Whether you knew when you got them or it’s a surprise, whether they were born that way or lost their hearing over time, being a deaf pet’s human is quite the honor! It can seem daunting- how do you accommodate them? How do you train them? Is it difficult to care for a deaf pet? How will you communicate with them?
Fortunately, taking care of a deaf pet is very much like caring for a hearing one. You just have to learn to speak their language!
What causes deafness in pets?
As with humans, one of the most common causes of hearing loss in pets is age. You may notice your senior pet seems to be extra stubborn lately and doesn’t want to listen, but it’s possible they just can’t hear you!
In some pets, ear infections or ear mites can eventually lead to hearing problems if they’re chronic or left untreated. Dogs with long ears, allergies, or sensitive skin are especially prone to ear infections, so it’s important to keep those floppy ears clean and dry and keep an eye on them. Signs of ear infections can include itching, redness, swelling, gunky ears, and head shaking. When you’re cuddling with your pup, give those floppy ears a quick check to make sure that everything is looking clean and healthy.
Cats who go outside, who have housemates who go outside, or who live with lots of other cats are most prone to ear mites. The easiest way to diagnose ear mites is by wiping the inside of the cat’s ear with a tissue or Q-tip (don’t go too deep, of course). If it comes back with gritty black stuff, congrats- you’ve got ear mites. Luckily, they’re usually pretty easy to treat- your vet can give you a one-dose ear drop that should do the trick.
For some pets, deafness is just something they’re born with. Certain types of deafness are most commonly associated with white or mostly-white animals, often with one or more blue eyes. This may be a simple genetic quirk or it may be a sign of irresponsible breeding or inbreeding. If you’re looking to buy a dog from a breeder, white puppies in a breed that isn’t normally white (such as a great Dane or Australian shepherd) can be a red flag. Other types of congenital deafness are not associated with breed and can happen to any dog, so don’t assume your pup can’t be hard of hearing based on breed or color!
How do you know your pet is deaf?
You may be on the lookout for hearing problems from the beginning if your pet’s age or coat color give you a clue. Or it may be a total surprise when you figure it out!
There are a few things that may raise your antennae and put you on the lookout for hearing problems. One, of course, is failure to respond when they’re spoken to. In this context, it’s important to distinguish between “respond” and “obey.” A dog may not, for example, come when called if they just don’t feel like it. And cats… well, they’re not exactly known for being obedient or good listeners. But most hearing dogs, if they’re comfortable and in a familiar place, will react in some way when spoken to in a happy voice. They may wag their tails, prick up their ears, turn to look at you, come over to you, or show you in some other way that they know you’re talking to them.
It’s not a definitive test. There are lots of reasons a dog may not respond at any given moment that have nothing to do with actual inability to hear you. They may be distracted or nervous or, like my dog, just kind of fed up with being told 900 times a day that she’s the most brilliant living thing I’ve ever encountered in my entire life and I would literally die for her. But repeated failure to respond can show you that further investigation may be warranted.
Another thing that can clue you in is how your pet responds to other noises. When you squeak a toy, open a can, shake a bag of treats, or jingle a bell, do your pet’s ears perk up? Do they get startled or scared by unexpected loud noises, like hammering or fireworks?
For some pets, the first thing that owners notice is that they sleep very soundly. They may snooze through doorbells, alarms, or their people waking up and moving around the house.
If you suspect your pet is deaf, you can test your theory by intentionally making noises right behind them and seeing if they react. Clap your hands, call their name, heck- try an air horn if you’ve got one. If they don’t respond, it may be worth asking your vet about it at your next visit.
Training a deaf dog
The good news is, the basics of training a deaf dog (or cat) are pretty much the same as training a hearing one! The biggest difference in communicating with your deaf pet is that you have to use visual or tactile signals instead of verbal commands.
Before training other commands, it can be useful to teach your deaf dog a “watch me” sign. Because they have to be looking at you to understand your signals, this is a good way to teach them to keep their attention on you.
If you’d like to use American Sign Language to teach commands, feel free! Many people do because they like the challenge of learning the proper signs themselves. However, you’re the one teaching your dog what any particular sign means, so your made-up signs will work just as well. As with verbal commands, try to keep the signs distinct from each other. If the difference between “lie down” and “speak,” for example, is too subtle, it may be difficult for your dog to distinguish and they won’t understand what you’re asking them to do.
When it comes to recall, there are a few tricks people use. One is using a vibration collar with a remote control to get their attention. Something like this is not meant to punish a dog, but to communicate with them when they’re playing in a dog park or off-leash in a safe off-leash area. Another is using a flashlight. Naturally, that one works better at night than during the day, but a lot of people find it an effective way to signal their dog to come in from the yard. Both methods, of course, require diligent training- like any dog, your deaf dog won’t automatically understand what any signals mean and need you to teach them!
Things to watch out for
Deafness in pets can be a mixed blessing. While your hearing pets spend July 4th heavily drugged and quivering behind the toilet, your deaf ones are probably passed out, blissfully unaware of what the fuss is about.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t get scared. Keep in mind that, while a hearing dog will know you’re approaching before you’re there, it’s easy to inadvertently “sneak up” on a deaf pet. Petting them while they’re asleep or grabbing them from behind may startle them, which can lead some pets to nip or bite. That is no way to communicate with your deaf pet! Approach your deaf pets gently, from the front if possible. Nobody likes to be spooked!
While it can be great to have a deaf pet who has no fear of loud noises, sometimes a little caution is healthy. A happy, fearless deaf dog can gormlessly waltz right into danger more easily than a hearing one can. The middle of the road isn’t a great place to play for anyone, but if you can’t hear cars approaching, it’s just that much worse.
Living with a deaf pet may seem daunting, but once you fall into a routine, it’s just regular life! Deaf pets’ lives are no less happy or fulfilling than hearing pets and they’ve got plenty of love to give.
We may be called “4-Legged Kids,” but we’re here for the “tri-pawed” kids, too! Deaf or hearing, blind or sighted, four-, three-, or even two-, legged- we’ve seen it all! We’re here to help you meet your best buddies’ needs no matter what they are! Check out our “services” page for more information.
Janie founded 4-Legged Kids, Inc in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1997 and provides education through her PetBizHIVE podcast and her PetBizMBA membership and courses. She is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, Fear Free certified and a Certified Professional Pet Sitter. Learn more about the Founder, Janie Budnick.