Doggie Deafness Not as Rare as You Might Think - 30 Breeds at Risk

boxer dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Not long ago, a Virginia couple adopted an 8-year-old deaf female Boxer named Boombox
  • Boombox has many endearing behaviors and has developed a close bond with her new guardians; recently, they learned that she has also been trained to respond to sign language
  • Boombox is a white Boxer, and white dogs (and cats) are more likely to be born deaf than pets with darker coats; there are also many other causes of partial or complete hearing loss in dogs
  • Congenital deafness is unfortunately permanent and irreversible; however, most deaf dogs like Boombox can easily learn to understand and respond to their human’s hand signals and eye contact

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

I read a really neat story recently in PilotOnline.com (The Viriginian-Pilot) about a couple who adopted an 8-year-old deaf female Boxer named Boombox. Boombox is white, and deafness is prevalent in white Boxers just as it is in white-coated dogs (and cats) of other breeds.

The ability to hear is made possible by a special layer of cells within the inner ear, and those cells come from the same stem cell source as the cells that determine coat color. Without this stem cell, the dog’s body can’t make the special layer of cells within the inner ear that facilitate hearing, and the coat will likely be white as well.

Boombox’s new humans, Tom and Jane Cannone of Norfolk, Virginia, quickly realized that having a deaf dog has its advantages. For example, she rarely barks, and unlike so many poor pups today, she doesn’t suffer from thunderstorm phobia. Boombox’s quiet demeanor has impressed her neighbors. “Other dogs in the neighborhood are barking, and people ask me how I keep Boombox quiet,” Tom Cannone told the PilotOnline.com. “I just tell them that she obeys.”1

Boombox Isn’t Fond of Dark Places or Being Left Alone

While researching Boxer rescues in the area, the Cannones came across Boombox and learned there was no one waiting to adopt her. The rescue explained the lack of interest was probably due to her deafness, and that’s when the Cannone’s knew she was the dog for them. They made all the necessary arrangements and drove to Charleston, S.C. to pick her up from her foster home.

Jane Cannone thinks Boombox’s prior owners must have been very affectionate with her because she’s so well-behaved and bonded so quickly with her new family. She seems to use her eyes and nose more than other dogs (which makes sense, since she can’t use her ears) and she also keeps a careful eye on Tom and Jane.

Understandably, Boombox isn’t fond of dark places or being alone, so she spends her days at a doggy daycare while the Cannones are at work. “There’s something special about her,” Jane Cannone said. “She’s so sweet, and I wouldn’t change this experience for the world.”

Was Boombox Trained to Respond to Sign Language?

The Cannones are still learning about their dog, and recently at a veterinary visit they discovered something fascinating: Boombox apparently knows sign language! The veterinarian who examined the dog knew she was deaf and gave her a downward hand motion asking her to sit, and sit she did, immediately! The Cannones were amazed.

Police K9s, many show dogs, canine athletes and deaf dogs are taught sign language. There’s actually a formal system of sign language for various commands, but lots of owners and trainers modify them or create their own, which seems to be the case with Boombox. According to Jane Cannone, “When we hold a finger up and motion to her, she knows it’s time for her walk.” The Cannones plan to research formal sign language hand signals and see what additional commands Boombox knows how to respond to.

Causes of Hearing Loss in Dogs

Hearing loss in pets can be either partial or complete. If a dog 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.

There are a few different causes for hearing loss in dogs. 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 pets include lack of response to everyday sounds, no response when their name is called or to squeaky toys and sleeping through loud noises.

Treatment Options for Deaf Dogs

Unfortunately, congenital deafness is irreversible and permanent. However, if a dog’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 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 with congenital deafness or another type of hearing loss that is irreversible, there are things you can do to help her live a safe and happy life.

For example, you’ll want to approach your sleeping dog or a dog who isn't facing you with caution. Make your presence known to reduce the chance of frightening her. So if your way of communicating with your hard-of-hearing dog is to alert her with a touch, be gentle in your approach. You may want to put a small bell on her 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 she's in a secured area like a fenced backyard.

Deaf Dogs Easily Adapt to Hand Signals and Eye Contact

As is the case with Boombox, most deaf dogs are able to 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. Not long ago I interviewed Lara Joseph, a behaviorist and trainer with a great deal of firsthand experience training deaf dogs. Her training approach is really effective and positive, and she helps people learn how to communicate better with their own pets.

The following video shows Lara training Levi, her deaf bulldog; Quincy, her Rottweiler (who can see and hear); and Snow, her deaf and blind Border Collie mix to sit and stay:

Recall training with Levi:

Training Levi to walk on leash: