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UConn bioacoustics expert explores hearing loss in dogs

by David Bauman - March 26, 2007

A UConn hearing expert has adapted human audiology technology to dogs and opened what may be the only site in the United States that offers hearing loss testing for canines.

“There is at least one clinic in the United Kingdom like our lab, but I believe we are the first in the United States to do strictly animal audiology,” says Peter Scheifele, research associate and animal bioacoustics researcher in the Department of Animal Science.

A young dog is held by its owner while its hearing is tested at the bioacoustics lab in the George White Building.
A young dog is held by its owner while its hearing is tested at the bioacoustics lab in the George White Building.
Photo by Peter Morenus

“The business of animal audiology is brand new.”

In the bioacoustics lab located in the basement of the George White Building, Scheifele tests the dogs’ hearing using computers that record the electrical activity of the brain.

The canine hearing test Scheifele uses to measure brain-wave activity – called the Auditory Brainstem Response – had previously been used on humans at UConn’s human audiology clinic.

Scheifele, who is also an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Communications Sciences’ disorders division, studied human auditory brainstem responses and adapted the test for canines, modifying the equipment to fit floppy ears and increased hearing range.

The test works by placing small speakers into the animal’s ear, then measuring a change in its brain waves when a noise is produced.

Earphones appropriate for dog ears, as well as electrodes fixed on the scalp, produce a series of clicks, and the dog is wired to a computer that gives a read-out of its brainwaves.

The dog’s reaction to the click happens subconsciously within a fraction of a second of the noise. Because the test measures brain waves, it does not rely on the dog having a conscious reaction to the noise.

Just as in humans, auditory brainstem response tests performed on dogs can detect hearing loss, not just whether the animal can hear.

The problem, however, is that no one knows what “normal” canine wave forms look like.

“When we test human hearing we know what normal ‘hearing’ wavelengths look like,” says Scheifele.

“We must build a database using every dog we test, and we’re testing normal dogs, deaf dogs, and dogs going deaf. As we get more data from hundreds of dogs, we can begin to establish some hearing norms for canines. Until we get the norms, we won’t know how to treat deafness in canines.”

Scheifele anticipates the bioacoustics lab will eventually serve a broad market.

Hearing loss in dogs is now recognized in more than 60 breeds.

Congenital deafness (when a dog is born deaf) is not an uncommon problem for purebred dogs.

Most puppies with congenital hearing loss are deaf in both ears. Other dogs develop deafness later in life from noise trauma, ear infections, or old age.

“This alarming growth of canine deafness is due mostly to genetics,” Scheifele said.

“One in five Dalmatian pups are born deaf in the U.S. and the U.K. With purebred pups selling for, say, $500 each, it benefits breeders and buyers alike if they can be assured a pup does not have congenital deafness.”

Scheifele believes that auditory brainstem response tests could eventually help eradicate congenital deafness in dogs.

The test could also be used to check guide dogs and police dogs, so that trainers can be sure there is no hearing loss before money is spent on training.

Most dog owners who suspect hearing loss in their pets learn that veterinarians currently have no way to assess deafness.

To fully assess whether a dog is deaf requires the use of highly sophisticated equipment that most vets do not have in their offices.

Most administer behavioral tests and watch to see whether the dog responds.

“This is not something that vets are trained to do,” says Scheifele.

“They get no training in audiology. We hope that vets will start to refer dogs to our lab. We’ll do the hearing test and send the results back to the vet.

“Deaf canines can be a liability,” adds Scheifele, whose own dog, Belle, a seven-year-old Australian Shepherd, is profoundly deaf.

“Although most hearing losses cannot be corrected, many deaf or partially deaf dogs can compensate very well and live normal lives by using their other senses. Many dogs can easily learn hand signals, and don’t need to hear to receive their owners’ commands.”

Scheifele and several graduate students who staff the bioacoustics lab have tested dogs from across New England and the east coast.

He says interest is growing, and recently the clinic received queries from two California-based audiologists asking for advice on how to start a clinic.

Ultimately he hopes that having opened the UConn bioacoustic lab will lead to the opening of animal audiology clinics nationwide, creating a whole new vocation for students.

“If we can train students to become animal audiologists,” he says, “veterinarians will eventually be able to rely on them the same way ear, nose, and throat doctors rely on human audiologists.” 

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