How Can I Tell My Pet is Blind or Deaf?

If only it was this easy.
If only it was this easy.

How can I tell if my dog is deaf?

I get that question a lot. That, and “can you check my dog’s vision?”

Problem is in a private practice setting, sensory deficiencies are hard to test for. We can’t exactly stand fluffy in front of a little doggie eye chart and have him cover one eye and start reading at line 5. Nor can we put that little thingy in his ear that makes different noises and have him raise his little paw when he hears the beeps.

Referral institutions can assess vision in a manner similar to that used on human babies (they’re about as adept as dogs and cats at reading an eye chart). The neurologists can BAER test their brain’s response to hearing stimuli. The ophthalmologists can do an ERG scan that picks up brain waves in response to stimulating the retina of the eye.

However, unless your pet is about to undergo cataract surgery (it sure would suck to pay a thousand plus bucks to have a cataract repaired only to find out the eye is already blind), you probably don’t need to go to those diagnostic extremes.

If you are perceptive, you can figure out if your pet’s hearing or vision is diminishing.

Since I’m required to be perceptive, it’s kind of an occupational thing, given my patients don’t talk, I was able to figure out pretty early on when Scully and Katelin’s hearing and vision started to fade. I have some clients who have super powers who can go as far as detecting nearsightedness or deafness in one ear (I’m not that good).

Here are some tips I’ve learned through years of vet experience and observations of my dogs, Scully (deceased at age 16), Katelin (not deceased, age 15) and Mia (the young 5 year old Lab) I still have Nixon (the one year old puppy) but I haven’t learned much from her aside from the fact that Terriers have very interesting personalities (to say the least):

1. Deaf dogs sleep great! God, I wish I could sleep the sleep of a deaf dog. They sleep so good that they sometimes look dead. Which is a not so fun side effect of owning a senior dog. The game of “sleeping or dead”. Many a day I’d tiptoe over to Scully or Katelin, holding my breath, with my heart in my throat. Quite the relief when they took that nice shallow breath. These dogs (and probably cats) sleep so well that they often don’t notice when you get home from being away. They aren’t there to greet you as often because they just didn’t hear you come in. They might stop barking at the door (at one point, two out of my three dogs were deaf, and Mia acted like their hearing ear dog. The other two would bark when Mia heard the door and notified them of the potential intruders. If Mia was indesposed, the poor soul at the door might just get stuck waiting if I don’t happen to hear the doorbell.) Some dogs with firework or thunderstorm phobia get better, since they can’t hear the scary noises. Especially the fire work dogs (not such a problem here in the fireworks-are-illegal Dallas area suburbs. However, in wild and wooly Houston, fireworks are legal and my old and very sound phobic dog, Star, became happy as a clam on New Year’s Eve and July 4th after she went deaf. )

2. Deaf dogs don’t come when you call them (I suppose this goes without saying, but bear with me). I’m talking about dogs who normally are pretty good when you call them in. Any dog may turn off his brain and ignore you if they spot a rabbit nearby. The hearing degradation was interesting with Scully. She stopped responding to me calling her, but not my husband. We figured out that she could hear deep voices but not my higher pitched one (similar to my Dad’s pattern of hearing loss. He lost his ability to hear female voices first. This could be a coping mechanism for the aging long-married human male, though.) For probably a year or so, I could get Scully to come by talking in a really deep Darth Vader voice (which was probably really entertaining to my neighbors). She could also sense vibrations, so if I did the Darth Vader voice and clapped my hands or stomped my feet, (probably even more entertaining to neighbors) she would respond. Eventually nothing worked, you pretty much had to walk up to her and poke her to get her attention. It was sad because often it would startle her because she didn’t hear you coming. They actually make collars that vibrate for deaf dogs too.

3. No matter how deaf the dog is, he will probably always hear the preparation of their food. I don’t know if this applies to all dogs. However, Scully, no matter how quietly I picked up her bowl (and I would do it really quietly, just to check), she would pop that head up (even if dead asleep) and be at full attention, ready for the meal at hand.

4. Want to test their hearing? This is best done at home. Make some noises and see how the dog responds to them. Try it while they are sleeping (be careful not to make vibrations). Whistle, call their name, bang a pot with a wooden spoon, does any of that wake her up?

5. What about vision? To test your dog’s vision, try setting up an obstacle course. Place pillows or chairs, or things to step over. Stand at one end and call your pet (assuming they can hear you) and see how they maneuver the course. If they can’t get through without hitting things, then maybe they can’t see well. Do it in bright light and low light.

6. Night vision often goes first: I started noticing that Katelin and Scully would wander aimlessly around the room at night when the lights went out, walking really slowly. When I turned the lights back on, they popped back to their normal speed. Katelin, if she fell asleep on the couch before dark would sit and bark and cry after she woke up at nightfall. When I came to investigate, turning on the light, she would subsequently hop off the couch like nothing was wrong. She just couldn’t see in the dark to jump down. Many dogs become anxious in the night, maybe afraid to go outside. Flip on the lights or get some night lights to see what happens.

7. Blind dogs memorize their home layout. It’s amazing what they do. I’ve heard stories of dogs who know that if they walk along the flowerbed about 20 paces, then turn right five paces they will hit the pee spot, then backtrack to the house along the same path. Problems arise when owners move or rearrange the furniture. Suddenly the pet is bumping into things. Also, it’s the dogs that gradually lose vision that do this. Dogs and cats who suddenly go blind from glaucoma, retinal detachment, SARD, or other causes, can become very agitated (in cats, a tipoff can be sudden onset of very dilated pupils in normal lighting).

On a side note: beware the pool when you have a blind pet, they are much more likely to fall in accidentally. Also with the deaf pets, be careful outside off leash, you can’t recall them if they are headed for say, a moving car (and they won’t hear it coming).

So those are a few tips and hints for determine hearing and vision abnormalities in your pets. There is lots more out on the interwebs. There are support groups for deaf dogs, and blind ones. This blind dog support site has some really cool tips. Here’s a site that offers a super cool “cane” for blind dogs. (The site says she’s not taking any more orders, but I think you could “rig” this with some duct tape and a harness and maybe some thick plastic tubing?). Here are some more cool blind dog links.

That’s all for now. Sorry this one wasn’t super funny, but I think it’s good information about a common problem.

Questions? And don’t ask me to diagnose your pet, it’s impossible and illegal to do when not in actual physical contact with the patient!! 

PS. The cute picture of the doggie and his eye chart was lifted from this Detective Club Website . I can’t seem to figure out what the site is about, but so I don’t get in trouble, I’ll credit them for the pic!


2 thoughts on “How Can I Tell My Pet is Blind or Deaf?

  1. My little Emma Jean (cat) eventually ended up deaf as a post. I confess it was pretty amusing to see Emma Jean sleeping and Clara walk by, stop and have a true hissy fit. Emma Jean never reacted, of course. You could then see Clara determine that she’d done a good job and then stalk away.

    My little Flossie Fiona’s retinas detached and I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t notice she had gone blind. Flossie Fiona still jumped onto my chest every morning and meowed for attention. She never bumped into anything and never seemed bewildered. I sure wish I had noticed because I feel sure her elevated blood pressure caused the problem. She was a month overdue for her yearly checkup and I also feel sure her sky-high BP would have been caught.

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