The 4 Causes of Deafness In Dogs

by Bernard Lima-Chavez

(reprinted with the author's permission)

Understanding why your dog is deaf or losing his hearing helps you adapt to his needs.

Otherwise rational people act funny around a deaf dog. They turn into, well, doubters and disbelievers. Case in point?

We adopted our first deaf dog, Edison, over three years ago and, to this day, my husband still tries to clap, bang and whistle at different decibels and frequencies to find some sound that Edison hears.

To be fair, my husband is not the only one. Take a deaf dog out in public for an afternoon and you are certain to meet at least one person who attempts to prove that your deafie can indeed hear. When that stranger claps so close to your dog’s ear that the whoosh of air causes your dog to look, the stranger practically exclaims, “Eureka! You are wrong! He hears just fine!”

I’m not sure why humans try to prove that a deaf dog they just met can actually hear, though I suspect it has to do with a basic difference between dogs and people. Though dogs do vocalize, the vast majority of their communication is done through body language. When a dog uses his words, he does so with his tail, his ears and the commissure of his lips, whereas humans just bark at the world.

There are four primary causes of deafness in dogs. Understanding why your dog is deaf or losing his hearing is important because this information helps you adapt to his needs, expectations and his mental or emotional state.

A dog who suddenly loses his hearing has a very different stress-response than a dog who was born deaf. Conversely, a dog that was born deaf isn’t bothered one iota because he can’t hear your voice- he never heard it in the first place. Once you understand where a deaf dog is coming from, you are better able to meets his needs and teach him skills he will need to know.

The causes of deafness in dogs falls into four categories:


These are dogs that are born deaf due to genetic mutations. Perhaps this happens because of irresponsible breeding, such as breeding two merles or a dog who has a history of throwing deaf puppies, perhaps it’s a breed characteristic, or perhaps it’s just an anomaly.

Whatever the reason, this deaf puppy never hears and he doesn’t experience stress because of his deafness. He may experience stress due to environmental changes that he can’t hear or anticipate, such as startling when touched from behind or when sleeping, but deafness, in and of itself, is not a stressful experience.

In many ways, communicating and training a deaf puppy is easier than learning to communicate with an older dog who loses his hearing. A congenitally deaf puppy has only ever experienced hand signs or body language communication, so there is no period of adaptation for him. He doesn’t have to learn a new method of communication because you have always used your hands to say “come here” or “I love you”.

Advanced Age:

Both dogs and humans are mammals and, as such, we have a lot more in common with each other than most people understand or admit. Though our behavior is very different, anatomically and physiologically we’re quite a bit alike. One way this manifests is lost or diminished hearing with the onset of old age.

Much like Grandma, as Bingo gets older his parts may not work as well as they once did. The human and canine body is a miraculous yet imperfect machine. As time cranks on, the body moves slower, it’s nutritional needs change and some parts just stop working. It’s the nature of life, at least until we discover that elusive fountain of perpetual youth.

These senior dogs, wiser if not as spry as they once were, generally adapt pretty well to deafness with minimal stress. The onset of deafness due to advanced age is a slow, gradual process, which allows him to adapt and learn news ways of interpreting and responding to his environment. He has time to adapt to his world going silent.

If you notice that Bingo doesn’t respond as well when you call him from another room, break open the treat jar or scoop kibble into a clanking food bowl, you should talk to his veterinarian. This is also a good time to break out those basic hands signs you learned and used many years ago when Bingo was in puppy school. If you never used hand signs, it’s really important to begin to teach some basic communication skills. 

Illness or Injury:

Injuries and chronic or untreated ear infections are another cause of deafness in dogs- and people for that matter.

If your dog is injured or exhibits any of the following signs of ear infections, consulting your veterinarian is a really simple yet important way to prevent a minor medical issue from causing permanent damage to your dog’s sensitive ears.

Ear Infection Warning Signs (courtesy of the ASPCA)

  • Ear scratching
  • Brown, yellow or bloody discharge
  • Odor in the ear
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Crusted or scabby skin on the near ear flap
  • Hair loss around the ear
  • Wiping the ear area on the floor or furniture
  • Head shaking or head tilt
  • Loss of balance
  • Unusual eye movements
  • Walking in circles
  • Hearing loss

  • Sure, deaf dogs can live full, rich happy lives and learn dozens of hand signs or more, but to cause deafness through negligence or improper care is unforgivable.

Drug Toxicity:

A little known or discussed cause of deafness in dogs are unintended side effects of certain medications or drugs. Some antibiotics, especially those in the aminoglycosides category, can cause deafness if used inappropriately. Examples of aminoglycosides include gentamycin, amykacin and tobramycin. These drugs are not dangerous but, as with all medication, they must be used precisely the way your veterinarian instructed.

Another extremely rare side effect that can cause of deafness in dogs is general anesthesia. This is quite rare but it is one of the potential side effects of prolonged or inappropriate general anesthesia. Though there are many very good reasons to use general anesthesia, it is critical to the health and well-being of your dog to make sure you are working with a licensed, reputable veterinarian.

I also recommend only using a veterinarian who employs credentialed veterinary technicians. The terminology changes from state to state, but if your technician is a CVT, LVT or RVT, you know your dog is being cared for by a trained veterinary nurse who was educated at an institution accredited by the American Veterinary Medical Association as well as your state veterinary board. Sure, mistakes and unexpected side effects can still happen, but it is less likely when your medical team has had comprehensive and proper training in preoperative examinations, surgical preparation, anesthesia administration and patient monitoring and recovery. 

  • In those very rare circumstances where anesthesia does cause deafness, it is a sudden and usually immediate change that can cause your dog to experience a high-degree of stress. In this situation, it is important to be patient with your dog, help him adjust to his sudden loss of hearing and manage his environment to reduce fear and startling. Once he has begun to adapt to being deaf, you should then begin to teach him some basic deaf dog life skills, such as startling desensitization, watch me, and other basic hand signs.

There are very good, practical reasons for understanding why your dog is deaf. Not only does it help you better understand what your dog is experiencing, in some situations this information can help you meet your dog’s needs, allowing you to better support him during what can be a frightening and stressful transition.