Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Hearing impairment is often overlooked or ignored in companion animal health care. Deafness is not quite as obvious as blindness, inappetance, being lame, or being incontinent. It often is not quite as much of bother to us that our pets can't hear; after all, many of them have had selective hearing for years. Yet hearing loss is quite common in older pets. And hearing loss, especially complete loss, can have a profound impact on a pet's ability to interact with the world.
Tips for supporting pet's with hearing loss:
- First, make sure there's no treatable cause for your pet's hearing loss. Accumulation of fur, ear debris, and ear mites can interfere with hearing, as can ear infections, ear polyps, and sinus infections. Keep in mind that certain drugs can occasionally affect hearing. Check with your veterinarian if your pet is taking a prescription and appears have a sudden change in hearing.
- Introduce or reintroduce hand signals. Dogs educated in both verbal and sign languages are more versatile as they age. Hand signals do require that you catch your dog's visual attention before you give a command. Strongly scented treats can help in getting and holding a pet's attention, and can be used to direct their eyes where you want them. Solicit the help of a trainer if you are uncertain about how to teach your old dog new tricks.
- For pets that have not completely lost their hearing, certain tones or sounds can be more easily perceived than others. Clapping seems to be a sound that animals respond to in early stages of hearing loss. In different cases, a rattle, a bell, or whistle might work.
- Vibrations can also be used to communicate. Unless you have a solid concrete foundation beneath the floor or your home, stomping on the floor creates vibrations that can tell a pet where you are in the house.
- Familiarity begets trust and you don't need to yell. I learned this from my Fujimoto grandfather and grandmother. In his mid-nineties, Grandpa had lost most of his hearing. Everyone except my grandmother would speak loudly enough to reach the back of the auditorium without a microphone and he wouldn't attend. Grandma would gently tap on his shoulder and whisper in his ear and he would nod and follow her lead.
- Touch is another way to get your hearing impaired pet's attention or to help guide them. Light and gentle touches are often all that is necessary to guide a senior pet.
- Deaf animals sleep more soundly than hearing animals and even light touches can really startle them and make them jump. Gently blowing in an ear from a foot away will more gracefully rouse a sleeping pet. So will putting a smelly treat a few inches away from their sleeping nose. It's kind of cute to see your animal companion wake up nose first.
- Sometimes other pets serve as hearing animals for deaf animals, which helps keep the hearing impaired pet attuned to what is happening in the environment.
- Keep them safe, especially outside.
- Older pets often sleep under cars. Pets that are deaf will not hear you rattle the keys or start the engine. Every year, pets are rolled over in their own driveway, often by someone who loves them dearly and didn't mean to injure them. Know where your pet is EVERY TIME you start the car.
- Deaf pets will be oblivious to any verbal warnings or threats that another animal or human (strangers in particular) is communicating and may not respond appropriately. Be prepared to intervene on your pet's behalf.
- Use a leash if there is any chance of danger around the corner. Your dog will not hear that car approaching. warn
- Deaf animal companions require mental stimulation. Shortly after my dog completely lost his hearing, I realized that he was sleeping all the time. When he could no longer hear someone approaching, the garage door opening, the birds dropping food on the floor -- all of those sounds that used to prompt him to get up and investigate something or other throughout the day -- he just slept and his brain got dull and his vitality waned. "This is not living; this will not do!" said I. And set about new ways to engage his mind.
- Engage them through touch: tickles, stretches, massage. Gently tease them by touching a toe, or a whisker.
- Engage them through outings: For me, there was the daily "sacred hour of the dog." Walks on the beach, wading in tide pools, drive through cheeseburger, wandering in the forest, pig's ear from the pet store, pooch parade, street bazaars (lots of treats there!), communing in the orchard . . .
- Engage them through indoor games: Few cats can resist that feather on string on a stick, especially when there's a human making it vibrate right in front of them. Ditto with flash lights. Lay a trail of kibble or treats. Hide them in your pockets. Play peek-a-boo with blankets. Play hide and seek. Enjoy your time together.