You may have not thought about it before—except when you learned about bats in school—but all living creatures have different levels of hearing ability: Some have great hearing, others do not—some don’t even use their ears to hear!
Many animals' hearing abilities are more acute than ours, and each species has a unique way of listening to the world around it. This includes your pets! Dogs and cats, for example, have a much greater hearing range and focus than humans, so it’s no wonder some are specifically trained to assist those with hearing loss.
The world of animal audiology is fascinating. We tracked down answers to some of the basic questions about how animals hear, and we’re excited to share them with you.
Can Your Pets Have Hearing Loss? What Causes It?
Like humans, animals can lose their hearing. Also like humans, hearing loss or deafness in animals can be caused by a variety of internal and external factors: birth defects, genetics, infection, old age, trauma, or blockages in the ear. There is one big difference, though—they don’t know for themselves that things are changing, and even if they did, they would not know how to tell you.
Hearing loss in animals can be congenital or acquired. Congenital hearing loss or deafness is present at birth due to genetic inheritance, while acquired hearing loss is caused later in life by trauma, infection, etc. Regardless of when the hearing loss sets in, it can be classified as either conductive or sensorineural. Conductive hearing loss occurs when the passage of sound is blocked on its way to the inner ear nerves. Sensorineural hearing loss, on the other hand, refers to when nerve receptors cannot transmit sound signals from the ear to either the brain or the brain centers responsible for interpreting audio data.
How Can You Tell if Your Pet Has Hearing Loss?
Recognizing the signs of hearing loss in dogs and cats is straightforward. If your pet doesn’t respond to squeaky toys, clapping, doorbells, or other loud noises—or if they are difficult to wake up—you may want to schedule a hearing test with your veterinarian. You might consider similar precautions if your pet is barking or meowing excessively. In addition to providing a diagnosis and creating a treatment plan during your visit, your veterinarian can determine if there is blockage—wax accumulation, hair overgrowth, or something else—or an infection causing inflammation to the ear canal or ear drum.
Treatment is available to either help restore your dog or cat’s hearing or assist him/her in living a long and happy life despite hearing loss.
What Are Some Fun Facts About Hearing in Animals?
Elephants have large ears, but hearing is not their strict purpose—primarily, those big, flappy ears act as an air conditioner! Blood flows closely to the ears’ surface, cooling it before running through the rest of the body doing the same.
Elephants excel in their sensory hearing—that is, hearing through nerve endings and bone conduction in their feet. By pounding their feet and creating a vibration barely audible to humans (to us, it sounds like a low rumble), they can hear across distances of up to six miles. This long-distance sensory hearing allows herds of elephants to communicate and warn of danger.
Bats also have a unique way of hearing. Using a technique called echolocation, they emit high-frequency noises that bounce off the surrounding environment and back to their ears, essentially creating a map of their environment. Using this map, they can locate their prey and “see” the world around them using sound waves. Since they rely on echolocation to see, they can also navigate easily in the dark. Recent scientific studies have also shown that their auditory system extends to “Merkel cells” located in the little hair follicles on their wings. These cells are highly sensitive to air movement; they process approaching objects or obstacles and relay relevant information to the brain.
Because sound travels through water faster than air, dolphins have adapted to an echolocation-like style of communication: they emit sonic pulses from their forehead, receive the rebounding sound waves with their jawbone, and their auditory nerves then process and relay sound to the brain. Dolphins do have tiny ear holes on the side of their heads, but they aren’t very important to their hearing ability.
The furry little feline—possibly perched atop your lap right now—has 32 muscles in his/her ear. Compare that to the six in yours! All those muscles give cats the ability to rotate their ears and pinpoint the origin of a sound, granting even lazy housecats excellent hunting skills.
While the average hearing range for a human is between -20 and +25 decibels, cats can hear up to 64 kHz (roughly 38 dB), so don’t go trying to sneak up on them—they will hear you!
While owls' range of hearing is not much greater than that of a human, their hearing is much more acute, allowing them to focus in on their prey. The ears on their heads are not parallel either; one sits slightly higher than the other. As a result, sound waves arrive at different times, further improving owls’ ability to locate their prey. There is one other bonus advantage to this: while in flight, one ear can hear above them while the other listens below—so you can’t sneak up on them either!
Can Animals Help You with Your Hearing Loss?
You probably already know about service animals—you’ve seen them hard at work, guiding the blind and the physically disabled—but did you know that some service dogs are trained specifically to help people with hearing loss?
You may be asking yourself, “How can a service dog help people who are deaf or experience hearing loss?”
Service animals are trained to hear for their owners. By nudging or pawing at their hard-of-hearing human companions, they alert them to nearby sounds, such as approaching cars, telephone calls, doorbells, alarms, or babies’ cries.
How Does Service Animal Placement Work?
Depending on the agency from which you enlist the aid of a service animal, the associated costs may be completely covered by donations. These costs can also climb to over $20,000 if you go to agencies like 4 Paws for Ability or Service Dogs for America to work with a fully trained and certified service dog. There’s no wrong answer, but it’s important to do your research before you get too far along in the process with any one organization.
Companies like Canine Companions for Independence (CCI) and Paws With a Cause provides service dogs free of charge to clients in need; however, the qualification process is extremely in-depth and thorough. They will ask you more questions than a rigorous job interview—if you think about it, the dogs really are going to work for you, so this makes sense, and they want to make sure it is right for all parties. Depending on exactly what you are looking for, it can then take a while before you finally get your new companion; training the dogs in their assistive services takes time and resources, and some dogs fail out of training throughout the process. Just like people and their prospective jobs, not all dogs are up to the task.
What Breeds Make Good Service Dogs?
Paws with a Cause primarily employs Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, and crosses of the two breeds; however, they have also trained hypo-allergenic poodles and poodle mixes for those that may have allergies. If big dogs aren’t necessarily for you, some smaller breeds can be certified as hearing dogs, too.
How Can You Qualify to Recruit the Services of a Hearing Dog?
Each service dog organization may require different qualifications, but generally, you:
- Must be at least 18 years old.
- Must be deaf or hard of hearing—your exact level of hearing loss does not matter, but it must be documented.
- If you are deaf and use sign language, CCI provides dogs that are ASL certified.
- Must have adequate enough vision to keep an eye on your dog.
- Must be independently mobile—you must be able to care for the dog on your own.
If you have done your research and think you qualify, you can request applications directly from each organization’s website.
What if You Want to Train Your Own Dog to Hear for You?
Technically you can train your dog to assist you in your hearing loss; however, the process is intense and rigorous, and it should be handled by a professional.
Most people struggle to get their dog to sit and stay, let alone hear for them—but there are ways to do it. If you want to go the route of doing it yourself, AKC has tutorials, but keep in mind that not every dog is cut out for the job. Some pups struggle, even with professional trainers.
How Can CaptionCall Help with Your Hearing Loss?
Although we at CaptionCall would love to match you with an assistive, furry companion, we unfortunately don’t work with hearing dogs. We do, however, offer another unparalleled service: if you have hearing loss, and need captions to use the phone effectively, CaptionCall can help you with our no-cost captioning service. With the CaptionCall phone, you can read and hear what your caller is saying so you don’t miss any of the conversation. You can also get CaptionCall Mobile and utilize this service on the go. Download the iOS or Android app today.
Your hearing loss doesn’t have to hold you back—so don’t let it.