Growing up, we had the cutest little black-and-white Shih Tzu named Caterpillar. He was good-natured and playful, pulling toilet paper from the roll until it unraveled and climbing on top of our board games so he could become the center of attention. As he aged, Caterpillar gradually began to lose his hearing. It was difficult to tell at first because he often ignored us anyway when we called (#ShihTzuLife), but eventually even my siblings and I noticed that he would be startled if he didn’t see us coming and was no longer terrified during thunderstorms. Eventually we had to clap our hands loudly to get his attention, and by the time he was 16, he had lost his hearing completely.
It’s common for pets to develop hearing loss as they become older. Pets may also lose their hearing from other causes such as an ear infection, trauma, cancer, or even some medications. While many pets cope well with the change, others can experience fear, anxiety, and stress (FAS), particularly if the loss occurs acutely. Here are some Fear Free tips to help your pet adapt.
Like Caterpillar, pets with impaired hearing may be easily startled when don’t see or hear people approaching. Some deaf pets may also sleep more deeply. To get your pet’s attention when they’re awake, make use of visual cues such as waving your hand or arms and approaching within their eyesight. When they’re sleeping, the vibrations of your footsteps may alert them to your presence. You can also try gently tapping the surface near their resting area so they feel the vibration. We all know how startling it can be to be jolted awake, so to prevent FAS in your sleeping pet, avoid shaking them awake. Some pets may even snap if they’re awakened roughly, so make sure all humans in the home understand that in general, we should let sleeping pets lie.
If your hearing-impaired pet lives with furry housemates, learning to recognize signs of FAS becomes even more essential. Pets who have lived together in relative harmony for years may develop a change in their dynamic if one pet loses hearing and becomes startled by another pet. These inter-pet conflicts can be further exacerbated by other changes often seen in aging pets such as decreased vision and cognitive dysfunction syndrome, which can lead to confusion and irritability. Consulting your veterinarian and seeking referral to a veterinary behavior specialist will ensure that the emotional needs of all pets in the household are met. Some pets may even benefit from anxiolytics or stress-reducing supplements as they make the adjustment.
At the vet, inform staff members that your pet is hearing-impaired. While in some cases hearing loss may reduce FAS since they won’t be able to hear auditory stressors like barking dogs or the high-pitched squeal of the dental scaler, it helps for pet parents to be proactive. If your dog knows hand signals for “come,” “sit,” “down,” and “stay,” staff members should use those signals to encourage your dog to move voluntarily around the exam room and through the clinic, helping to minimize FAS.
Enrichment and Training
All pets need enrichment: opportunities to explore, socialize, and play that provide mental stimulation and contribute to emotional wellbeing. When pets lose hearing, you can engage their other senses by hiding treats throughout the house for them to sniff and find or using wand toys like Da Bird that simulate moving prey and encourage your cat to “hunt.”
People whose pets are hearing-impaired should always keep safety in mind. Your cat may love greeting neighbors every morning as she makes her rounds, but this could become an especially risky behavior when she can’t hear cars or other animals. Similarly, hearing-impaired dogs should not be allowed to roam off-leash, and trips to the dog park should be reconsidered as your dog may miss vocal signals from other dogs. Instead, invite an established dog friend for play dates in a fenced backyard or take them out for adventures on a long leash and harness so they have the chance to explore safely. For cats, access to a catio, leashed walks, or a ride in a pet stroller are safer alternatives that still allow for outdoor enjoyment.
Some modifications will also need to be made with training when pets lose their hearing. If your pet is clicker trained, quickly turning a flashlight on and off can serve as a visual cue that replaces the sound of a clicker and marks the desired behavior. Pets who are used to vocal cues for tricks will often adapt to hand signals instead. It’s always helpful to work with a Fear Free Certified Trainer or other positive trainer to help training go as smoothly as possible.
Hearing loss can be an adjustment for both the pet and the pet parent. By recognizing and preventing FAS and varying your approach to enrichment, you’ll help your pet adapt to a life without sounds.
Dr. Julie Liu is a Fear Free and Cat Friendly veterinarian, speaker, and freelancer based in Austin, Texas. Dr. Liu has a special for a special passion for felines and senior pets, and loves travel. Learn more about her work at www.fluxvet.com.
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Published May 22, 2023