Information About Hearing Loss in Pets
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
The good news for all pet owners worried that their pet is having trouble hearing is that pets suffering from hearing loss can still live good quality, happy lives. We just want to help you learn more about hearing loss and how you can help your hard-of-hearing baby if he/she is affected. Hearing loss or totally deafness is very hard to definitively diagnose without going to see a neurologist who can use specific testing that shows specifically how the brain responds to different sound. However, most owners know their pets so well that they can pick up on when they seem to be having trouble hearing. Hearing loss is a more common complaint from dog owners than cat owners and is seen more in senior dogs or dogs that have a history of chronic ear issues (such as infections). The most common cause of hearing loss is an age-related change called otosclerosis. This process makes the tiny components of the inner ear less pliable and unable to function as they should and because the precise function of the ear is to transmit sound waves, the suppleness of the inner structure is critical to function.
As stated before, a pet that has suffered from chronic recurrent otitis (inflammation and/or infection of the ear) is even more likely to suffer from brittleness of these tiny structures because of scar tissue and swelling. One of the reasons that there are more issues in dogs than cats is that dogs tend to have more issues with environmental allergies than cats and at least 80% of dogs with allergies will suffer from chronic ear issues. Other causes that can impact hearing can include ototoxicity (adverse effects to the ear from certain drugs, which is more commonly seen in cats) and effects from exposure to loud noises (most commonly seen in hunting dogs). The three bones that are most critical to hearing are the tiniest bones in the body and there small size means that even the smallest injury to one of them can have huge effects on how well a patient can hear.
If you think that your pet suffers from hearing loss the first thing to do is schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure that there is no infection, inflammation, ruptured eardrum, or other concern present. Again, to be able to know exactly how a pet’s brain is reacting to sound you would have to see a veterinary neurologist. Sometimes, what is perceived as hearing loss is actually Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (where it is more that changes in the brain cause an animal to react differently to situations, including commands and/or sounds). However, Otosclerosis, the most common cause for actual hearing loss, also occurs more frequently in older patients, and these diseases can occur in at the same time and each disease needs to addressed differently to improve best improve quality of life.
There are things you can do to make hearing impaired pet’s life easier and these include teaching your pet visual cues from an early age so that the impact of the hearing defect is minimized in daily life if it does occur. It is never too late to start training your pet with visual cues paired with the verbal cues they already know. Senior pets can learn to respond to hand signals for rewards and time spent teaching the new cues is a great investment in your relationship. If your pet does have hearing loss, you can also look into the use of vibration collars designed for pets with hearing loss to rouse and interest your pet the way sounds used to. Hearing loss can make the rituals enjoyed by both you and your pet (like greetings) different and impact your bond. Vibration collars are remote controlled and you can train your pet that the vibration means you are home, so he/she can meet you at the door.
By teaching your pet appropriate responses to visual cues or a vibration collar allows him/her to feel secure even without being able to hear. Pets love consistency and knowing the response you want, makes for a calm and confident pet. Hearing loss does not mean your pet can’t lead a full and happy life, but you should be mindful of your pet’s new challenges and ask your veterinarian about any concerns you have with your hard-of-hearing pet.