Deafness in Dogs and Associated Problems


Hearing loss in German Shepherd

Question: Hello Dr. Richards,

I have a 9 year old spayed female GSD.

She is on Rimadyl 75mg 2x a day for lumbosacralstenosis invading the lower spinal column (I hope I got that right) as well as stiffness in her back legs due to injury in a car accident. She has been on it for about 4 years with good results. A complete analysis was recently done on her blood and everything was normal.

She is also on 50mg PPA 2x a day for urine leakage, she has been on that for about 8 months with good results. I also give her 2 tabs of glucosamine chondroitin a day in an effort to keep her hips in good condition.

She is sweet natured and has always been very responsive, we got a puppy 6 months ago and she responded with energy we thought she had forever lost, it's like having two puppies sometimes.

Over the past two years my husband and I have wondered if she is suffering from some sort of intermittent hearing loss. It is particularly noticeable right now, if you are out of sight and she has no visual clues (such as our other dog responding to me) she seems to have not heard her name at all. I am willing to accept that she may have behaviorally selective hearing but I'd like to rule out anything physical.

Is it possible for a dog to have intermittent hearing loss, or hearing loss for a range of tones? Is there anything we can do at home to better evaluate her hearing ability? Is there a standard veterinary procedure for testing hearing? She has had only three ear infections her entire life and they were quite mild.

Also, I am considering having her anals removed while they, and she, are in good health. They have been a chronic problem often requiring antibiotic treatment and have progressively worsened inspite of regular expression and close monitoring. I am concerned that the stress of the extended vet visit will cause her bleeding ulcers (this happened when she was boarded at the vet previously - it was a horrible and very bloody experience and took her weeks to recover) Do you have any recommendations on limiting Rimadyl use before the procedure, or any additional pharmaceuticals I should ask my veterinarian about for protecting her stomach ?


ps. Your site was invaluable when we were nursing our new rescued kitten Henry back to health from chronic bowel problems, you always seemed to have the answers to the questions we forgot to ask the vet, or didn't know to ask in the first place. It turns out he needed to be fed very small increments several times a day to avoid diarrhea. So simple, yet so elusive!

Answer: Angelique-

Hearing loss is extremely hard to evaluate in dogs. Your impression that it is present is probably as good a test as any, except for a specialized procedure referred to as brain auditory evoked response (BAER) testing, which can be done by most veterinary neurologists. Sometimes it is possible to identify a problem, such as otitis media (middle ear infection) with a careful otoscopic examination. This may require the use of anesthesia in some patients but it would be possible to do this at the time of the anal sac surgery, if anesthesia is necessary. Computerized tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are usually considered to be the optimum procedures for identifying inner ear infections but in some cases it is possible to see an infection in the inner ear on X-rays taken with the film positioned behind the pet's head and the X-ray tube placed so that the X-rays pass through the open mouth. Obviously, this also requires anesthesia, since it isn't possible to ask a pet to keep its mouth open and positioned properly for the X-rays to be taken. I don't think that inner ear infections are a common enough cause of deafness to pursue this kind of workup for most pets we suspect are hearing impaired but intermittent and/or very sudden onset deafness make me suspicious enough to at least be sure I can see the ear drum and evaluate the middle ear otoscopically.

Some dogs with allergies that affect the middle ear and close off the eustachian tube are reported to have diminished hearing that improves with the use of corticosteroids or antihistamines to control the ear inflammation. I can recall one patient whose hearing improved rapidly when we used prednisone to treat a different condition but that is the sole success story that I can remember involving this possibility.

We do not withdraw Rimadyl when we do surgery, in all cases. I do think that it probably isn't a bad idea to stop the medication for two or three days prior to surgery but I don't consider it to be essential and we have some patients who need the pain relief badly enough that I feel bad stopping it. So far, we have not had problems when we chose not to stop the Rimadyl except for the morning of the surgery but that may just be luck. I would think that this would be worth asking your vet about with the history of ulcers on a previous hospitalization. If that isn't possible, using a gastrointestinal protectant, like famotidine (Pepcid AC tm) would seem to be prudent and perhaps even anti-anxiety medications like diazepam (Valium Rx) or alprazolam (Xanax Rx).

We send our patients who have had anal sac surgery home on the day of the surgery. This has not caused any complications that I am aware of in our patients. I do think that this procedure might produce good benefits in a German shepherd with a history of anal sac disease, since this often seems to contribute to perianal fistula formation later in life and if that can be avoided it would be worth doing so.

I don't see any reason not to test for hearing loss but we don't refer for it very often because if we have ruled out infection and inflammation as potential causes to the best of our ability it is unlikely that the hearing testing will be of value in figuring out a treatment plan. It does confirm that a problem exists and some of our clients find that worthwhile, but I can't remember a patient in which testing revealed something that was treatable. It is important to figure out what you want from testing for this reason, prior to deciding to do it.

Good luck with all of this.

Mike Richards, DVM 1/25/2002

Sudden biting in Deaf dog

Question: Dear Dr. Mike,

My neighbour adopted a stray American Eskimo from a shelter about seven months ago. She's about three years old, now spayed, and totally deaf, with a chronic infection in one ear. The shelter didn't know she was deaf. She's housebroken and not destructive, but doesn't know any hand signs, so communicating with her is difficult.

Most of the time she acts like a normal happy affectionate young dog who just can't hear. But once in a while she snaps or bites. Usually the biting is sudden, with a curl of the lip but not much growling or warning. She has bitten technicians at the vet, members of her own family, and visitors to the house. So far, no children, and nothing that needed medical attention. But it seems to be happening more often.

We can't always figure out what triggered the biting. Sometimes it seems to be fear, at the vet for example. Or when someone reaches over her head from the back and she doesn't know they are there. But other times, she can be lying peacefully being petted by one person, and when another person approaches to pet her, she snaps at the second person. Sometimes she snaps at the person doing the petting. She fights with other dogs over food.

Is there anything that can be done? Right now, it looks like ten or twelve years of being very careful and constantly warning all who approach to keep their distance.

In your experience, can a deaf dog past puppyhood be successfully trained to read hand signs and behave in a trustworthy manner? Do you think she's skittish and unreliable because she's deaf, or is she more likely an untrained dog who has figured out that she can control people?

Our vet says that if she can't be muzzled she should be put down. She'll accept a muzzle at home for a minute, but not in the car or in the vet's waiting room.

Is this a losing battle, or do you think there's any hope for smoothing out the potentially dangerous rough spots in this otherwise delightful dog?

Answer: Ferne- Sudden biting behaviors do scare me the most when dealing with the potential problems of a biting dog. Predictable biting can often be avoided just by learning to avoid the triggering stimuli for it. This may seem like a cop out but it generally works. Unpredictable biting is dangerous and I do tend to agree with your veterinarian that it is a situation in which euthanasia is an option to consider.

I have seen several of my patients develop the tendency to snap suddenly when startled as they became deaf or blind in old age. I think that this occurs in dogs that have a fearful personality but react to fear with aggression. They are easier to sneak up on, even unintentionally, so it is possible to startle them, causing sudden fear and the reaction of aggression or snapping.

It is possible, in many instances, with extreme dedication, to provide behavioral and/or medical therapy that helps control the aggression. However, it is a big responsibility, it involves careful attention to detail and it is not a sure thing. If your neighbor is very dedicated to this dog and wishes to pursue treatment it really is best to work with a board certified veterinary behaviorist, even if it takes a lot of effort to find one. If this is not possible, a certified animal behaviorist or veterinarian with a strong interest in behavior would be good second choices. A third choice is to utilize the Tufts University behavioral web site service in which they assist with behavioral problems online. The only other option that I can think of is to purchase a good behavioral text, such as Karen Overall's book on clinical behavioral medicine and work with it and your vet to try to find a solution.

I do know of people who have taught hand signals to older dogs and I think that is possible, to help with part of the problem. It does take some patience but can usually be accomplished.

The biting behavior when other dogs approach and she is being petted, and the tendency to bite while being petted, both imply that there may be a dominance behavior component to the aggression, as well. It is not too uncommon for dogs to have aggressive tendencies due to more than one personality trait, since the aggression is a tool that they have learned to use. Just like people, who often apply the same behaviors to all the tasks they are faced with, dogs that learn one technique for dealing with life will often try to apply it to multiple situations. Dealing with dominance aggression is also a lifelong project but it seems to be more controllable than fear based aggression in many instances.

The basic question for most people, at the beginning of the process of dealing with aggression, is how committed they are to the process. If everyone in the family is not going to be able to help with the behavioral modification or if the fear of being bitten weakens the commitment to the process of dealing the aggressive tendencies, then it may be best to consider euthanasia. This is particularly true if there is significant risk of a child being exposed to a biting situation, because children have more risk of a serious injury.

I know this isn't a clear cut answer. It is a difficult situation and I am not a behaviorist. I do know that dealing with this situation is going to take a lifelong commitment to the process (the dog's life span) and the first step is deciding if that is going to be something that your neighbor can handle.

I do hope this helps some.

Mike Richards, DVM 1/9/2001

Last edited 01/31/05


Michael Richards, D.V.M. co-owns a small animal general veterinary practice in rural tidewater Virginia. Dr. Richards graduated from Iowa State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, and has been in private practice ever since. Dr. Richards has been the director of the PetCare Forum...