Congenital or acquired hearing loss isn’t that uncommon in pets, particularly cats and dogs, and it doesn’t have to be a major impediment to quality of life. Most deaf pets have full and happy lives as long as their guardians take a few extra steps to keep them safe. Unlike in humans, both cats and dogs rely heavily on sight, smell and touch, and these senses quickly compensate for hearing loss, especially when paired with vigilant help from a handy human — hearing or not. Here are 5 tips on
Whether an animal is hard of hearing or totally deaf, calling, using a clicker or talking clearly won’t have much of an effect when it comes to training or asking your pet to do something like get off the counter or sit and stay. That’s when gestures and body language become very important, and many deaf pets pick things up very easily, especially if they’ve been deaf since birth. Always use your body along with your hands — keep your face open, relaxed and friendly when you’re reinforcing a behavior, and frown when you’re telling a pet not to do something, for example.
Sign language isn’t just for humans. You can adapt key signs from American Sign Language (like “sit” or “come here”) or you can make up your own, but make sure everyone in the household is familiar with them, and avoid making them too similar to casual gestures, because you don’t want to confuse your pets. Make sure your gestures are big, too — think about signing to a dog from across the yard, or signaling to a pesky cat across the kitchen. As with other kinds of animal training, identify the desired behavior, pair it with a sign, and give the animal a treat as positive reinforcement. Some people use something that flashes, like a keychain flashlight, just like a clicker.
Sometimes gestures won’t do it, and you need to pull out the big guns. It’s a good idea to save them for emergencies, so animals understand that they need to pay attention to something that could endanger them. Examples might include a deaf cat that’s about to step on the stove, or a dog that’s headed for the street. A squirter can be useful in these settings. You can also use a laser pointer or other light to direct or redirect a pet’s attention, and some people find vibrating collars useful as well.
2) Interacting with children
Children should be taught about interacting safely and gently with animals from an early age. However, deaf pets require some additional considerations. Because they can’t hear and may not be as alert to their surroundings, they could be startled or upset by a child who suddenly appears on the scene. Kids should learn to tap their feet or hands to let an animal know they’re approaching, and to avoid petting an animal from behind with no warning, which is a good idea anyway! Instead, kids should approach deaf animals from the front so cats and dogs will see them coming, before kneeling and extending a hand for the pet to smell. Once a pet feels oriented and safe, a child can pet her—but gently!
3) Street smarts
Deaf animals should never go outside unsupervised — and really, no pets should go outside without an escort. For them, it’s especially dangerous, because they can’t hear traffic, people and other threats. However, they can totally learn to walk safely on a leash with their people. Make sure to teach them critical hand gestures and test drive them in a safe spot first, though, and buy a suitable harness that will allow you to gently pull on your pet’s lead without choking her. You’ll need to be able to communicate that way in a situation where your pet might be in danger, such as when a car careens across the street or a stray ball flies by in the park.
4) Health concerns
Deafness itself is not a health risk. However, if a pet was born deaf, it might be a sign of a genetic condition that could have other implications — for example, many white cats are deaf, and many of them are sensitive to cancer on their ears or noses because they lack protective melanin. When you adopt a deaf pet, you might want to discuss these issues with your vet to find out if there’s anything special you should be concerned about.
In cases of acquired deafness, the situation can depend on the cause. Some animals naturally start losing their hearing with age, and you’ll notice warning signs like making more noise, not responding to your calls or looking disoriented. However, if a pet is clearly dizzy or having trouble walking, that might be a sign of an infection. Likewise, a pet clawing at her ears is clearly in distress, and if there’s any discharge from the ears, this is also indicative of infection. Take your pet in for an evaluation and treatment — it may be possible to arrest hearing loss by addressing the underlying cause.
5) Good vibes
As an animal’s sense of touch becomes heightened, vibrations are more apparent. Animals can feel your voice when you speak, even if they can’t hear it, and they may find it comforting. They may bark, meow or purr to communicate with you — pets can train you as much as you train them — and to comfort themselves. Your pets may be less skittish and more comfortable if you make a point of tapping the floor when you enter a room, or tapping a piece of furniture that a pet’s sitting on, so she knows you’re there. If deaf pets are startled, they may snap, bolt or get anxious, and that’s not healthy for anyone.
Be aware that cats in particular like to be up high so they can scope the scenery, and that goes double for deaf cats. Make sure that lines of sight in your house are clear so that pets of all species and sizes can clearly see what’s happening. Because they can’t hear, they will feel more comfortable and less threatened if they can take advantage of their eyes and noses in addition to their sense of touch. It’s also a good idea to create a safe space for your pet, like a cat bed on a bookshelf or a dog bed in a central spot, so she always has a place to retreat to.
Like other animals with some specific needs, deaf pets sometimes spend more time in the shelter. Switch it up: Adopt a deaf pet today!