The idea of putting hearing aids on a dog may, to the uninitiated, seem like an extravagant splurge, the kind of move reserved for those with money to burn. But not to a team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati. It's one of several innovative projects designed to better understand how animals hear and communicate, with the hope of making the world more comfortable for both humans and our animal counterparts.
"This research has been going on for some time," says Pete Scheifele, PhD, head of UC's Facility for the Education and Testing of Canine Hearing and Lab Animal Bioacoustics
(FETCH-LAB). "However, the noise impacts on animals have not been on the forefront, especially on animals that are domestic or captive."
Scheifele explains that, for years, vets and animal researchers paid little attention to hearing loss in animals such as domestic dogs. Owners who brought in their pets with concerns over hearing loss often saw vets use primitive tests, such as jingling keys or snapping and looking for reactions. When researchers started using pediatric hearing-test equipment to study dogs, however, an alarming trend surfaced: About 60 dog breeds showed a tendency toward congenital deafness, due in part to inbreeding.
"The awareness kind of shot up, because everyone's worried about having a deaf dog," he says. "It's had a domino effect."
Now, vets and researchers are working to identify causes of animal deafness, especially in service animals such as police and rescue dogs.
"Your job, perhaps your life, may depend on your working partner," Scheifele says.
FETCH-LAB scientists have also explored ways to combat excessive noise in places supposed to meet physical and mental needs. Kennels, for example, often have highly reflective walls and ceilings that bounce barks and yips into an annoying - and potentially harmful - cacophony.
"Kennels are made to be washed, not for hearing safety," he says.
The FETCH-LAB team recently installed sound-dampening panels at the League for Animal Welfare's
kennel in Batavia, and is studying their effects on the sound levels and the health of both canine inhabitants and employees. And although Scheifele says testing is still underway, LFAW Director Mary Sue Bahr says that the panels are having a significant effect.
"Our goal for all of the dogs in our care is to provide a clean, healthy, friendly, stress-free environment for them,” says Bahr in a UC press release. "Having these sound panels helps us to fulfill that goal—and it’s also nice for our staff and volunteers. In reducing the sound levels, it helps them have a more enjoyable time here.”
Scieifele says FETCH-LAB also studies hearing and hearing loss in horses and marine animals, and is in the process of publishing a paper on optimizing aquarium design to provide stimulating - but not overwhelming - amounts of noise for captive inhabitants. The work, he explains, could both improve lives for animals, and could effect the way human hearing and noise control takes shape in the future.
"We often come back with information that's useful and say, 'we never thought about this in humans,'" he says. "We help the animals, and they help us."
By Matt Cunningham