Is Deafness Caused By?

Temporary hearing loss can be caused by a wax build-up in your dog’s ear canals. This is especially common in dogs with narrow ear canals, such as poodles. Certain dogs with lots of hair around their ears can have their ear canals blocked by hair, which collects wax and eventually forms a plug. A foreign object in a dog’s ear canal can also impede the ability to hear.

Permanent hearing loss can be caused by old age, drug toxicity, injury or untreated ear infections. A dog can also be born without the ability to hear, because of a genetic or anatomical problem.

Certain breeds also have a high occurrence of inherited deafness that usually turns out to be permanent. These are usually piebald, spotted or merle-colored breeds.

How Is Deafness Diagnosed?

Your vet can initially examine your dog’s ear canal for wax accumulation, infections, inflammation, injury or foreign object. For more serious cases, one common procedure is BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response). During the procedure, small electrodes are placed under the skin of a dog’s scalp to measure (visibly on a computer screen) his auditory response to outside stimuli.

When Should I Be Concerned About My Dog’s Hearing?

The following signs may indicate that your dog may be suffering from some form of hearing loss:

  • Your dog doesn’t know you’re in the room until you physically touch him or he sees you.
  • Your dog turns the wrong way when you call him.
  • He shows no response to outside stimuli, such as the doorbell ringing or other dogs barking.
  • His head shakes.
  • He shows no response or seems confused when given familiar vocal commands.
  • He barks excessively.
  • He paws his ears or appears to have itchy, painful ears.
  • A smelly discharge comes from his ears.

Note: You can test your dog’s hearing by stepping quietly behind him and clapping once loudly to check his response.

Which Dogs Are Prone To Deafness?

  • Dogs with narrow ear canals, such as poodles, are susceptible to wax build-up.
  • Cocker spaniels, terriers and other breeds with a lot of hair around their ears are particularly susceptible to having ear canals blocked by hair, which collects wax and forms a plug.
  • The highest incidence of inherited deafness is seen in the Dalmatian. Other breeds with various degrees of piebald spotting are the beagle, bull terrier, English bulldog and English setter, all of whom may have a higher incidence of deafness than the general population of dogs.
  • Breeds with merle coloring who are at increased risk for deafness include the Australian shepherd, rough collie, Shetland sheepdog and harlequin Great Dane.

How Can I Communicate With My Deaf Dog?

Love and empathy are the first steps. Don’t get frustrated that your dog no longer responds to you the same way she used to. We also recommend the following:

  • Train your dog to understand hand signals. It’s a good idea to use signs she can easily see from far away.
  • If you want to get your dog's attention inside the house, the vibration from a loud stomp may make her take notice.
  • A flashlight or laser penlight can also be used to get her attention.
  • Make sure your dog knows when you’ve come into a room and when you’re leaving by tapping him gently on the back or shoulder.

How Can I Keep My Deaf Dog Safe?

ASPCA experts offer the following tips:

  • Never let a hearing-impaired dog roam outside on her own—she won't be able to hear traffic. Keep her safely leashed or in a fenced-in yard whenever she's outdoors.
  • Teach your dog simple, visible hand signals that help you to stay in communication while outside the house.
  • Attach a bell to your dog’s collar so that you can hear him if he escapes or becomes lost.

How Can Deafness Be Prevented?

In dogs who are genetically predisposed to deafness, the incidence can be decreased through responsible breeding—that is, by removing hearing-impaired dogs from the breeding population. However, in certain breeds, such as Dalmatians, dog parents with healthy hearing can give birth to puppies prone to hearing loss. It’s also a good idea to keep your dog’s ear canals clean with frequent visits to the vet and to immediately investigate a possible ear infection or suspected hearing loss.

How Is Canine Deafness Treated?

Only temporary deafness can be reversed.

  • If your dog has wax build-up in his ears, your veterinarian may have you clean his ears daily with a prescription wash.
  • If the hearing loss is caused by a build-up of hair in his ears, a veterinarian can remove the hair.
  • Infections that cause hearing loss should be treated with appropriate medication.
  • Permanent hearing loss cannot be reversed, but your pet can still have a good quality of life. You should keep your dog safely leashed while outside and teach her hand signals so that you may communicate with her.