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Key Points
  • Like their owners, dogs suffer from hearing and vision loss as they age.
  • Early signs can be subtle, but a few telltale clues can give an early warning.
  • There are ways to make life easier for elderly dogs with impaired eyes and ears.

Dogs entering their senior years suffer from failing vision and diminishing hearing, just like humans do. These conditions don’t typically cause pain. However, they can be disorienting and distressful for our aging pets. Owners can help by understanding the conditions and developing coping strategies for hearing and vision loss.

Hearing Impairment

Hearing impairment in dogs is due to damage and death of the hair cells of the inner ear. These cells pick up sound vibrations, generate a nerve impulse, and send it to the brain for interpretation. In people, we can sometimes blame loud noises for cell death. In dogs, we point at genetics or think of it as a consequence of aging. The loss is gradual, degrading slowly over several years.

When clients bring their dogs to me for a hearing problem, they often insist their dog has lost hearing overnight. Sometimes they think something is blocking the ear canal. I’ve looked in many ears, and I have yet to see a deafness-causing blockage. Just as in people, this is not a sudden loss, but rather a slow process.

Owners often miss the first stages of age-related hearing loss because dogs rarely give us clues. Also, in many cases, they lose particular frequencies first, which may make it hard to determine if their hearing is slipping. For example, a dog might hear the bass of a man’s voice but not a higher-pitched female voice.

Senior beagle lying down

It’s common for dogs to lose hearing more dramatically in one ear than another at first. When this happens, you might notice confusion after you call them. They’re not able to figure out where you are because the ears are not working together to pinpoint the source of the sound.

But, dogs can compensate as their hearing diminishes. They may rely on floor vibrations as you walk towards them or make a loud noise. In this case, you will see a difference if they are lying on carpet or a hard floor.

How can you tell if the hearing is gone? Test by snapping your fingers behind your dog’s head. Look for a startle or at least a glance at you. If there’s no reaction, try clapping your hands. If there is still no response, hearing ability is likely gone.

Our 14-year-old Courtney eventually suffered a total loss of hearing. It was getting harder and harder for her to hear, and we could “sneak” into the house without her knowing. We knew all her hearing was gone for good when she slept soundly through a booming thunderstorm.

Vision Loss

When dogs’ sight begins to slip, you might notice them bumping into things, acting hesitant to go down stairs, and having difficulty navigating the transition from sidewalk to the road.

Lighting can impact dogs’ ability to see. Dogs can run through the bush in the dark, where we would be falling and hitting trees. We can use this innate ability to test vision. Turn down the lighting to where you can just see, then put cardboard boxes in the hallway. If the dog walks into a box, they may have a vision problem.

Once we’ve identified a loss of vision, we need to find out why it’s there. Possible causes include:

Glaucoma: If the dog has both acute vision loss and painful red eyes, it may be related to glaucoma, which requires emergency treatment.

Cataracts: These white opacities in the lens of the eye block vision. They can arise in young dogs with a genetic predisposition, but later in life, they can be associated with diabetes. We normally don’t treat cataracts.

Nuclear sclerosis: This condition is a graying of the lens commonly seen in dogs over eight years old. Nuclear sclerosis does not block vision, but it can cause near-focusing issues.

Progressive retinal atrophy: PRA affects the back of the eye through the deterioration of the retina. This irreversible change takes a year or more to cause blindness, but it is a continually worsening condition.

Blind old dog

What Owners Can Do

If you have a dog suffering from vision loss, it isn’t a death sentence. I’ve seen completely blind dogs do well, as long as you don’t change their routine. They can go out in the fenced yard and then navigate back to the door by following landmarks. You can contain them with short plastic fences. Sounds may also be used for commands, rather than visual clues.

Older dogs may lose just part of their seeing ability. We can help these dogs out with good lighting. I had one patient who didn’t want to go out until the owner added a patio light where the stairs started to give the dog confidence. After that, he’d go out happily. A nightlight in the hallway can help.

Make sure you protect your dog by blocking off stairs with a baby gate. And, don’t move the furniture. Finally, keep in mind that your dog may be feeling anxiety while adjusting to a loss of senses, so speak with your veterinarian about ways to ease his stress, with or without medical intervention.

Dr. Jeff Grognet is a practicing veterinarian and has written more than 1,000 articles for newspapers and magazines. He also teaches courses for veterinary assistants and pet sitters. His book, Professional Pet Sitting for Love and Money, and the courses are available at veterinaryassistantlearningcenter.com.

This column first appeared in the September/October 2019 issue of AKC Family Dog magazine.

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