For over a century, humans with hearing loss have used electronic hearing aids. But what about if your otherwise healthy dog is suffering from hearing loss? Are dog hearing aids available, and will they improve your pet’s quality of life?
When Were Dog Hearing Aids Created?
In the late 1980s, Dr. Patricia Luttgen created the first prototype by attaching a human hearing aid to a dog’s collar. Dog hearing aids have evolved considerably since then. A modern pioneer in canine auditory aids is FETCHLAB, an animal hearing and bioacoustics laboratory at the University of Cincinnati. At FETCHLab, executive director Dr. Peter M. “Skip” Scheifele and his team focus their research on canine amplification.
FETCHLAB is the only place in the world that currently fits official dog hearing aids. FETCHLAB devices are adapted human hearing aids and cost upwards of $3,000. Currently, the devices are still in their testing phase, as they are complicated to produce and can be prohibitively expensive to buy. Despite this, the FETCHLAB team receives weekly inquiries from loving pet owners interested in improving their dog’s hearing. FETCHLAB is working towards releasing more affordable dog hearing aids in the near future. “The aim is to create hearing aids like some of the off-the-shelf human ones. We can probably get the price down to hundreds of dollars versus thousands,” Dr. Scheifele says.
What Makes a Dog a Good Candidate For Hearing Aids?
Many pet dogs with mild-to-moderate hearing loss are suitable candidates for hearing aids, but the devices aren’t suitable for every pet. “If a dog has profound hearing loss, then the hearing aid won’t work. No amount of amplification will make the sound loud enough that the ear can hear it,” Dr. Scheifele says.
Dog hearing aids only work for some dogs. Dr. Scheifele’s team receives and evaluates plenty of questions about fitting hearing aids for dogs. In about 60% of the inquiries, he estimates the hearing of the dog in question has deteriorated sufficiently, and the dog isn’t eligible for a hearing aid. Canine hearing loss is often gradual, and by the time an owner realizes the severity of the issue, the problem has often progressed too far for hearing aids to be effective.
“Usually, there are criteria for how much residual hearing the dog has to have for the hearing aid to work,” he says. And while many humans with severe hearing loss use cochlear implants to amplify hearing, the devices’ current design makes them impractical for dogs.
Dr. Scheifele doesn’t recommend hearing aids for service dogs who are losing their hearing. “It becomes too much of a liability if the hearing aid doesn’t work, as it can put the person they work for in jeopardy,” he says.
How Are Dogs Fitted For Hearing Aids?
If your dog is young and healthy aside from their diminished hearing, you might be interested in learning more about canine hearing aids. If you reach out to the team at FETCHLAB, here is the process you will follow:
- Your dog will need a brainstem auditory evoked potential test (BAER) and possibly an otoacoustic emission test (OAE) to check their level of cochlear function.
- The team evaluates the test results to establish if your dog is a suitable candidate for hearing aids.
- If your dog is a suitable hearing-aid candidate, ear molds will be made at one of the FETCHLAB centers.
- Once the hearing aids are ready, a return visit is necessary to customize the fit and tune them in.
Challenges With Dog Hearing Aids
Dr. Scheifele advises that owners enter this process with realistic expectations. Some dogs will never fully adjust to hearing new sounds or hearing sounds again, meaning verbal commands will be a thing of the past. Teaching your dog to respond to visual commands (rather than verbal ones) might be a more straightforward approach to training.
“The owner needs to know that they will have to spend a lion’s share of time training the dog to wear the hearing aid,” Dr. Scheifele says. After all, it will take time for a dog to become comfortable with a strange object in their ear. You’ll need plenty of patience and positive reinforcement to get your dog used to the hearing aid’s presence over time. If you’re unsure about how to proceed, consider consulting a canine behaviorist.
Once you turn on the hearing aid, you’ll need to help your dog adjust to the sounds they now hear. It’ll be helpful to keep your household quiet to avoid overwhelming your pet with noise, and it’s important to be clear and consistent with your verbal commands. This part of the process will take time for humans and pets to adjust to. And there are physical challenges too. Vigorous head shaking can dislodge the wireless device. The FETCHLAB teams work to combat this by fitting a little piece of jewelry on a chain that attaches the hearing aid to the collar. This reduces the chances of the expensive device going missing when you’re taking your dog on a walk.
Should My Dog Get a Hearing Aid?
Even if a dog is a good candidate for hearing aids, it may be worth considering alternatives. Getting your dog acclimated to wearing hearing aids requires a lot of patience and effort, and not all dogs will adjust well to them. Aside from a foreign object in their ear, a dog wearing hearing aids will have to adjust to noises sounding different from when they were used to hearing before.
Moreover, their hearing won’t ever be restored to its original level. Dogs have to adjust to listening to an electronic, rather than natural, voice through the hearing aid, and filter out distracting background noise. “This sometimes means the dog needs to be retrained on those verbal commands,” Dr. Scheifele says.
Alternatives to Managing Your Dog’s Hearing Loss
Just because your dog has partial or full hearing loss doesn’t mean that they can’t live a happy and fulfilled life, with or without hearing aids. And the bond you share with your pet doesn’t have to diminish because they can’t hear your voice. Build new communication techniques by training your deaf dog to respond to cues like hand signals, light touch, and vibrations. Use a long line with your dog so they can safely enjoy some freedom while out on walks. And deaf dogs compete in a wide variety of dog sports, so your chances are your loving pup won’t have to stop taking part in something they enjoy.
Don’t forget that a dog’s sense of smell is the most highly prized and sensitive of all their senses. Slow, sniff-centric walks and enriching scent games are fantastic de-stressors for any dog, including those with hearing loss.
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