“I can’t hear you, but I won’t love you any less. I’m just like any other pet. I can see the compassion in your eyes and I notice the way you turn back to give me a second look. Won’t you adopt me and give me a home? I promise, I see you.” — soulful deaf dog
Animals of all species are highly adaptable at their core, born with the natural resilience to tough through changes in circumstance, health concerns, and outside conflicts with far greater patience and grace than their human counterparts. While for some pets this can mean anything from adapting to new surroundings during a move or learning to accept a new family member, or other pets, they must grow accustomed to physical handicaps, such as deafness and blindness, the same way people do, and embrace their unique challenges — which, according to Deaf Dogs Rock, are more often bonuses than anything!
Today, in honor of Deaf Dog Awareness Week, we’re celebrating our happy, playful, and huggable hearing-impaired companions of every shape, size, and species. Here’s what you need to know:
Causes of Deafness
The causes of deafness varies not only from animal to animal, but species to species. Most often, genetics are the culprit from birth — called congenital deafness — but in other cases, injury, drug reactions, or old age can contribute as well. For dogs in particular, while there are certain breeds more prone to deafness, like Dalmatians, the most prevalent characteristic is actually unrelated to breed: head color. The lack of pigment on the head/face causes the cells in the inner ear to remain undeveloped, or remain nonexistent. This lack of pigment cells causes the death of the nerve cells that need to develop for hearing to occur. However, fully white dogs don’t seem to show any greater propensity for deafness, and nor does a white face make hearing defects a certainty.
In cats, chronic ear infections can be the blame, often caused by ear mites — something kitties are particularly susceptible to due to their upright ears. White kitties with blue eyes are nearly always born deaf; however, in every animal, deafness can be accelerated by prolonged exposure to loud noises — like gunshots — as well as old age.
Recognizing Hearing Loss/Deafness
Whether your pet is aging or has been through an injury and/or series of medical treatments, watching your beloved animal lose their hearing is difficult to watch. To help, here are some signs to look for to identify if your new companion is deaf, or long-time buddy is losing their hearing.
- Unresponsive to everyday sounds
- Unresponsive to its name
- Unresponsive to the sounds of squeaky toys
- Not woken by loud noises
PetMD suggests a series of at-home tests to check your pet’s hearing, and to be sure they are not just a sound sleeper. For extra assurance, a BAER test (brainstem auditory evoked response) can be administered by a professional.
In some cases, treatment is possible with pet hearing aids or medical procedures to reduce swelling of the inner ear, a common cause of deafness in animals. But even when treatment is not an option, there is little cause for concern. Like humans, animals compensate for hearing loss by relying more on their other senses, watching people and other pets more closely, and taking cues from their owner’s behavior; in fact, they often adjust to the change more easily than their owners. So while deaf pets may struggle to control their vocal volume, and some will even become mute — all will communicate in their own unique way and enjoy the same quality of life as any other full-hearing pet.
The stigma that deaf pets — dogs in particular — can become aggressive when startled and are likewise impossible to train is an unfortunate myth. Deaf cats, rats, birds, and pets of every species are actually highly responsive to training and can master all of the commands that hearing pets can. Often, these commands are even more impressive, though, because they can be administered in sign language.
Love and patience are the first steps to communicating with a deaf animal. As a caring pet parent, it can be heartbreaking to have your companion no longer respond the way they used to, but it is important that you not let any frustration show as this can be a step backwards during training.
Animals rely on vision just as much as they do movement, and can pick up cues in your body language just as they can tune into vocal inflections to understand your mood. Just one of their many superpowers! Which means effectively training a deaf pet simply takes a combination of visual cues with sensory rewards. Rather than vocal commands, using a flashlight, pointer, or combination of hand signals, foot stomps (for vibration), and treats can make training a deaf pet no more difficult than any other pet. Vibration collars can also be used to soothe vocal kitties, as well as train your deaf pet.
For more help with training or handling a deaf pet, the Deaf Dog Action Education Fund (DDAEF) is a group that specializes in providing education and funding for the purpose of improving and/or saving the lives of deaf dogs. They also have fantastic training tips that can be used on other species as well.
- Identification: Microchip your pet and have them wear an ID tag with “Deaf” noted on it. Additionally, you can also purchase collars or bandanas for your pet to wear that alerts strangers of your animal’s hearing impairment.
- Location: Attach a locator pendant or small bell to your pet’s collar. The pendant emits a tone when the handheld applicator is activated to help you find your deaf animal if necessary.
- Safety: Never let a deaf pet outside unsupervised. The animal will not be able to hear cars or other dangers, and won’t have the ability to react instinctively to protect themselves. If you want your pet to spend time outdoors, teach them to walk with a harness and leash, or keep them in a safely enclosed area. Your pet’s immediate indoor environment may also need to be monitored for its own safety, and household members and guests will need to be cautious of alarming or unintentionally startling the animal, which could provoke an unwanted reaction.
- Socialization: While it’s true that deaf pets can benefit from having a hearing companion, it is by no means essential. However, they do require extra love and attention in order to keep from getting bored in the silence. If you feel that your pet is lonely, consider adopting another pet to keep them company, or (for deaf dogs), make trips to the local dog park a regular event.
- Awareness: Alert your pet to your comings and goings by touching him gently (if he’s not sleeping, that is) when you enter or leave a room. To train against startling your pet, touch them gently and give them a treat when they turn. If your floor is not carpeted, you may also warn your dog of your approach by stepping more heavily as you enter a room or approach.
- Comfort: Touch or pet your cat when you are talking, so that your cat will feel the vibration of your hand as you speak.
- Affection: Make time every day to pet, cuddle and play with your cat. Hearing-impaired cats need company. The warmth of your hands is soothing to them in a silent world.
- Sensory Play: Offer your pet a variety of toys and activities to occupy their time. Deaf animals have other senses — touch, smell, taste and vision — that can and should be engaged for optimal health and happiness. Be creative.
A Success Story
“I’ve been the proud owner of many rats over the years. One of the most amazing and challenging rats I’ve owned and trained was Brutus. He was a big black rat that screamed when he was picked up and quaked under a human’s touch. It was the oddest behavior I’ve ever seen in a rat. He only seemed truly comfortable in his cage with his partner. Despite shying away from being picked up, he enjoyed being stroked. Then one day, he bit me.
It was unexpected and it startled me, but I kept still and simply observed his behavior. He licked the wound as a rat might do with another in its group. While he cleaned the area, I wondered why he had bitten me and why he behaved so differently than past rats. What was so different today?
It was simple; he hadn’t faced me before I pet him. Thinking on it, he only seemed to pay me mind when the door swung too far open or I set something in the cage and walked my hand towards him. After some testing it was soon confirmed: Brutus was deaf. Likely he had been deaf since before I got him.
Despite the challenge this added to handling and basic training, we managed to get through both. With patience and yummy cream cheese, he came to recognize that cupped hands meant he was soon going to be scooped up. If I tapped on the floor near him, I was trying to get his attention and wanted him to come to me. It was just as much training for me as I learned how best to keep him feeling safe to avoid myself or another being bit by a startled Brutus.
Brutus was deaf and behaved oddly, but with time and patience we moved past the obstacles and he became a happy lap rat.”
Adopting a Deaf Pet
Deaf dogs, cats, and other animals make wonderful pets and family members, and those who have deaf pets say it’s not that much different from having one who can hear. While all too often people will feel sorry for a deaf animal, and may pass one up in a shelter, there’s no need! Exceptionally in tune with their owners, deaf pets are fully equipped with everything they need to live healthy, happy lives — they just need a home to call their own with someone like you who cares a whole awful lot.
There are a number of rescue groups who focus on deaf animal rescue and adoption:
- Deaf Dogs Rock is an awesome non-profit charity that helps find deaf dogs forever homes.
- Pets With Disabilities adopts out specially-abled pets of every kind.
- One Green Planet has a list of rescues that specialize in saving special needs pets.
At KirinGie.Me, we believe every pet deserves a loving forever home, regardless of age or disability.