When we first brought home our two furry little bundles of joy, they were the talk of our neighborhood. They're large-breed dogs. White and kind of spotted. Everyone wanted to know what breed they were, and we honestly still have no idea, but trust me, everyone had a contrasting opinion. Even the vet's office disagreed about their lineage. While my pups' heritage was up for debate, the vet and vet techs all agreed on one point: We needed to keep an eye on their hearing because they're mostly white.
That's the first time I'd ever heard of what I now know as pigment-related deafness. There wasn't much info online except on a site run by Dr. George M. Strain, a veterinary neuroscientist and biomedical researcher… a bona fide expert in pigment-related deafness. So I hit him up for the answers I needed.
According to Strain, pigment-related deafness is caused when a puppy is born to parents who are mostly white dogs or are a patchy pattern with many colors, like some Australian shepherds. Blue eyes (one or both) are positively associated with deafness, too.
As scary as that was to hear, Strain had good news for me too. It turns out pigment-related deafness isn't a lifelong threat. Strain says the suppression of vital hearing-related cells happens early, so “the deafness should be present by 5 weeks of age." My dogs were 5 months old, so we were out of the danger zone (at least for that type of deafness).
Further, Strain says that there are plenty of white dog breeds, such as the American Eskimo, that are rarely if ever affected. Also, any dog breed can be affected by congenital deafness because there are many causes of it, it's just that breeds with white pigmentation are most heavily affected.
While this new info was a relief to me personally, the reality is, deaf dogs can be harder to place in good homes and are on the list of dogs that tend to get put down in animal shelters. Many people may not want to learn a new way of communicating with dogs. Others may have children at home, and knowing that some dogs bite when startled and that deaf dogs get startled more easily, may be unwilling to take them. Then you have dog owners who get rid of their dogs when they find out they're deaf, either because they can't work out how to communicate with them or because something does happen (like they snap at someone who startles them).
Perhaps the most disturbing thing I found in my research, however, was that human-controlled breeding is causing increased deafness in some breeds. For example, trying to breed Dalmatians with the most desirable "breed-standard" spot patterns (mostly white with spots that aren't too closely grouped) may mean breeding two dogs that are known, either through genetic testing or past experience, to carry the deafness-related gene. They know if the litter does produce any deaf pups, they may not be able to sell them, but they'll make their money's worth on the others. Strain notes, "For many breeds, the presence of hereditary deafness and its extent is known only to people within the breed, who typically keep this problem a secret for fear of it reflecting poorly on their breed."
Luckily, there's something you can do. Make sure you find responsible breeders who are aware of pigment-related or other congenital deafness and can explain what they're doing to prevent it. If you already have a deaf dog, you can check out Deaf Dogs Rock, a nonprofit that provides information on owning deaf dogs and services to place deaf animals, where you can get tips on communicating with and training your pup or even get it adopted if you can't care for it, which keeps it out of kill shelters. Better yet, adopt your own little hearing-challenged fur-ball through the site.
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