Search Menu

It is estimated that beween 5% and 10% of dogs in the U.S. struggle with deafness. But what exactly is deafness in dogs?

Deafness in dogs refers to a partial or complete loss of hearing in one ear (called unilateral hearing loss) or both ears (bilateral hearing loss). Some dogs are born without the ability to hear due to a genetic defect. For other dogs, deafness may occur through the natural aging process. Canine hearing loss may also be the result of an infection or a traumatic injury.

If you suspect that your dog is experiencing hearing loss, it’s important to have them examined by a veterinarian to determine the cause and what, if any, treatments your dog needs. The sooner your dog is seen by a vet, the better their chances of recovering some hearing function and having a good quality of life.

What Causes Deafness in Dogs?

Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, DVM, says that deafness refers to the total or nearly complete loss of hearing. In contrast, hearing impairment tends to be a milder condition referring to when dog can’t hear as well as they once did. Deafness can be hereditary or acquired.

Australian Shepherd puppy laying down in a bed.
©thejokercze -

Hereditary Deafness in Dogs

The most common type of canine deafness is hereditary deafness. Hereditary deafness means the dog inherited genetic mutations that caused their deafness. Usually, canine hereditary deafness is also congenital, meaning the dog has been deaf since birth.

Hereditary deafness is often caused by cochleosaccular deafness. Either unilateral or bilateral, cochleosaccular deafness is associated with certain coat colors and patterns, says Dr. Erin Rakosky, DVM. Often, dogs with mutations for piebald or merle coats are affected. Cochleosaccular deafness is seen more in association with blue eyes and white pigment on their coats.

You can observe cochleosaccular deafness in dogs that are between 1 and 3 weeks old. “It occurs most commonly in breeds such as the Dalmatian and Australian Shepherd but can be seen in many other breeds as well,” Dr. Whittenburg says.

Another type of hereditary deafness, neuroepithelial deafness, isn’t associated with coat patterns. Neuroepithelial deafness usually results from losing cochlear hair cells in the ear. It usually impacts both ears and, like cochleosaccular deafness, is noticeable when a puppy is between 1 and 3 weeks old.

The dignified Dalmatian, dogdom’s citizen of the world, is famed for their spotted coat and unique job description.
Autumn Theodore Photography ©American Kennel Club

Acquired Deafness in Dogs

Dr. Whittenburg explains that there are numerous possible causes for acquired deafness in dogs, including “severe and chronic ear infections, brain lesions — tumors and other diseases — endocrine disorders, and aging. Some medications can be toxic to the ears and cause gradual deafness that becomes permanent. However, some animals may regain hearing over time, Dr. Rakosky says.

Many older dogs develop deafness. It typically starts with the loss of ability to hear mid-level to high-level frequencies and eventually leads to the inability to hear any frequencies.

How Can You Tell if Your Dog Has a Hearing Problem?

Typically, dogs that are bilaterally deaf from a young age are easy to recognize. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Not responsive to verbal commands (like calling them or saying their name)
  • Barking loudly and excessively
  • Not lifting their head in response to squeaky dog toys or a doorbell
  • Hard to wake up when they’re sleeping
  • Don’t acknowledge you when you arrive home
  • Not reacting to the sound of other dogs barking
Puppy being trained in the grass.
©LaineNeimane -

Puppies with hereditary deafness don’t react to noises like other dogs who startle easily, bark, or follow the source of the sound. “For older dogs, you may notice their hearing is getting less sensitive over time,” says Dr. Linda Simon, MVB, MRCVS. “So, they may respond to loud noises but not quieter or more subtle ones.”

It may be more difficult to diagnose deafness in dogs that are unilaterally deaf or that become deaf later in life. A dog with unilateral deafness will have difficulty locating where a sound is coming from. So you may be able to recognize they’re deaf in on ear if they typically orient themselves towards the good ear (meaning they rely on the ear in which they still have hearing function).

How Is Deafness in Dogs Diagnosed?

If you think your dog might have hearing loss, there’s a simple way to check. First, make sure they don’t know you’re in the room. Next, shake your keys or make a beeping noise from behind them, Dr. Simon says. “If they prick their ears or look towards the noise, we know they can hear,” she adds. Doing this test at home can give you a baseline of their hearing. But to get a proper clinical diagnosis, a veterinarian will need to examine your dog.

To evaluate your dog, the “veterinarian will conduct testing during the exam to gauge the dog’s ability to hear,” Dr. Whittenburg says. For instance, the vet will stand where the dog can’t see them and make sounds of different pitches to see if the dog responds. “However, this is a crude and somewhat unreliable test, so if there is a need to more accurately assess your dog’s hearing, your veterinarian will likely refer you to a specialist that can conduct brainstem auditory evoked response — BAER — testing,” she adds.

German Shepherd Dog getting a check-up at the vet.
©New Africa -

BAER testing is the gold standard in deafness diagnosis. It works by detecting electrical activity in the cochlea (a snail-shaped structure located in the inner ear which transmits sound waves) and auditory pathways in the brain. A veterinarian or veterinary neurologist will place small electrodes on the dog’s head and then send a stimulus click through foam earpieces. The expert tests each ear individually, measuring brain waves in response to sounds, Dr. Whittenburg says. If you suspect your dog is deaf, you can contact your veterinarian to locate the nearest facility that offers BAER testing.

What Can You Do to Treat Canine Hearing Loss?

Unfortunately, there aren’t many effective treatments available for deafness in dogs. Some breed clubs may recommend or require BAER testing for breeding animals and puppies. Many breeders of dogs with hereditary deafness will also choose to BAER test their breeding animals and puppies, or they may not breed dogs with hereditary deafness. “Susceptible litters can be checked at about 6 weeks of age,” Dr. Simon says.

Breeders may also choose not to breed dogs with merle coats to one another, which may produce a double merle. Dogs with this coat pattern may suffer from a variety of health issues, including deafness.

Another strategy to prevent canine deafness is limiting your dog’s exposure to loud noises (like music or gunfire), heavy metals (like or mercury or lead), and ototoxic drugs. Examples of ototoxic drugs are certain antibiotics, antimalarials, and chemotherapy medications, and they can often lead to irreversible hearing loss.

Sometimes, deafness is caused by another issue entirely. “If deafness is caused by another health condition, such as ear infections or endocrine diseases, the issue should be promptly treated and controlled in order to avoid permanent hearing loss,” Dr. Whittenburg says. Typically, this involves cleaning out the dog’s ear using a medicated cleanser or wipes and administering prescription ear drops. With severe infections, the vet may prescribe oral antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications. “Once successfully treated, hearing may return,” she says. However, Dr. Whittenburg adds that “most dogs that are deaf will remain that way.”

Irish Water Spaniel wearing a harness standing in a field off leash.
Julie Morrish/Shutterstock

While hearing aids for people have been around for over a century, dog hearing aids are still considered an emerging technology, Dr. Simon explains. “Hearing aids aren’t going to work for all dogs, and they are very costly,” she adds. Similarly, cochlear implants are also expensive, and not all dogs will tolerate them.

What Can I Do to Keep My Deaf Dog Safe and Happy?

Most dogs with hearing issues cope well with their disability and are very trainable. Deaf dogs can even compete in some AKC sports. However, dogs who experience deafness need to have a dedicated owner, Dr. Rakosky says. Their owners must be willing to adjust their training techniques and learn a new means of communicating with their dog. For example, you can teach your dog hand gesture commands in place of verbal cues or clicker training. It’s also wise to exercise caution when waking a dog to avoid alarming them.

Since they can startle easily, dogs with deafness aren’t well-suited to families with young children. Outdoor safety is especially critical for a dog who can’t hear a car approaching. Make sure to have them on a dog leash or keep them in a secure area like an enclosed balcony or a fully fenced yard, Dr. Whittenburg says. Microchipping your dog and putting an ID tag with updated information on the dog’s collar is also a good idea.

Dogs with congenital deafness have never experienced anything different. So they tend to adapt well to a noiseless world, Dr. Simon says. With respect to acquired deafness, keep in mind that hearing loss is often a normal part of the aging process. “Dogs who are deaf do not have to experience a worse quality of life,” she adds.
Get Your Free AKC eBook

Tips for Responsible Dog Owners

This e-book is a great resource for anyone who's considering dog ownership or already owns a dog. Download for tips on how to be the best dog owner you can be.
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download
*Turn off pop-up blocker to download