Updated November 29, 2020
Deafness in dogs and cats is important to understand. You need to know which puppies and kittens might be born deaf and recognise when it’s a sign of serious problems. You also need to know when it’s normal.
Why Dogs & Cats Go Deaf
There are only three common causes of deafness in dogs and cats:
- Being born congenitally deaf
- Having a severe and prolonged ear infection
- A normal part of aging
Certain medicines can also cause deafness but that’s quite rare.
If we’re lucky we’ll all live with a deaf pet one day. All it takes is for them to live long enough. When that happens, how do you know their hearing loss is just age-related and not a sign of something worse? Let’s go through the causes one by one…
Congenital Hearing Loss
Certain breeds of dog and cat are well known to be at risk of deafness. Within these breeds, deafness is usually more common with particular coat patterns. For example, did you know that you can predict the rate of deafness in Aussie Cattle Dogs by their markings?
Read more in our guide to deafness in puppies and kittens.
In our Adelaide clinic, the number one reason for an appointment is a dog with an ear infection. They are so common that any pet with hearing loss should be checked for an infection first. Cats don’t get them as much, but when they do they are usually worse and more likely to damage hearing.
Despite the pain, pets don’t always tell you when they have an ear infection. Signs of an ear problem include:
- Discharge visible in the ear
- Shaking the head
- A smell from the ear
- And of course, deafness
Your vet will need to use an otoscope to inspect the deep part of the canal and eardrum. Once you see the diagram of the ear on our page on the causes of ear infections you will understand why.
Loss of hearing can be due to the buildup of this wax or infected discharge. Worse, it can be due to eardrum rupture and inner ear disease. Get your vet involved; as soon as we know about it we can make it better.
Drug-Induced Hearing Loss
There is a long list of potentially ototoxic drugs. In reality, most of these can be safely used without ever seeing problems with hearing. In fact, in my clinic, I have never seen permanent deafness caused by medication.
Why? We know which drugs to be careful with, and there are usually safer alternatives. We also never put harmful drugs into ears when the eardrum may be ruptured. That’s why you should never put any treatment, and especially ear cleaners, into an infected ear without a checkup first. That’s also sometimes why we won’t be happy to treat an ear without an anaesthetic first.
Age-Related Hearing Loss
The danger with loss of hearing in the elderly is in assuming an animal is deaf just because they are old. Too many pets are walking around with ear problems that could be fixed. To be confident that deafness is a part of normal aging, I need all these three things to be true:
- A normal ear examination
- No history of ear damage
- A dog to be over 13, or a cat over 15
How To Tell If A Dog Or Cat Is Deaf
Most of the time, a responsive owner will easily pick up the early signs of hearing loss. These include:
- Failure to come when called. This should get worse the further away you are.
- Failure to respond when distracted. Early hearing loss looks like selective hearing because if they aren’t concentrating they don’t notice you.
- Spending more time sleeping.
- Acting startled when roused from sleep
Warning: young puppies and kittens up to 12 weeks can do all of these things and still have good hearing. They just aren’t as responsive as adults.
If in doubt, see the vet. We get asked about potential deafness all the time, know what a normal animal looks like and can inspect the entire ear for an infection.
Pet Hearing Test
- Choose a time when your dog or cat is relaxed on the floor but not asleep
- Make a noise from behind where the movement can’t be seen
- Start quietly in case they get frightened and don’t do it so close you make a puff of air
- You may need to make a loud clap or use a favourite squeaker
- Watch the ears or eyes: a positive response may only be a quick twitch in your direction
Specialised hearing tests for breeding purposes called BAER are necessary to look for deafness in just one ear. In South Australia this can be performed at Adelaide Plains Veterinary Surgery.
Living With A Deaf Dog or Cat
Here are some simple considerations I learned from having deaf pets of my own:
- Sleeping pets need to be woken gently as they can easily get startled. However, if you don’t seek them out, they may sleep their lives away.
- Training needs to be tailored to deaf dogs. Emphasis needs to be on gaining a dog’s attention and using hand signals instead of voice. Vibrating collars are also available.
- For their own safety, off-leash activity for dogs and outdoor access for cats are probably best not done at all.
Indoors isn’t just to avoid short-term dangers either. Congenitally deaf animals usually lack the same skin pigments that help protect against sunburn and skin cancer.
Other than these ideas I can’t pretend to be an expert, but you can find plenty of trainers who are. Whether they are born deaf, or lose hearing later, dogs and cats without hearing will live normal, happy lives. All it takes is a bit of flexibility and an understanding of their disability.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.