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Symptoms of Deafness in Dogs

"Dogs are gifted with the ability to easily rely on their other senses to make up for one that they have either lost or never had in the first place. Dogs with total congenital deafness are born deaf and never experience the sensation of sound. They do not know that they are deaf or that they are any different from other dogs. Most astute and reputable breeders will recognize a deaf puppy well before the puppies are ready to go to their new owners, and will fully disclose the dog’s condition to potential owners. Normal puppies start responding to sound from about day 10 onward after birth.

Dogs with acquired deafness usually become deaf gradually. Most owners do not discover that their dog is “going deaf” until the animal has lost most of its ability to hear. They may notice that something about their dog seems a bit “off,” but they usually do not suspect hearing loss until it has become fairly obvious.

Symptoms of Deafness in Dogs

Dogs typically show more obvious symptoms of hearing loss than do cats. Of course, it is easier to identify deafness in a dog born without hearing than in one who develops deafness gradually. In either case, signs of deafness include:

  • Overly aggressive behavior with littermates (young puppy with congenital deafness)

  • Lack of response to squeaky toys

  • Lack of response to auditory stimuli, especially when the dog is not looking (voice commands, shouting, clapping hands, whistling, barking, doorbells, etc.)

  • Tendency to startle and/or snap when physically roused from sleep or rest

  • Tendency to startle and/or snap when touched from behind or outside of its field of vision

  • Sleeping more than typical for a dog of its age and breed

  • Decreased activity level

  • Difficulty arousing from sleep

  • Not awakening from sleep in response to auditory stimuli (voice commands, clapping, whistling, other sounds)

  • Exaggerated response to physical stimuli (touch, floor or ground vibration, wind)

  • Excessive barking for a dog of its age and breed

  • Unusual vocal sound

  • Gradual decline in response to own name and known voice commands

  • Disorientation, confusion, agitation in otherwise familiar circumstances

Dogs at Increased Risk

Breeds with white, spotted, dappled or merle haircoats are predisposed to congenital deafness, although other breeds can be affected as well. More than 50 breeds have been identified by various authorities as being susceptible to congenital deafness. The Dalmatian is most commonly affected. Other at-risk breeds include the Akita, American Staffordshire Terrier, Australian Heeler, Australian Shepherd, Beagle, Border Collie, Boston Terrier, Boxer, Bull Terrier, Catahoula Leopard Dog, Collie, Dappled Dachshund, Doberman Pinscher, Dogo Argentino, English Bulldog, English Setter, Fox Terrier, Foxhound, German Shepherd, Great Dane, Great Pyrenees, Ibizan Hound, Jack Russell Terrier, Kuvasz, Maltese, Miniature Pinscher, Miniature Poodle, Old English Sheepdog, Papillon, Rhodesian Ridgeback, Rottweiler, St. Bernard, Schnauzer, Scottish Terrier, Sealyham Terrier, Shetland Sheepdog, Siberian Husky, Toy Poodle and West Highland White Terrier, among others. The list of affected breeds continues to expand and certainly may change over time depending upon breed popularity and breeding practices.

Goals of Treating a Deaf Dog

There really is no way to “treat” deafness in dogs. The therapeutic goals are basically to prevent deafness from developing in the first place (don’t breed dogs with hereditary deafness; try to prevent acquired deafness) and to improve an affected dog’s hearing ability if at all possible. The best way to deal with canine deafness is with kind, careful and consistent training, management and care of affected animals.

Treatment Options

There is no realistic treatment for congenital deafness in dogs, whether it is hereditary or otherwise. Puppies born with a limited or absent sense of hearing almost always will be unable to hear sounds for the rest of their lives. There also is no practical way to treat dogs with acquired nerve-related deafness or hearing loss. Some veterinary teaching hospitals and other highly specialized veterinary facilities offer customized hearing aids for dogs with limited hearing disabilities, but these are extremely expensive and largely useless for most causes of canine deafness. Certainly, dogs with temporary hearing loss caused by ear infections, tumors or build-up of wax and other debris can be treated by removing the causative agent either medically or surgically. Otherwise, deafness is usually irreversible and permanent.

Owners and potential owners of deaf dogs might appreciate the following Twelve Quick Facts About Deaf Dogs, written in 2002 by Heather Pate, who lives in Canada. Heather owned a deaf merlequin Great Dane named “Chance” for more than ten years. She wrote this based on her personal experiences with Chance and her contacts with other owners of deaf dogs. It has since been circulated world-wide:

Twelve Quick Facts About Deaf Dogs:
  • Deaf dogs don't know they are deaf.

  • Deaf dogs don't care that they are deaf.

  • Deaf dogs are not suffering by being deaf.

  • Deaf dogs are dogs first.

  • Deaf dogs are representatives of their breed or combination of breeds second.

  • Deaf dogs are individual dogs with their own quirks and personalities third.

  • Deaf dogs are not more likely to become aggressive than any other dog in the same circumstances.

  • Deaf dogs may startle when awakened suddenly but can easily be conditioned to awake to a calm but alert state.

  • Deaf dogs are no less healthy than most hearing dogs.

  • Deaf dogs can be easier to train than hearing dogs.

  • Deaf dogs are very attentive to visual signals, including facial expression, body language and hand signals.

  • Deaf dogs get along just fine with other dogs and people, as long as they are socialized from puppyhood on - just like hearing dogs.

  • Additional Considerations about Deaf Dogs:

  • Keep deaf dogs confined in the house and/or in a secure fenced yard or on leash, especially near traffic

  • Use hand signals for obedience training. Make them up, and/or use recognized signals used by deaf people

  • Avoid startling deaf dogs when they are sleeping or resting

  • Take extra care with deaf dogs around young children

  • Stamp feet on the floor before waking or touching a deaf dog, to transmit physical vibrations and reduce the risk of snapping or biting due to being startled

Prognosis for Deaf Dogs

Dogs with partial or complete deafness can live normal, happy, productive lives. They can do therapy work, scent and sight tracking, obedience, agility and pretty much anything else that hearing dogs can do. Deafness is a disability that requires special attention by owners but does not prevent most affected dogs from living every bit as full a life as any dog with normal hearing capabilities. If your dog is deaf or seems to be losing its hearing, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Hearing loss is not a life-threatening condition. However, it is worthwhile to determine whether there are any correctible conditions that are contributing to a dog’s loss of hearing."

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