Hearing loss can be a common problem in older canines – here's how to spot the signs of deafness in dogs, and make sure their quality of life isn't affected.
Does it sometimes feel as if your dog has stopped listening to you? It could be that they’re losing their hearing. As our dogs age, their faculties can start to fade, and it’s not unusual to find some degree of deafness in older dogs. Here, we look at the signs of deafness in dogs, and how to support your canine friend if they’re struggling to hear properly.
Is my dog deaf or just ignoring me?
Many owners report ‘selective hearing’ in their dogs – but this can often be due to the dog being engaged in an activity they consider more exciting than their owner! So, how can you tell if your dog is going deaf?
For our top tips on owning and training a deaf dog, download our one-page info sheet – perfect for popping on your fridge or sharing with friends, family and dog-sitters.
It pays to observe their usual behaviour at home closely. If your dog has always appeared at the rattle of a full food bowl or barked their head off at a knock at the door but no longer responds to these triggers, it could be a sign of hearing loss. Similarly, if your dog has always greeted you when you get home but no longer appears on cue, it may be that they can no longer hear your car pulling into the driveway or your key in the lock. A deaf dog may also appear surprised if they’re touched while dozing, due to the shock of being stroked.
Upon hearing a noise, most animals will look up or around to find the source of the sound. You can test your dog’s hearing yourself by quietly entering the room that they’re in so that they don’t notice you, and then clapping your hands from a distance, to see if they react. This should be used as a test only, as approaching a deaf dog without warning can be startling for them. If your dog is only losing their hearing in one ear, you may find that they position themselves to listen to sounds with their good ear.
If you’re concerned your dog might not be able to hear you properly, it’s important that you take them to the vet for a check-up (even if they’re not so keen on the idea!). It could be that a temporary, treatable condition, such as a bad ear infection or excessive earwax, is causing the deafness; or your dog might have an underlying health problem that is affecting their hearing.
Causes of deafness in dogs
Some dogs are born deaf (congenital deafness), while others lose their hearing due to illness or injury. Certain toxins and medications can damage a dog’s hearing, as can a blockage in the ear, such as a growth or tumour. The most common cause of deafness in older dogs, however, is the gradual degeneration of the hearing apparatus within the inner ear over time.
What breeds of dogs are prone to deafness?
Hereditary deafness in dogs can be more common in certain breeds, and in animals with white pigmentation in their coats. For example, congenital deafness in dogs is prevalent in Dalmatians, Cocker Spaniels, Bull Terriers and Boston Terriers, among others. Some breeds are more prone to early-onset deafness in adult life, including Border Collies and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. Meanwhile, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are especially prone to hearing problems caused by a build-up of fluid in the ear (glue ear), which is generally treatable.
What to do if your dog is deaf
Discovering that your pet is losing their hearing can be worrying, but there’s no reason why a deaf dog can’t live a full and happy life. Read on for our top tips on caring for a deaf dog and helping them thrive.
Keep a deaf dog safe
The most important consideration when your dog is losing their hearing is their safety. A deaf dog won’t be able to hear dangers, such as passing cars, and may be more easily rattled, so it might be best to keep them on a lead during walks. Try to keep things interesting by exploring different local routes, so your pet is still getting lots of mental stimulation.
Teach a deaf dog hand signals
Training a deaf dog to recognise hand signals instead of verbal instructions should be a priority to help you communicate effectively. Teaching your dog different hand gestures will let them know when to sit, stay, come or lie down. For example, as your dog approaches you, start making your chosen hand signal for ‘come’, then give them a treat when they reach you. With practice, your deaf dog will come to associate the hand signal with the positive experience, and come back to you every time.
Stay within sight
If you have a well-trained dog that has always previously come back to you when called, there’s no reason why you can’t allow them some off-lead time once they have mastered hand signals. It’s a good idea, however, to keep to open spaces, where you can see them easily, and they can see you.
Get them an ‘I am deaf’ collar…
You might like to consider a special deaf dog collar to help your hard-of-hearing pet. You can get collars marked ‘I am deaf’, which are a good way to make other people aware your dog can’t hear (especially if you do decide to let them off the lead).
…Or a vibrating collar for deaf dogs
Another thing you could try is a vibrating collar for deaf dogs, which you can activate from a distance to get your dog’s attention when they’re not looking directly at you. A vibrating collar should be introduced gradually, and training a deaf dog to wear it should be a positive experience.
At first, simply play with your dog and hold the collar in your hand while it vibrates. Then gradually move the collar so that it vibrates against your dog’s leg or shoulder, before eventually working up to putting it around their neck. Every time you make the collar vibrate, give your dog a treat, and they should soon make the positive association and come back to you when you activate it – but if your dog remains uncomfortable with the collar after slow and patient introductions, this may not be the best solution for them.
Get your deaf dog a bell
Fitting a bell to a deaf dog’s collar is also a good idea, to help you locate them easily if they can’t hear you calling – not just on off-lead walks, but around the home and garden as well.
Avoid startling a deaf dog
Dogs with hearing loss startle more easily, as they might not hear people or other animals approaching. This can be confusing and unnerving for your dog, and make them more likely to react defensively. Wherever possible, you should approach a deaf dog from the front, especially when they’re resting. If your dog is lying on the floor, they may feel the vibrations if you stamp your feet extra hard to announce your arrival. You could also switch the lights on and off a couple of times on entering a room, so that your deaf dog knows you’re coming.
If you’re concerned about your dog’s hearing loss, or any behavioural issues it causes, your vet or a certified behaviourist will be able to offer expert advice on keeping them happy and healthy.