Deaf Pet Awareness Week, Sept. 24-30, 2018

The last week in September is routinely set aside as Deaf Pet Awareness Week. Despite all the information available on caring for deaf animals, many dog and cat breeders still routinely euthanize deaf puppies and kittens. And deaf pets dropped off at public shelters usually meet the same fate.

For all those pet parents who would adopt a hearing-impaired animal if not for the fear that their pet might not adapt well to living in a family, we wanted to share with you the causes and effects of deafness in dogs and cats. We also wanted to show you that, with the right care and proper training, a deaf pet could be a welcome addition to any home and live a long and happy life.

What causes deafness in pets?

Congenital deafness

Congenital deafness exists at birth and may be caused by developmental defects in the physiological apparatus of the ear. This usually occurs in the first few weeks of fetal life. A permanently closed ear canal and dead nerve cells of the cochlea are the most common origins of congenital deafness. This birth defect can be linked to one or more defective, recessive genes inherited by the parents.

Most of the dogs that suffer from congenital deafness have some white pigmentation in their coats. Although any dog can be born deaf, breeds with high incidences of this ailment include Australian shepherds, Australian cattle dogs, bull terriers, Catahoula hounds, Dalmatians, English cocker spaniels and the English setter.

Some all-white, blue-eyed cats are born with hearing defects, but hearing loss in felines is more commonly the result of an “acquired” disorder.

Acquired deafness

Acquired deafness occurs when animals are born with normal hearing, but lose that sense because of an external stimulus. Not common to any particular breed or species, acquired deafness is usually the result of damage to the ear components, including the nerves, the eardrum, and the structures of the middle and inner ear.

Both dogs and cats lose their hearing as a result of old age, excessive amounts of wax or other material blocking the ear canal, inflammation and untreated infections, a torn or ruptured eardrum, continuous loud noise, head trauma and ear mites.

What are the symptoms of hearing loss in my pet?

Watch for these signs that your pet may be experiencing hearing loss.

  • Your dog may not know you’re in the room until she sees you or you physically touch her.
  • Her head shakes, she barks excessively, or she turns in the wrong direction when you call her.
  • Your pup no longer responds to outside noises, such as other dogs barking or the doorbell ringing.
  • You notice your pooch’s ears have a smelly discharge and/or she paws or rubs at what appear to be itchy, painful ears.

Along with the symptoms given above …

  • Your cat may seem disoriented or walk with an unbalanced, unsteady gait.
  • It may be difficult to wake him up.

Once you suspect your furry companion may suffer from hearing loss, consulting with your veterinarian to determine a cause and possible treatment should be your next step.

What is the treatment for deafness in animals?

Other than the simple tests you can perform at home (squeaking a toy, dropping keys, turning on the vacuum cleaner), the only 100 percent effective way to determine if your pet has hearing loss is by performing the BAER test. During the BAER test (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response), electrodes record the brain’s response to sound stimulation. This is the same test used to check the hearing of human infants and it can tell if your pet has hearing within the normal human range.

While there is no definitive cure for deafness, your veterinarian can treat for any underlying health issues that may be causing the hearing loss, including ear infections, blocked ear canals and medication toxicity.

How can I care and train my deaf pet?

Just because your pet can’t hear your voice, that doesn’t mean he or she can’t learn and can’t live a happy, healthy life with the proper care and training. Some tips to help care for your deaf pet include:

  • Keep your dog on a leash or in a fenced-in yard while outside.
  • Never let your hearing-impaired cat outside for safety reasons.
  • Attach a bell to your cat’s collar so you can hear it if your pet does get outside.
  • Place a tag that says “Deaf Dog” or “Deaf Cat” on your pet’s collar with all your contact information just in case of your hearing-impaired animal becomes lost.
  • A vibrating collar (NOT a shock collar) can be used as a “paging” system for your deaf dog as a last resort, although most positive-reinforcement trainers would not recommend it.
  • Gently touch your pet whenever you enter a room so as not to startle him or her.
  • Stomp your feet to get your deaf pet’s attention. The floor’s vibration should alert him or her that you’re in the area.
  • Try tossing a toy into your pet’s line of sight to get her or him to pay attention.
  • Deaf cats, just like deaf dogs, can be trained using sign language, lights or other devices.

Training your hearing-impaired pet using hand signals should always be consistent and clear. Use a distinct hand signal for each separate action your want your pet to learn and perform. If you’re not familiar with American Sign Language or need help teaching the proper commands, contact your veterinarian for recommendations of professional trainers in your area that are familiar dealing with deaf animals.

Why they make great pets

According to Holly Newstead, co-founder of the Deaf Dog Education Action Fund, your deaf pet can become so bonded to you that he or she will look to you constantly for direction. “Deaf dogs can have a wonderful life,” Newstead says. “They can do agility, obedience. They can be therapy dogs. They can do almost anything a hearing dog can do — there’s nothing wrong with them. They’re just a dog that can’t hear.”

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