By Dr. Becker
Deafness in pets means they've lost or were born without the ability to hear. Hearing loss can be either partial or complete. If a pet is born deaf due to an inherited condition, it will be obvious at a very young age.
There are over 30 breeds of dogs that are predisposed to deafness, including the Australian Shepherd, Boston Terrier, Cocker Spaniel, Dalmatian, German Shepherd, Jack Russell Terrier, Maltese, toy and miniature Poodles and the West Highland White Terrier. Most cases of hearing loss are seen in senior dogs.
Cats with white coats and blue eyes also seem predisposed to deafness. Cats with white coats at highest risk for developing congenital (from birth) deafness include the Persian, Scottish Fold, Ragdoll, Cornish and Devon Rex, Oriental Shorthair, Turkish Angora, Maine Coon and the Manx.
Causes for Hearing Loss in Pets
There are a few different causes for hearing loss in dogs and cats. One of them is a problem with conduction in which sound waves can't reach the nerves in the ear. This can be due to inflammation of the outer ear, or another external ear canal problem such as a ruptured eardrum, tumor or narrowing of the ear canal. Conduction problems can also be caused by inflammation of the middle ear.
Another cause of hearing loss affects the nerves in the ear, and can include degenerative nerve changes, anatomic disorders such as a problem with the development of the part of the ear that contains nerve receptors, tumors or cancer of the nerves, inflammatory and infectious diseases of the middle or inner ear and trauma.
Certain toxins and drugs can also affect hearing in pets, including heavy metals such as arsenic, lead or mercury; certain antibiotics; antiseptics and other products used to break down wax in the ear canal; diuretics that remove excess fluid from the body; and some chemotherapeutic agents. Another potential cause for hearing loss is long-term, chronic inflammation of the inner, middle or outer ear, usually caused by untreated ear infections.
Symptoms of hearing loss in dogs and cats include lack of response to everyday sounds, no response when their name is called or to squeaky toys and sleeping through loud noises.
Diagnosing Hearing Loss
Your veterinarian will take a complete history of your pet's symptoms and health, including whether your dog or cat has had any diseases of the ear, or has been exposed to any medications that could affect hearing. There's a test called a Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response, or a BAER test, however, this test is usually done by neurologists at specialty centers or at veterinary schools.
If your pet is young, and especially if he or she belongs to a predisposed breed, it could be the deafness was present at birth. Your vet will also need to test for underlying causes for the hearing loss, including bacterial culture and sensitivity tests of the ear canal. In certain pets, for example, seniors with dementia or animals with cancer, disease of the cerebral cortex can interfere with the brain's ability to make sense of what the ears hear. The problem is actually a cognitive or brain-related issue rather than hearing loss.
Sadly, congenital deafness is irreversible and permanent. However, if your pet's hearing loss is caused by inflammation of the ear, there are often medical or surgical interventions that can help. Treatment success will depend on the extent of the disease causing the deafness, the results of bacterial culture and sensitivity tests and your pet's X-rays or computerized tomography (CT) scans.
Conduction problems sometimes improve when inflammation of the ear is resolved. Believe it or not, there are also hearing aids for dogs and cats that are sometimes beneficial. If your pet's hearing loss is treatable, it will be important to work closely with your vet until the underlying cause is resolved. For a dog or cat with congenital deafness or another type of hearing loss that is irreversible, there are things you can do to help him live a safe and happy life.
Dogs and cats both are able adapt to hand signals very easily. Hand signals and eye contact become very important communication tools for hard-of-hearing pets. Most dogs can be easily trained to recognize hand signals for come and wait.
Approach your sleeping pet or a pet that isn't facing you with caution. Make your presence known to reduce the chance of frightening her. Kitties, in particular, tend to startle easily. So if your new way of communicating with your hard-of-hearing cat is to alert her with a touch, be gentle in your approach. You may want to put a small bell on your pet's collar so even if she doesn't hear you calling or approaching, you can hear her or locate her easily.
Be extremely cautious when allowing a pet with hearing loss outdoors, because she won't necessarily hear danger approaching, no matter what form it takes. Your pet should be on a leash at all times unless he's in a secured area like a fenced backyard.
Lara Joseph Is a Behaviorist Who Specializes in Training Deaf Dogs
For our deafness discussion today, I'm also interviewing Lara Joseph, a behaviorist and trainer with a great deal of firsthand experience training deaf puppies. Her training approach is really effective and positive, and she helps people learn how to communicate better with their own pets. Lara actually recently adopted a blind and deaf puppy — a little girl she named Snow. I asked her to talk about how she found Snow.
"I was looking for a deaf dog who needed a home," explains Lara, "and I planned to train it on my livestreams so others could learn from it. I posted on Facebook that I was looking for a deaf dog of my own to train. A person responded, asking if I'd be interested in training a deaf dog who was also blind."
She gave the idea some thought, and the next weekend she was on the road to North Carolina to pick up Snow, who's been with her about a year now. Snow's evolution has been magnificent to watch. What Lara has demonstrated through Snow is that not only is it possible to have an amazing relationship with special needs dogs, but they're also highly trainable and just as interested in human companionship as dogs with normal hearing and vision.
"Snow has been one of my best teachers," says Lara, "because she can't see and she can't hear, so I have limited senses to work with. It's about being creative, observing her body language and how she responds, which is through touch and smell. There's nothing I can't do with Snow or that Snow can't do with me that is different from any of my other animals.
What Snow has taught me is to open my mind, think outside the box and work with the senses she has. She learned to sit. She comes when I ask her to come. I've taught her to heel, so she walks on a loose lead beside me. There's nothing she can't do. She just can't see or hear."
Lara also has another dog named Levi.
"Levi is our deaf Old English Bulldog," she explains. "He's just turning . I was contacted by a breeder who said she didn't want to put him down just because he was deaf. I said, 'That doesn't need to happen. Will you relinquish him to me? I will train him and find him a home.' Levi was my first foster fail.
I kept him because everybody who was following my work with Levi said, 'Why are you not keeping him and educating the deaf dog community on how you work with him?' Training a deaf dog isn't hard, but a lot of people get nervous about it or afraid of it."
The following video shows Lara training her deaf bulldog Levi, Quincy, her Rottweiler (who can see and hear) and Snow, her deaf and blind Border Collie mix to sit and stay:
How to Find a Positive, Experienced Trainer for a Deaf Puppy or Dog
I asked Lara what tips she gives people thinking about adopting a deaf puppy.
"If you're considering it, don't adopt because you feel sorry for the animal," she says. "I know a lot of people jump into it because they feel the dog needs immediate rescuing. And then I hear from those people after they let their deaf dog get away with everything because they felt sorry for him.
It doesn't need to be that way. Training a deaf dog is just a different form of communication. You're working with a lot of visuals, a lot of hand signals. It's not hard. I really enjoy training deaf animals."
I asked Lara if it's more of a time commitment to train a deaf dog.
"I don't think it takes any longer," she answered. "It's just preparing yourself before you adopt the dog that you'll need to use a different form of communication, which includes understanding body language and sign language. I don't think there's any more of a time commitment than training a dog who can hear."
I'm a huge believer in being proactive, which means thinking about what a new puppy will need before you bring her home. With a deaf puppy in particular, I would probably recommend finding a trainer or behaviorist beforehand. I asked Lara how people can go about finding a successful, positive trainer with experience with deaf dogs.
"There are a couple of different resources," she answered. "I'm a big fan of Deaf Dogs Rock with Christina Lee and her husband. They have a plethora of information on what to do before you get into this. They have blogs and videos on the different types of sign language, what different things mean."
I host a Deaf Dog Project private Facebook group where we do weekly livestreams, and I do private online consults with people from all over the world through our website, the Animal Behavior Center. In addition, there's a group called the Pet Professional Guild where you can find well-qualified animal trainers, especially dog trainers, from all over the world."
Pro Tips on How to Raise a Dog Who Happens to Be Deaf
Next I asked Lara for some insight into the habits and idiosyncrasies of living with and training a deaf dog.
"There are two things I really want to address," says Lara. "Deaf dogs tend to gravitate to mirrors and reflections in windows. It's because they can't hear what's going on behind them. Watching their reflection allows them to see what's going on behind them. They also tend to rely on the reactions of other animals in the house to sounds. Levi really pays attention to Quincy, another of our dogs who can see and hear. She's Levi's ears.
Something else with deaf dogs: never sneak up behind them, especially if they're sleeping. You can really startle them and create a lot of fear responses that just don't need to be there. When Levi's sleeping or his head is turned away from me, I just blow on him so he can smell. He knows I'm communicating that I'm right behind him.
If I can give one piece of advice that will set a new owner of a deaf dog on the right track immediately, it's to always reinforce eye contact. Especially in the beginning, every time your deaf dog looks at you, praise him with your eyes. It tells him, 'That's the behavior I'm looking for.' Make sure to reinforce that constantly throughout the day."
Recall training with Levi:
"Remember: Always reinforce eye contact with your deaf dog," says Lara. "When he looks at you, give him a thumbs up and praise him with play or a treat. This will teach him to turn and look at you for information when in a new environment or confronted with an unfamiliar object. Then you can either signal him to come to you or give him the thumbs up to go ahead and interact.
In the beginning, do it every single time eye contact is made. That's how you get a very reliable recall with a deaf dog, because he can't hear you. He can't hear you ask him to come to you. In the beginning, always reinforce eye contact. It trains the dog to always look at you for information and guidance."
Training Levi to walk on leash:
"This is another tip I give to everybody: Keep your animal used to change. If you can keep them used to change, they'll have a lot less fear reactivity and it sets them up for a very successful future. You always want to reinforce calm behavior in the presence of anything new in their environment."
Those are all wonderful tips. One of the best pieces of advice I can offer all of you listening or reading today is that if you're contemplating adopting a hearing-impaired puppy, align yourself with people who've been through the process. Finding people with positive behavior training skills is one of the most important tips I can offer.
One of the things I really appreciate about Lara is that she's able to work remotely and share her expertise with people from all over the world. Not that long ago most deaf animals were euthanized because no one knew how to work with them. Lara is providing an invaluable resource to help people build long-term, loving relationships with these wonderful, deserving dogs. "Thank you," says Lara. "I always tell people, 'Search for the right education. When you know better, you do better."
That's another really important point. If you want to attempt to train a deaf dog on your own, that's fine. But if you don't want to go it alone, or if a behavior issue develops, one of the best tips I can give you is to address issues as they come up. If you need professional help, we're now in a day and age in which resources are available. I'm very grateful Lara Joseph is one of those tremendous resources.