Tips for navigating life with a deaf dog

December 31, 2023 - 7 min read
Training a dog

Are you worried your dog’s ears aren’t perking up the way they used to? You’re not alone.

Hearing loss in dogs is exceedingly common. Just like humans, dogs can start to go deaf due to age, genetics, or environmental factors.

But rest assured, your pup can live a happy and fulfilling life even when their world gets quieter. They’ll just need your help.

What causes deafness in dogs?

Canine deafness can stem from numerous factors, including age, genetic predispositions, and environmental influences. Understanding what caused your dog’s hearing loss can help you manage their condition. 

Age-related hearing loss

Just like humans, dogs can experience hearing loss in both ears as they get older. As dogs age, the nerve cells and structures in the ear begin to degenerate, affecting their ability to hear. This gradual decline in hearing ability is known as “presbycusis,” and it’s a natural part of aging.

Age-related hearing loss typically affects both ears symmetrically and progresses slowly over time, which can make it nearly unnoticeable in its initial stages. This type of hearing loss isn’t reversible, but recognizing it early can help you adapt your communication to better take care of your senior dog.

Genetics

Certain breeds are more prone to congenital deafness. For example, Dalmatians, Australian Shepherds, and English Setters have a higher incidence of hereditary hearing loss. This type of deafness is typically present from birth and can affect one or both ears.

Believe it or not, the genes that influence coat and eye color play a key role in hearing loss. Abnormalities in these genes can lead to a lack of pigment cells in the inner ear, and these cells are essential for hearing. Dogs with white, merle, or piebald coat patterns are generally more prone to deafness.

If you’re looking to buy a purebred puppy, make sure you find a responsible breeder. Ethical breeders are known to conduct hearing tests before selling puppies, particularly for breeds that are known to be at risk for hereditary deafness.

Infections and injuries

Dog with bandage on it's head

Like humans, dogs are susceptible to hearing loss due to ear infections, ear traumas, or prolonged exposure to loud noises. Ear infections, if left untreated, can lead to inflammation and damage to the ear's internal structures, causing temporary or even permanent hearing loss. And trauma to the ear, whether from accidents or rough play, can also harm the delicate auditory mechanisms of your dog’s ear.

Meanwhile, dogs who are exposed to excessively loud environments over time, such as construction sites or fireworks displays, can suffer noise-induced hearing loss. (On another note, loud environments can also create anxiety and cause dogs to run away.) 

Keep in mind that regular check-ups with a veterinarian can help catch early signs of ear problems. Prompt treatment can prevent further damage and preserve their hearing health for as long as possible.

Drug toxicity

Certain medications, while necessary for treating specific health conditions, have the potential to damage your dog’s hearing.

Aminoglycoside antibiotics, some diuretics, and certain chemotherapy drugs are known for their ototoxic properties, meaning they can potentially damage the inner ear. This can lead to temporary—or, in some cases, permanent—hearing loss.

Pet owners should discuss the potential side effects of any medication with their veterinarian. A vet can provide valuable insight into the necessity of these medications and may suggest regular hearing checks or consider alternative treatments if possible.

How to spot deafness in your dog

Old dog

Recognizing your dog’s deafness early on allows for prompt intervention and management. Canine deafness can manifest in multiple ways, and being aware of these signs can help you better understand and respond to your pet's needs.

Here are some common signs of hearing loss in dogs:

  • Lack of response to sounds: Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most telling signs of canine hearing loss. If your pup doesn't react to their name, commands, or familiar sounds like the doorbell, their hearing may be in decline.

  • Startling easily: Deafness can cause dogs to startle more easily. Since they don't hear people approaching, they can feel alarmed when they’re touched unexpectedly.

  • Sleep changes: Deaf dogs might sleep more soundly since they don't have auditory cues to wake them. 

  • Head shaking and ear scratching: If your dog is frequently shaking their head or scratching their ears, it could point to an ear infection or a foreign body in the ear canal, both of which can cause temporary hearing loss. When left untreated, these issues can even contribute to permanent hearing loss.

  • Excessive vocalizations: Some dogs with hearing loss may bark excessively. This is their way of compensating for a lack of auditory input, since they can’t hear themselves as well as they used to.

  • Other behavioral changes: Losing one’s hearing isn’t exactly a good time, and it can lead to depression and anxiety. A dog who’s experiencing hearing loss may seem more withdrawn, less playful, or display signs of irritability. 

If you notice any of these changes in your pup, consult a veterinarian ASAP. Early detection and proper care can have a major impact on your dog’s well-being.

Diagnosing deafness in dogs

While you can certainly identify potential symptoms of hearing loss, only a veterinarian can make a diagnosis. Your vet will conduct a thorough examination to rule out any other causes for your dog's behavior, such as ear infections or foreign bodies.

Your vet may also perform a basic hearing test, observing your dog's response to various sounds. For a more definitive diagnosis, some vets may even recommend specialized tests like Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER). This test measures the electrical activity of the brain in response to sound; it can determine if your dog is deaf and whether the deafness is partial or complete. (This is the same test that responsible breeders tend to use on puppies.) 

In some cases, your vet may also recommend blood tests or imaging studies like X-rays or MRIs, which can help identify any underlying health issues that could be contributing to your dog’s hearing loss. These tests are especially important if the deafness is sudden and unexplained.

Remember, an early diagnosis can be hugely beneficial to your dog. If the hearing loss is due to an infection or other treatable health issue, prompt treatment can prevent permanent damage.

And even when hearing loss is irreversible, early diagnosis is still a big deal. It lets you make necessary adjustments and provide support right away, which helps your dog adapt more quickly and efficiently to their new way of life. Speaking of which...

Tips for living with a deaf dog

Caring for a deaf or hearing-impaired pooch presents unique challenges, but you can help your pup lead a fulfilling life by making some adjustments.

Sight over sound

Deaf dogs are heavily reliant on visual cues for communication. This means you need to replace verbal commands with hand signals, gestures, or even flashcards. The good news is that training your dog to understand these signals can be a fun bonding experience.

At the same time, training a deaf dog using visual cues requires patience, consistency, and a hefty dose of creativity. Start with basic commands such as 'sit,’ 'stay,' and ‘come.’ 

Man feeding a Dog a treat

Just make sure that each hand signal is distinct and consistently used for the same command. For instance, you might use a raised hand for 'stop,' or a point finger to the ground for 'sit.' Once your dog understands these basic commands, you can gradually introduce more complex ones. 

And remember, positive reinforcement is effective for all dogs, deaf or otherwise. Reward your pup with treats, affection, or playtime immediately after they follow a command or exhibit good behavior. Even a smile and a thumbs-up can help.

Create a safe environment 

Safety is paramount for deaf dogs. They can't hear approaching dangers, so you need to keep them on a leash in public spaces. And at home, a secure, fenced yard allows them to explore safely.

It's also helpful to equip your hard-of-hearing dog with a tag or vest that says, "I am deaf.” This tag is an important safety measure, especially if they get lost. It alerts anyone who finds your dog to their special needs, leading to a gentler approach and more effective communication.

dog standing on beach with one ear cocked

Good vibrations

Deaf dogs can feel vibrations; use this to your advantage! Stomping gently on the ground can get their attention when they're indoors. This technique is especially useful when calling them for meals or alerting them to your presence.

You can even incorporate these vibrations into your overall training regimen. By creating a consistent pattern of vibrations for different needs, such as a gentle double stomp for mealtime or a single stomp to signal it's time for a walk, you can teach your dog to associate these distinct sensations with specific actions.

Use lights for signaling

Light can be a useful tool for communicating with a deaf dog. Flashing a porch light or a flashlight can be an effective way to call them inside from the yard or to get their attention in a dark room.

Just make sure the flashing isn’t too intense; otherwise, you could cause discomfort or confusion.

Use a gentle touch, and don’t surprise them

Since deaf dogs can't hear you approaching, you need to be physically gentle. Use a soft, reassuring touch on their back or sides to get their attention or guide them.

And to avoid startling your deaf dog, you should always approach them in their line of sight, especially if they’re resting. 

Enrich their life with sensory-stimulating toys

When your dog is hard of hearing, their other senses become more important and may even be heightened. You can engage these senses by providing toys that stimulate their sense of smell and touch. Scented toys, textured chew toys, and interactive puzzles can all keep them mentally stimulated and engaged.

Consider giving them toys that involve a form of 'search and find.' These can include toys where treats are hidden, and your dog must sniff them out. You can also set up outdoor activities that involve sniffing trails or tracking.

And texture matters. Toys with varied surfaces—like ridges, bumps, or soft areas—can provide tactile stimulation, which can be equal parts engaging and soothing for a deaf dog.

tan terrier dog playing tug of war with human

Diet and exercise 

To keep your deaf dog safe, you may need to adapt their exercise routine. This could mean avoiding off-leash activities in unsecured areas and making sure they’re well-trained in visual signals.

Meanwhile, make sure you’re feeding them a healthy diet tailored to their age, breed, and activity level. This helps maintain their overall health—including the health of their other senses!—even after their hearing has declined.

Safeguarding all five senses

Routine vet visits are critical for deaf dogs. Since your pup may not be able to hear approaching dangers, they’re more susceptible to injuries, which you might not notice immediately. Your vet can check for such injuries during a routine exam and provide the right treatments.

And keep in mind: Since deaf dogs rely more on their other senses, it’s doubly important to maintain their overall health and protect what they have left. The optional, non-insurance ManyPets Wellness Plan can help reimburse you for preventative care, making it easier than ever to seek treatment for your hard-of-hearing hound.

And if your pup’s been diagnosed with any injuries or illnesses, dog insurance may help reimburse you for the cost of treatment. This means you can focus on what's most important: providing the best possible care for your furry family member.


David Teich
Lead Content Editor

David Teich is Lead Content Editor at ManyPets. He loves pets, Scrabble, Oxford commas, and typing loudly.