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Life with one of these special pups can be so rewarding and will help you become a better communicator, caretaker, and human being.

By Faith Brar
January 22, 2021
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Portrait of deaf white boxer dog
Credit: Mary Swift / AdobeStock

Like humans, dogs can lose their hearing and face the challenges of hearing impairment. But luckily, dogs can live a happy, healthy life even without perfect hearing.

Whether you're thinking about adopting a hearing impaired dog, or have recently discovered that your dog is going deaf, here is some important information that will help you learn about what exactly causes deafness in dogs and how to properly care for your canine companion.

Common Causes of Deafness In Dogs

Congenital Birth Defect

There are many potential reasons for deafness in dogs—the most common one being anomalous or congenital causes, says Daniel "Blake" Webb, DVM, neurologist, and neurosurgeon at Southeast Veterinary Neurology. Research shows that congenital deafness affects 5–10 percent of dogs in the United States. "This is contributed to by birth malformations or degeneration of the structures of the inner ear that can happen in the womb or shortly after birth," Webb explains.

A lot of that, believe it or not, can be tied back to breed and the color of a dog's coat. Dogs who have piebald (mostly white hair with some spots), roan (a mix of whites, grays, and other colors), merle (dark-colored spots on top of lighter colors), and white colored coats are more prone to congenital hearing loss. Take Dalmatians, for instance. Some studies show that 11 percent of all Dalmatians are unilaterally deaf and 5 percent are bilaterally deaf. Other dog breeds prone to deafness include English cocker spaniels, Australian cattle dogs, English setters, Russell terriers, and Australian shepherds.

Chronic Ear Infections

Chronic ear infections are another major culprit, Webb adds. There are three types of ear infections in dogs: Otitis externa, which affects the external portion of the ear canal, otitis media, which affects the middle ear canal and otitis interna, which attacks the innermost part of the ear. These infections can be caused by excessive moisture, bacteria, yeast, fleas, ticks, and other parasites that might weasel their way into your dog's ear canal. If left untreated, these infections can have serious consequences like permanent hearing loss, facial nerve paralysis, and even perforation of the eardrum. 

It's worth noting that certain dog breeds are definitely at a higher risk for getting ear infections. Cocker spaniels, basset hounds, bloodhounds, and beagles, for instance, are notorious for getting ear infections. That said, any dog is susceptible to them, which is why vets stress that keeping your dog's ears clean and dry is an important part of keeping them healthy and happy.

Injury

Some other less frequent reasons for deafness in dogs include drug toxicity, noise trauma, head trauma, and tumors. Certain injuries to the head and bones of the skull can also tamper with your dog's hearing, Webb says.

In some cases, hearing can be restored, especially in cases where the ear canal or inner ear structures are blocked with debris or if inner ear infections can be cleared with antibiotics, Webb says. But hearing loss is generally permanent with other forms of injury, he adds.

How to Tell if Your Dog Is Deaf or Hearing Impaired

"It can be difficult to determine if your dog is deaf at home," Webb shares. But one of the first signs you'll likely notice is your dog's failure to respond, he points out. At first, you might make the mistake of thinking that your pup is ignoring you, but over time, they will completely stop coming when called, will sleep through pretty much anything, get startled when you touch them unexpectedly, and change certain habits like barking at the sound of a car pulling into the driveway or getting excited when you pull out a squeaky toy.

Some less overt and often overlooked signs include barking loudly and excessively. You might also notice that their bark is slightly different, as they can no longer hear themselves. Your pup might also experience increased anxiety and hyperactivity, shake their head a lot, and stop perking up or moving their ears when exposed to sound.

While keeping an eye out for these common signs is important, the only way to be sure that your dog is going deaf is to have it confirmed by your veterinarian. Radiographic imaging including X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs will help vets determine whether or not your dog really is losing her hearing. That said, one of the most effective and definitive ways to determine deafness in dogs is a Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response test, otherwise known as the BAER test, Webb says. 

"This testing utilizes clicking sounds to transmit sounds through the ear and then utilizes electrodes placed under the skin of the head to track the electrical patterns of hearing," Webb explains. Lasting between 10-15 minutes, the test is non-invasive and tests both ears. If your local vet doesn't administer the procedure, the Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine provides a state-by-state list of BAER testing sites.

How to Care for a Deaf Dog

Dogs are extremely adaptive and if you find new ways to communicate with them, they will adjust and respond. Teaching your dog hand signal cues using techniques like luring and capturing paired with positive reinforcement training can be an effective way to communicate with your dog and teach her new skills.

Although living with a dog that experiences hearing impairment can seem challenging at times, with a little bit of creativity and empathy you can help them to live their best life. With that in mind, it is critically important to make sure you do not surprise or accidentally frighten your pup.

"To help ensure they are always comfortable, make sure they can visually perceive you before you move to touch them. As with all dogs, the adage 'let a sleeping dog lie' is very true," says Haylee Bergeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, RBT, editor of pet health and behavior at Daily Paws. "Do not touch them or move them while they sleep and if you must wake them, do so gently and try touching in the same spot so it becomes familiar—the shoulder works best," she says.

Also remember that deaf dogs are not protected from certain dangers. Letting them off-leash in an unfenced area is a big no-no, Webb says. You'll also have to be extra careful while walking your deaf dog as well since she won't hear traffic coming towards her.

At the end of the day, it's important to remember that hearing loss does not have to hinder your pup's quality of life. As Webb puts it: "Deaf dogs can live happy, healthy, long lives and make great companions. Their special circumstances just require a little extra caution and their safety has to be considered, just like all pets."