Deafness and age-related hearing loss in dogs (presbycusis) is common. While we don’t have exact figures, most experienced veterinarians will tell you the majority of dogs over age 10 appear to develop some hearing deficiency as they grow older. In fact, many veterinarians say age-related deafness is one of the more common geriatric changes in dogs.
The most common symptoms of hearing loss and deafness in dogs are
- decreased response to voice or clicker commands
- startles easily (especially after sleeping)
- difficulty to awaken
- inability to locate or track sounds
- disorientation and inattention
Young dogs with hearing deficits may be more vocal and play more aggressively.
Hearing loss in dogs from chronic ear infections
In dogs with chronic ear infections, head shaking, scratching and rubbing the ears, ear discharge, redness and swelling and head tilt or stumbling may be observed.
Chronic ear infections are perhaps the most common cause of hearing loss in older dogs. Many dogs suffer from persistent, even lifelong, otitis externa and media (outer and middle ear infections), that eventually cause permanent damage to the anatomical structures that enhance hearing. We speculate that this type of acquired hearing loss may be similar to human age-related hearing loss, with gradual decline in sensitivities to frequencies and volume over time.
Hearing loss in dogs inherited condition
Canine hearing loss is often an inherited condition, perhaps a close runner-up to complications of chronic ear infections. In many dogs, congenital deafness may be related to coat color (pigment-associated deafness), specifically the dominant merle or dapple color genes. Often associated with color-associated deafness are breeds such as:
- Great Danes
- Shetland Sheepdogs
Studies have shown almost 5% of merle dogs were deaf in one or both ears.
Australian Shepherds and other breeds have been documented to suffer from “white hair deafness.” In fact, white coloration on and around the ear is associated with deafness in many breeds of dog, although this trait is not a guarantee of hearing loss.
Other breeds reported to have a higher incidence of deafness include:
- Russell Terriers (commonly referred to as Jack Russel Terriers)
- Australian Cattle Dogs
- Bull Terriers
- English Setters
Note that any dog can have congenital deafness, and the researchers have identified at least 104 breeds with inherited deafness. It is a common myth that dogs with two different eye colors (heterochromia) have a higher incidence of deafness, but research shows that is not the case.
Dog dysfunction syndrome
In any dog experiencing symptoms consistent with hearing loss, lack of attention or motivation, lethargy or loss of training (including housetraining), we next need to assess her cognitive abilities. Over the years I’ve been fooled by cognitive decline in a variety of cases, and I’ve learned to rule out the big diseases first and then carefully analyze a declining dog’s mental status.
Cognitive dysfunction syndrome (CDS) in dogs affects approximately 14% to 35% of all dogs, and strikes most commonly over age 9. Spayed females are more commonly diagnosed with CDS, and the condition seems to progress faster in neutered males, suggesting certain hormones may also be involved.
The clinical signs of CDS can be similar to those of hearing loss, making an accurate diagnosis more challenging, but even more important in terms of prognosis. CDS often progresses until a dog is unable to function normally and her quality of life is severely compromised, while hearing loss can be accommodated with simple lifestyle and environmental changes.
My checklist for common CDS symptoms:
- Noticed any aimless wandering, staring into space or general confusion?
- Loss of housetraining, particularly simultaneous inappropriate urination and defecation?
- Sleeping and waking at unusual times?
- Irritability, decreased interaction or withdrawal?
- Failure to respond to known commands or vocal cues, even when you’re certain she hears you?
- Loss of appetite?
- Excessive or unusual vocalization?
To definitively diagnose hearing loss in dogs, your dog needs to be referred to a specialist for a brainstem auditory evoked potentials (BAER) evaluation. This test looks for brain response when sounds are played.
Are there hearing aids for dogs?
Although hearing aids have been developed in the past for dogs suffering from age-related hearing loss, the reality is none of these devices are economical or practical. Years ago, researchers tried to develop hearing aids that could be worn in the ears and anchored to their collars, but found few dogs tolerated them well. Other researchers tried to anchor the hearing aids in bone, but that also turned out poorly. While cochlear implants are feasible, there haven’t been any developed for dogs. If possible, experts estimate a canine cochlear ear implant would cost about $25,000 to $35,000.
How to help a dog with hearing loss
For dogs with hearing loss or deafness, lifestyle and environmental accommodations are the best treatment. Affected dogs can be taught hand-signal commands. In addition, many dogs become highly sensitive to vibrations and can be trained to respond to tapping the floor or other resonant objects.
Dogs with hearing loss also seem to focus on facial expressions and gestures to gain clues on what you’re saying. Maintaining eye contact is an essential key to communication.
I’ve also had success with trying different types of whistles (high- and low-frequencies), increasing your volume when issuing commands (“CHEESE!”), and even responding to flashlights. I once had a client train her dog to different colors of lights (red was food, green was walk and blue was “come here”).
If you have a dog who has hearing loss, follow these tips:
- Keep away from traffic or other potentially dangerous situations where the inability to hear a threat could be harmful.
- Fenced yards, leash walks and play with known dogs and people is important to keep them safe.
- I’m also a fan of placing a “medical alert” collar tag identifying your dog as being deaf.
- Some dog owners place a bell on their pet’s collar to help find them when they can no longer respond to “Come here! Cheese!”