Congenital Deafness in Dogs

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A veterinarian examines a dog's ears on a table

Dr. Erica Irish author of Congenital Deafness in Dogs

Dogs can experience deafness just like humans, and you may sometimes wonder about your dog’s auditory acuity when they don’t respond to signals like when you call their name or shake a treat bag. Older dogs can lose their hearing naturally, but what happens if your dog is very young? What causes this kind of hearing loss, and is there anything you can do about it?


What is Congenital Deafness in Dogs?

Congenital deafness refers to hearing loss in very young dogs that are inherited via genes from their parents. It can also refer to hearing loss due to vascular degeneration around the structures that develop the ears and ear canal while developing inside of the mother’s uterus. It is unclear what causes this kind of degeneration, but the absence of pigment-producing cells is typically observed. Also, certain toxins and antibiotics like gentamicin have been known to negatively impact these sensitive structures.

The pigmentmelanin does more than just contribute to skin and coat coloration. Melanin is also an important part of the development of your dog’s ear structures. Insufficient melanin can lead to improper ear development, and this melanin deficiency also impacts the kind of coat color that your pup may develop. This is the reason why dogs with merle or piebald coat patterns (having a majority of white other than any other colors) have a higher likelihood of being deaf or having deaf offspring.

There are certain dog breeds who may be more predisposed to developing congenital deafness than others. Dalmatians are the most highly affected breed. Around 15 to 30% of Dalmatians are deaf in one ear while 5% are deaf in both ears. Other affected breeds include Bull Terriers, Australian Cattle Dogs, English Cocker Spaniels, English Setters, Welsh Corgis, and Boston Terriers. Harlequin and all-white Great Danes also have a higher likelihood of congenital deafness.


Symptoms

Signs of congenital deafness may appear in early puppyhood, and it can be difficult to detect right away if only one ear is affected. Deaf puppies do not respond to the same sounds that other puppies do. Such sounds include squeaky toys, doorbells, clapping, whistling, and shaking food containers. They may startle easier when woken up, and they may be more difficult to train at first.


Diagnosis

Your vet may be able to help you determine if your pup is deaf. They can check your dog’s ears to make sure he doesn’t have an ear infection or a visible problem with his ear canals or eardrums. Your vet may also perform simple tests to see if they can elicit a response, e.g. they can jingle keys, clap hands, or squeak a toy that is kept out of sight.

For more definitive testing, your dog can be referred to a veterinary neurologist for Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER) testing. Small subcutaneous electrodes are utilized to measure electrical impulses when ears are exposed to sounds of different frequencies and intensities. This test can be performed in dogs who are at least 35 days old. If a dog fails this test, then he or she should not be used for breeding purposes.  


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Treatment and recovery

It is not possible to prevent congenital deafness from occurring, and this is the reason why dogs who are deaf should not be bred. For dogs who are not deaf, it is important to have their ears checked every six months to make sure they are healthy. If something like an ear infection is left untreated, it can lead to chronic changes in the ears that can increase the risk of acquired deafness in the future.

Many deaf dogs go on to lead normal lives, and there are generally no additional underlying illnesses when it comes to congenital deafness. If anything, dogs with fair hair coat colors may be more susceptible to sunburns. Therefore, sunblock is important when these dogs go outside.

Deaf dogs can be trained using hand signals and body language, and their sense of smell will help dogs who are treated motivated. If training is initially difficult, you can contact a trainer who specializes in working with deaf dogs. It is also important to remember that deaf dogs should not walk off-leash because they cannot hear impending danger like cars on the roadway. Also, it is best to gently rouse them when trying to wake them up. Abrupt wakefulness can be stressful — especially when small children are around and do not understand that they need to play with deaf dogs carefully.

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Congenital deafness is an inherited disorder in dogs. Definitive testing is available, and it is important to avoid breeding dogs who are deaf. However, deaf dogs can live normal, happy lives. All they need is a little extra training and a lot of love!


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Meet The Author 

Dr. Erica Irish author of Congenital Deafness in Dogs

Dr. Erica Irish

Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine