Hearing loss or deafness (the inability to hear sounds) in pets can be a concerning issue for owners and pets alike. It is sometimes difficult to tell if your pet is experiencing hearing loss, although, as an owner, you likely know something out of the ordinary is occurring. While hearing loss is not always a permanent issue, call your veterinarian if you have concerns. The vet will be able to help you better determine if hearing loss is the issue and what to do about it.
Causes of Hearing Loss and Deafness
Very young puppies cannot hear like adults – and this is completely normal. Their ear canals don’t open until they are around two weeks old. The ability to hear will continue to develop over the next six weeks, so if your puppy seems a little “hard of hearing,” it may be part of his or her ordinary development.
Medical causes of deafness can be congenital, meaning present at birth, or acquired, meaning the hearing loss developed later in life. These causes can be due to issues within the ear itself or issues with the nerves and brain (i.e., neurological issues). Common causes of deafness or hearing loss associated with the ear itself include ear infections, cancer within the ear, certain medications/toxins, loud noises, and trauma or an injury, such as a ruptured ear drum. Common causes associated with neurological issues include cancer of the brain or nerves, head trauma or head injuries, nerve damage, or age-related degeneration (breakdown) of the nerves used for hearing. Other causes of acquired hearing loss can include medical diseases of the body, such as hypothyroidism.
Congenital deafness can occur with or without other symptoms. Dogs with white coats, pale irises (colored part of the eye), albinism (lack of pigmentation/coloring), and certain merle patterns may be at risk for congenital deafness. Cats with white coats and blue eyes are more likely to be at risk for congenital deafness as well.
How to Tell if Your Pet is Deaf
Sometimes pets will not show any symptoms of deafness other than a lack of response when you call them. Other signs of deafness include trouble waking your pet up from sleep or appearing disoriented. These signs and symptoms are not necessarily specific to hearing loss, so a trip to the veterinarian is needed to help determine if your pet is experiencing hearing loss and why.
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough examination of your pet. He or she will likely perform an otoscopic examination in which the ear canal and ear drum are examined with a special device called an otoscope. This exam is not usually painful; however, some pets become anxious for this part of the exam because the otoscope is inserted into the ear canal and can feel strange to them. Your veterinarian may also recommend lab work to test for certain diseases such as hypothyroidism. If needed, your veterinarian may refer you to a specialist to test your pet’s hearing further.
What to do if Your Pet is Experiencing Hearing Loss
While deafness is not always a treatable condition, the causes of deafness can sometimes be treated, which may allow your pet’s hearing to improve. If you suspect medications are the cause, stop the medication and call your veterinarian. If your pet has an ear infection, ear drops can be prescribed to administer into the ear canal to help heal the infection. Sometimes surgery may be needed to remove tumors within the ear. If the deafness does not improve, training your pet with hand signals to help communicate with him or her can be extremely helpful. Hand signals can be used to teach pets to sit, come, use the bathroom, go to bed, or get a treat.
Monitor your pet carefully when he or she is outside. Your pet may not be able to hear if there is a nearby threat such as another dog or an oncoming car. Consider putting a medical alert tag on the pet’s collar so that others will know he or she is deaf. Always call your veterinarian if you have questions or concerns, or if you feel that your pet is getting worse. The veterinarian will likely want to recheck your pet and offer more recommendations.