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Deafness: An Overview

Deafness, in dogs as in people, is the inability to hear. Deafness can be unilateral (affecting one ear) or bilateral (affecting both ears).

Causes of Deafness

There are two types of deafness: congenital (which means existing at birth) and acquired.

Congenital Deafness: Some dogs are born without the ability to hear due to developmental defects in the hearing apparatus. Deafness can develop in the first few weeks of life when the ear canal is still closed and occurs when the blood supply to the cochlea degenerates and the nerve cells die. Congenital deafness in dogs is permanent. Interestingly, it is usually linked to a defective gene and is inherited. Often the defective gene is for coat color. Dogs with white or merle coats are predisposed to congenital deafness. Most of the dog breeds who suffer from congenital deafness have some white pigmentation in their coats. It is also possible that there is a multi-gene cause for deafness in dogs.

There are approximately 85 dog breeds with reported congenital deafness. Some of these breeds are more susceptible to deafness than others, with high prevalence in the Australian Cattle Dog, the Australian Shepherd, the Bull Terrier, the Catahoula Leopard Dog, the Dalmatian, the English Cocker Spaniel and the English Setter.

Acquired Deafness: Dogs with acquired deafness are born with the capability of developing and maintaining normal hearing, but hearing is lost. Some dogs with acquired deafness have only partial hearing loss that may not be noticeable to the owner. Others have severe hearing loss. It is not common to any one breed and is usually the result of damage to the ear components such as the eardrum, middle or inner ear structures, and nerves. Diseases such as canine distemper can cause ear damage.

Some other the causes of hearing loss include excessive amounts of wax, dirt, hair or other material plugging the ear canal; inflammation of the ear canal; untreated infections of the middle (otitis externa) or internal ear (otitis interna); a torn or ruptured ear drum; loud noise; head trauma; ear mites and old age.

In addition, certain drugs, particularly Aminoglycoside antibiotics (including gentamicin, kanamycin, neomycin, tobramycin and others) often used to treat life-threatening infections in dogs can cause ototoxicity. Drug toxicity can also be vestibulotoxic and disturb the dog's sense of balance, giving it a head tilt and sometimes causing it to walk in circles. Aminoglycoside antibiotics should only be used under strict veterinary supervision. High doses and/or lengthy treatments with these antibiotics should be avoided. General anesthesia may also cause deafness. While the causes of this possibility have yet to be established, it may be that after receiving general anesthesia, the dog's body sends blood away from the cochlea to shield other critical organs, or that the positioning of the dog's jaw constricts the arterial supply and keeps it from reaching the cochlea. Deafness sometimes occurs when a dog has gone under anesthesia for an ear or teeth cleaning.

Preventing Deafness

It is usually impossible to determine, and thus prevent, the cause of congenital deafness unless a clear problem has been observed in the breed, or carefully planned breeding is performed. Congenital deafness has been reported for approximately 80 breeds (see Dog Breeds with Reported Congenital Deafness). However, the method of genetic transmission of deafness in dogs is usually not known. While age-related hearing loss cannot be prevented, there are some things you can do prevent some other acquired forms. For example, dog owners should try to prevent and/or treat promptly some of the controllable causes of acquired hearing loss such as accumulation of dirt, wax, hair in the ear; ear canal swelling or inflammation; ruptured or torn ear drum; internal or middle ear infection; and ear mites. In addition, pet owners should avoid using drugs known to cause ototoxicity.

Symptoms of Deafness

Some signs that may indicate your dog is deaf, suffering some hearing loss, or experiencing some ear problems which may lead to hearing loss include:

  • Inattentiveness
  • Change in obedience
  • Confusion when given vocal commands
  • Excessive barking
  • Unresponsiveness to sounds
  • Being difficult to wake up
  • Head shaking; head tilts toward the side of the affected ear
  • Itchy and/or painful ears
  • Change in personality
  • Smelly discharge from the ear

Diagnosing Deafness

If you have concerns that your dog may have lost its hearing, there are a few ways you can test for deafness. The BAER test (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) is the only 100% reliable diagnostic test for deafness in a dog. In the BAER test, a computer records the electrical activity of the brain in response to sound stimulation. It does not measure the full range of canine hearing, but it is able to determine if a dog has hearing within the normal human range. The test is not painful and can be performed on dogs at least six weeks of age.

There are also some simple tests that you can do at home:

  • Jingle keys, a rattle, or a can of coins
  • Squeak a toy
  • Call your dog in a normal voice
  • Clap your hands
  • Whistle
  • Turn on a vacuum cleaner
  • Bang two pots together
  • Ring a bell or have someone ring your telephone or doorbell

Do all of these from a distance so your dog doesn't detect your actions, scent or feel vibrations or air movement.

Treating Deafness

There is no cure for deafness in dogs.

Care for Dogs with Deafness

While there is no cure for deafness in dogs, there are many things that you can do to keep your deaf or hearing impaired dog safe:

  • Keep your dog on a leash or in a fenced-in yard while outdoors
  • Learn how to communicate with, and train, your dog using hand signals
  • Be consistent in your communications, whether your own signals, standard obedience signs, American Sign Language or a combination of these
  • Use signs which only require one hand and are easily detected by your dog from a distance
  • Try lasers and other forms of light to help you communicate
  • Teach children how to interact with and behave around deaf dogs

The AKC Canine Health Foundation and Deafness

Four grants to study deafness have been funded by the AKC Canine Health Foundation. These grants looked to determine the genetic cause(s) of deafness in the dog.

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