It was odd the first time it happened. My dog, an aging Lhasa Apso, failed to greet me at the door. I found him snoozing in the middle of the living room and tapped him on the head. In a flash, he popped up onto his feet and regained his usual wriggling enthusiasm. Clearly, he was still excited to see me (my ego breathed a sigh of relief). He must have been in an unusually deep sleep, I figured. But then it happened again a few days later, and eventually became the reliable way of things. He simply couldn’t hear me anymore.
Even boiled down to its most basic mechanics, hearing is remarkable. Sound waves strike the eardrum, causing it to vibrate. In turn, those vibrations are transmitted through a series of minuscule bones (imaginatively called the hammer, anvil and stirrup) and into the cochlea, a spiral-shaped chamber lined with thousands of tiny hairs. These hairs convert the vibrations into electrical signals that the brain can then use to divine an astonishing amount of information, filtering background noise, separating overlapping sounds and inferring direction and distance. All of this from subtle vibrations in the air.
It is reasonable to expect that such an intricate system might suffer some wear with age, and it does. This gradual degradation—called presbycusis—happens in people and dogs alike.
Cats, ever the contrarians, are considerably less prone. As this process advances, sound becomes muffled and some frequencies may be lost entirely. Although it doesn’t happen all at once, many animals are so good at accommodating for the loss that owners still perceive a sudden onset when they finally notice.
There are other conditions that could masquerade as presbycusis, which is why it’s wise to get any pet checked out if it’s showing signs of hearing loss. Ear infections are the most common, and can jam up the ears with swelling and discharge. More severe infections can break through the eardrum and directly affect the deeper machinery of the ear. Whether hearing can be salvaged depends on the case, but these conditions are painful regardless, and warrant attention.
If no other problems are found, then age-related hearing loss is essentially untreatable. While advanced options like hearing aids and cochlear implants might be theoretically possible, they would be unjustifiably expensive and impractical. When it comes down to it, deaf animals are quite happy. They don’t ever feel left out of conversation, and they don’t struggle to follow the dialogue in a film. I’ve even known a few anxiety-riddled dogs who seemed to benefit from the quiet, no longer fixating on every thump in the night.
The inability to hear your voice can disrupt normal communication, but dogs have a remarkable facility with hand signals, and can be taught to respond to those instead. If these gestures were already incorporated into training at an earlier age, so much the better. And it’s important to remember that affected animals simply can’t hear the dangers around them, whether an approaching car or an unfriendly dog, and need to be kept safely indoors, fenced or on-leash.
Hearing loss is a normal part of aging for many pets, but it isn’t so bad. A few small lifestyle tweaks are easy enough, and you may find your relationship growing as you experiment with new ways of communicating and understanding one another.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
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