Coping with Age-Related Hearing Loss

by Nancy Kay, DVM

The most common form of deafness in dogs is age-related hearing loss (ARHL). Most dogs experience some degree of ARHL, beginning sometime during their “third trimester” of life.

ARHL begins by impairing perception of middle to high frequency sounds. As the hearing loss progresses it encompasses the entire range of sound frequencies.

I suspect that most people don’t recognize their dog’s hearing loss until it is almost, if not fully, complete. They may mistakenly interpret their dog’s partial hearing loss as a behavioral issue, sometimes referred to as “selective hearing”.

Unfortunately, there are no good strategies that restore hearing in dogs with ARHL. A 2010 studyreported on three Beagles with age-related deafness who received middle ear implants. The results were equivocal and, to my knowledge, further investigation of this technology has not been pursued.Canine hearing aids have been tried, but tend to be poorly tolerated.

How you can help
Observing your beloved dog become less responsive because of hearing loss can evoke a laundry list of emotions such as sadness, frustration, and discouragement. While there is no good way to restore your dog’s hearing, here are eight things you can do to make a positive difference for both you and your dog.

  1. Check in with your veterinarian. Verify that the only cause of your dog’s hearing loss is ARHL. Ear canal disease, such as a growth, foreign body, or infection, superimposed on ARHL may transition a dog from partial to complete deafness. Treatment of the ear canal disease may restore an acceptable level of hearing.

  2. Train your dog with hand signals. When your dog experiences significant hearing loss, your ability to communicate with him via hand signals will create greater safety for your dog and more support for the emotional bond you share.

    Dogs quite naturally communicate via body language, so they tend to quickly learn the meaning of hand gestures. Ideally, training with hand signals in conjunction with verbal cues should begin in puppy kindergarten class. Someday, your youngster will become a senior with hearing loss, and those hand signals that were learned will be super handy (pun intended).

    By the way, the popular adage, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is a bunch of bunk. If your older dog hasn’t been taught to respond to hand signals, begin the training process as soon as possible. Most senior dogs are very capable of learning these new cues.

  3. Use nontraditional signals. In addition to hand signals, find other ways to get your dog’s attention. Examples include actions that create vibrations (clapping hands, stomping on the floor, knocking cans together), use of a flashlight, release of an appealing scent (appealing to the dog, that is), and use of a storm or disaster whistle. Figure out what works best with your dog. Provide a positive reward (favorite snack, belly rub, game of tug of war) when you begin training your best buddy to respond to these new cues.

  4. Avoid startling your dog. Approach and/or touch your dog when you are within his field of vision. If you need to wake him from sleep, touch him gently in the same place (the shoulder area is ideal). You can also put your hand in front of his nose as your smell may rouse him, particularly if it resembles the odor of a favorite treat. Remind visitors to avoid touching your best buddy when he is sleeping. All of these tactics tend to prevent startle reactions.

  5. Increase your vigilance. This applies to the home front as well as out in the world. A fenced in yard becomes a must. Be sure your dog is on leash or confined when cars pull in and out at your home. Every veterinarian can tell you stories of older, hearing-impaired dogs who were run over in their own driveways.

    Leashes are mandatory when your dog has exposure to cars, joggers, bikers, skateboarders, and other potential hazards. Make sure that every member of your dog’s support team (veterinary staff, pet sitter, groomer, dog walker, doggie day care provider) knows about his hearing loss. Admittedly, even when I know that my patient is deaf, I still tend to talk to him in my usual fashion. Force of habit, I guess. Given our close contact, I like to think that my patient feels more secure sensing vibrations coming from my body.

  6. Enrich your dog’s “smelling life.” Dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell. I recently heard dog trainer, Turid Rugaas explain that, when a dogs enters a new situation, their eyes create the first impression, but it’s the nose that fill in the details. Olfactory stimulation is known to impact canine behavior. By providing a richer smelling life for your dog, you may help fill in some of the sensory gaps caused by his hearing loss.

  7. Attach an, “I am deaf” tag to your dog’s collar. This way, if your dog becomes lost and then found, the good Samaritan involved will understand why your dog is not normally responsive.

  8. Give yourself a pep talk. Patience is a virtue when interacting with your aging dog (just as it is when interacting with an elderly person). Yes, it’s easy to feel frustration, sadness, and impatience, but keep in mind, your older dog is still capable of picking up on your emotions. Take a few deep breaths and give yourself a pep talk to help restore a sense of patience and compassion.

There are some silver linings to consider. As your level of care for your hearing-impaired older dog increases, your relationship may become closer than it has ever been. Additionally all of that quaking, quivering, and anxiety caused by loud noises (thunder, gunshot noises, firecrackers) will likely become a thing of the past. Lastly, remind yourself that, with your loving care, your hearing-impaired dog remains very capable of enjoying an excellent quality of life.

What has worked well for you when interacting with your hearing-impaired dog?

Dr. Nancy Kay, DVM Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association 2009 Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award Recipient, 2009 Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog Recipient, 2009 Eukanuba Canine Health Award

Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
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