Seven secrets to living well with geriatric deafness in pets
One of the most frustrating ailments to afflict pets in their geriatric years is deafness. While humans can have high-tech hearing aids manufactured and even cochlear implants applied, pets are not yet offered such technological niceties.
Despite the advances we now take for granted in human medicine, treating hearing loss is astoundingly complex and, in pets, is hampered not only by the cost of such treatments and the vagaries of their application (would most pets tolerate something in their ears?) but by the ability to accurately test and re-test for auditory acuity.
For that reason, most vets accept that geriatric deafness is a degenerative neurologic disorder that’s genetically predetermined, unavoidable and irreversible—at least for now. But that doesn’t mean that hearing loss isn’t amenable to treatments that might actually help animals live comfortable lives in spite of their deafness.
To that end here’s a checklist of issues to consider and tips to try in the event your pet should start to lose her hearing:
1-Is it deafness or selective hearing?
That may sound cold but it’s not unusual for owners to interpret other maladies as deafness. Arthritic pets, for example, will ignore auditory cues they once rallied for. If it’s harder to get up and they know you’re coming in anyway they’ll be less likely to charge the door upon your arrival.
Similarly, the common signs of dementia (AKA, cognitive dysfunction) can have a thing or two to do with it. Sleep/wake cycle and other cognitive disturbances can disorganize internal recognition patterns so that auditory cues miss their mark.
And how about a lifetime of chronic external ear infections? The more severe manifestations of this skin disease can have tremendous effects on the middle ear and even on the workings of the inner ear, where the hearing apparatus lives. Ten years’ worth of unattended wax can muffle sounds, too.
2-Time to call the vet
As soon as you notice signs of hearing loss, take your pet to the vet for a full physical examination, including a neurologic exam and thorough ear canal visualization (the latter is easier said than done and may require sedation). Complete bloodwork is also recommended as a few infectious and metabolic diseases can manifest in ways that simulate deafness.
CT scans and MRIs of the brain would be nice but most vets won’t float the possibility of a brain tumor or any other intervention-worthy nervous system disorder until other neurological symptoms arrive alongside the hearing loss (unless it comes on very suddenly).
3-Don’t give up
If geriatric deafness is the likely diagnosis, don’t despair. Remember, treating deafness directly may not be possible, but treating the symptoms that accompany it is.
4-Ask for help…early in the process
Don’t know what to do now? You’re not alone. The thing to know is that the earlier you ask for help the better off he’ll be for having been granted the time necessary to adapt to this life change in a positive and communicative way.
5-Enlist the help of your vet, a high-quality trainer and/or a veterinary behaviorist
The ways in which professionals can help you are seemingly endless. While vets can give you tips (establish a solid routine, train to follow hand signals, use visual or motion cues such as flashing lights or thumping on the floor to signal important events, consider using high-pitched dog whistles which can sometimes still be heard, etc.), trainers and behaviorists can help you put these into practice.
6-Don’t discount the influence of other geriatric factors
Hearing loss is tough—especially because of the issues I mentioned in #1. It’s just so hard to know how much other geriatric issues influence the changes you’re seeing. Keeping an open mind to the way arthritis, dementia, blindness and other geriatric maladies can contribute to the signs of deafness is essential. Addressing all the problems in a holistic manner is crucial to attaining the highest level of comfort possible for your pet.
7-Accept the positives so you can enjoy your deaf pets
At the risk of coming off as callous, let me just suggest that deafness in pets is not always 100% unwelcome. Sad as you may find the aging process, every stage of life has its positives. Perhaps she’s not as easily riled by the mail carrier. Maybe the thunderstorms bother him less. The physiologic changes of aging clearly have an evolutionary purpose. Perhaps it’s not all bad…right?
Do/did you have a deaf pet? Tell us how you deal/dealt with it…