Loss of Hearing (Deafness) in Horses

Key takeaways

Hearing loss and deafness are relatively rare symptoms in horses, and refer to the partial or complete inability to perceive auditory signals.

  • Hearing problems can occur as the result of a number of different risk factors and underlying conditions, including genetic predisposition (white patterning), malformations present at birth, injuries, infections, brain diseases, poisoning, and old age
  • Horses with hearing loss may not respond to auditory cues, may be highly reactive and spooky in new environments, and may have poor performance
  • The definitive test used to assess a horse's hearing capacity is known as the BAER test
  • Once diagnosed, treatment options vary depending on the underlying condition
  • In many cases, deafness cannot be treated but implementing management and lifestyle changes can help improve quality of life
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A closer look: Loss of Hearing (Deafness) in Horses

Hearing loss rarely affects horses and is not a life-threatening symptom in and of itself, but may be a symptom of potentially lethal conditions, such as equine encephalitis. Prompt medical attention is advised for any horse showing signs of hearing loss.

Horse owners may be anxious about hearing loss, however affected horses can live happy and healthy lives with appropriate lifestyle changes.

Possible causes

There are a number of potential causes and risk factors that contribute to hearing loss in horses.

Risk factors

Hearing issues can be further characterized by a number of different categories.

Partial hearing loss: Horses suffering from partial deafness are able to hear some, but not all sounds. Common behavior of horses with partial loss of hearing are:

  • Reaction to loud and sudden noises
  • Difficulty responding to verbal clues and normal volume sounds

Total hearing loss: Horses suffering from total deafness do not respond to any auditory cues.

Congenital hearing loss: Hearing deficits can be present at birth, and are usually the result of genetic predisposition or malformations. American Paint horses, those with extensive white patterning on the face, and blue-eyed horses carry a gene that can cause hearing issues. Note that not all horses with white patterning and/or blue eyes have hearing loss.

Acquired hearing loss: Horses that are born with no genetic or congenital malformations can acquire hearing issues as a result of infection, inflammation, trauma, and brain disorders.

Testing and diagnosis

Horses that show symptoms of hearing deficits undergo a number of diagnostic tests:

  • Physical examination
  • Brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) testNeurologic examination
  • Endoscopic examination
  • Otoscopic examination

No specific treatment has been identified for most cases of hearing loss in horses. Horses that have hearing loss associated with other conditions, such as infections, may have hearing return after treatment of the underlying condition. For cases that cannot be treated, there a number of lifestyle changes and precautions that can be taken to ensure safety and well-being, including:

  • Using visual and tactile cues
  • Avoidance of unfamiliar settings and situations
  • Approaching the animal from the front so as to be seen before making contact

Similar symptoms

Horses that do not respond to vocal cues may do so for a variety of reasons, including insufficient, poor, or inappropriate training.

Associated symptoms

As a horse's hearing degenerates, a number of other symptoms can appear.

Depending on the underlying cause, horses experiencing hearing loss can show a number of other symptoms.

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