Genetics of Deafness in Dogs

Dr. George M. Strain

Congenital deafness in dogs (or other animals) can be acquired [caused by intrauterine infections, ototoxic drugs like gentamicin, liver disorders, or other toxic exposures before or soon after birth] or inherited. Inherited deafness can be caused by a gene defect that is autosomal dominant recessive, sex-linked, or may involve multiple genes (more on this later). It is usually impossible to determine the cause of congenital deafness unless a clear problem has been observed in the breed or carefully planned breedings are performed. In this article I will discuss what is currently known about the genetics of deafness in dogs so that breeders can make the best informed decisions possible when attempting to reduce or eliminate deafness.

Congenital deafness has been reported for approximately 40 breeds with the list growing at a regular rate; (Table 1)

Table 1  Dog breeds with reported congenital deafness:

American Staffordshire Terrier Australian Cattle Dog  Australian Heeler  
Australian Shepherd  
Border Collie  
Boston Terrier  
Bull Terrier  
Catahoula Leopard Dog  Cocker Spaniel  

Dappled Dachshund  Doberman Pinscher  
Dogo Argentino  
English Bulldog  
English Setter  
Fox Terrier  
Great Dane  
Great Pyrenees 
Ibizan Hound 
Miniature Poodle 
mixed breed

Norwegian Dunkerhound
Old English Sheepdog
Rhodesian Ridgeback Rottweiler 
Scottish Terrier  
Sealyham Terrier  
Shetland Sheepdog  
Shropshire Terrier  
Walker American Foxhound  West Highland White Terrier

It can potentially appear in any breed. The deafness has often been long-established in a breed but kept hidden from outsiders to protect reputations. The disorder is usually associated with pigmentation patterns, where increasing amounts of white in the hair coat increase the likelihood of deafness. Two pigmentation genes in particular are often associated with deafness in dogs: the merle gene (seen in the Collie, Shetland Sheepdog, Dappled Dachshund, Harlequin Great Dane, American Foxhound, Old English Sheepdog, Norwegian Dunkerhound among others) and the piebald gene (Bullterrier, Samoyed, Greyhound, Great Pyrenees, Sealyham Terrier, Beagle, Bulldog, Dalmation, English Setter). Not all breeds with these genes have been reported to be affected. The deafness, which usually develops in the first few weeks after birth while the ear canal is still closed, normally results from the degeneration of part of the blood supply to the cochlea (the stria vascularis). The nerve cells of the cochlea subsequently die and permanent deafness results. The cause of the vascular degeneration is not known, but appears to be associated with the absence of pigment producing cells (melanocytes) in the blood vessels. The function of these cells is not known but appears to be critical for survival of the stria. Deafness may also occur later in life from causes such as toxicities, infections, or injuries, or due to aging presbycusis: these forms of deafness almost never have a genetic cause in animals and thus do not present a concern in breeding decisions.

The incidence of congenital deafness in different breeds is seldom known because of the limited number of studies. In the Dalmation, where the incidence is highest, 8% of all dogs are bilaterally deaf and 22% are unilaterally deaf. In the English Setter, where fewer numbers of dogs have been hearing tested, the incidence appears to be about 1/3 of that of Dals. Unilateral or bilateral deafness is found in 75% of all white Norwegian Dunkerhounds, but the incidence in normal - color dogs is unknown. Other breeds with a high incidence are the Australian Heeler and Australian Shepherd. The incidence of all types of deafness in the general dog population is low, reported to be 2.56 to 6.5 cases per 10,000 dogs seen at veterinary school teaching hospitals. Recognition of affected cases is often difficult because unilaterally deaf dogs appear to hear normally unless a special test (the brainstem auditory evoked response, BAER) is performed; facilities to perform the BAER are usually only available at veterinary schools. It should be noted that a unilaterally deaf dog can be as great a genetic risk for transmission of deafness to its offspring as is a bilaterally deaf dog.

The method of genetic transmission of deafness in dogs is usually not known. There are no recognized forms of sex-linked deafness in dogs, although this does occur in humans. The disorder has been reported to have an autosomal recessive mechanism in the Rottweiler, Bullterrier, and Pointer. References usually state that deafness transmission in most other breeds is autosomal dominant, but there is reason to believe that this is not always true, as will be discussed below. Pigment associated inherited deafness is not restricted to dogs. Similar defects have been reported for mice, mink, pigs, horses, cattle, cats, and humans.

Deafness in blue-eyed white cats is common and is known to be passed on as an autosomal dominant defect. Blue eyes resulting from an absence of pigment in the iris, is common with pigment-associated deafness, but is not in and of itself an indication of deafness or the presence of a deafness gene. Waardenburg's syndrome in humans, presents with deafness a stripe of white in the hair and beard, blue eyes (even in blacks and Asians), no pigment behind the retina, and structural deformities around the nose and eyes. This is an autosomal dominant disorder with incomplete penetrance, which means that individuals that inherit the disorder may not show all components of the syndrome - i.e., they may not be deaf. Incomplete penetrance of a defect greatly complicates the determination of mode of inheritance. At present there is no documentation that incomplete penetrance is a factor in any canine deafness.

In simple Mendelian genetics, each dog carries two copies of each gene, one from each parent. The possible outcomes of breedings can be demonstrated with tables showing the genotype of both parents and the possible combinations of their offspring. If deafness is carried as a simple autosomal recessive gene (d), the breeding of two carriers (Dd), and 25% free of the defect (DD). The breeding of a carrier to a dog free of the defect (Table 3) will result in no affected dog to a carrier (Table 4) will result in 50% affected, 50% carriers, and no free. Finally the breeding of an affected dog to a dog free of the defect (Table 5) will result in 100% carriers and no affected or free.

         Table 2                             Table 3                            Table 4                             Table 5

. D d
. D D
. D d
. D D
Dd DD Dd
dd Dd dd
dd Dd Dd
. Dd dd
. Dd Dd
. Dd dd
. Dd Dd

If instead deafness is carried as a simple autosomal dominant gene (D), the breeding of an affected dog (Dd) to a free dog (dd) (Table 4) would result on average in 50% affected and 50% free. Dogs with the genotype DD would be unlikely to occur unless two deaf dogs had been bred. All of the above assumes that incomplete penetrance is not acting. If more than, one gene (recessive and/or dominant) is involved in producing deafness, the possible combinations become much more complicated. It is estimated for humans that there are 10-15 different autosomal recessive deafness genes, so that children of two deaf parents can be unaffected but carry both genes. If deafness in dogs results from more than one recessive gene, the possible outcomes of breedings are more numerous and determination of the mechanisms of transmission will be difficult.

As stated above, deafness is often associated with the merle (dapple) gene, which produces a mingled or patchwork combination of dark and light areas. This gene (M) is dominant, so that affected dogs (Mm) show the pattern which is desirable in many breeds. However, when two dogs with merle are bred, 25% will end up with (MM) genotype (i.e., Table 2). These dogs have a solid white coat and blue irises, are often deaf and/or blind and are sterile. Breeders of these dogs know not to breed merle to merle. In this case the deafness is neither dominant nor recessive, but is linked to a dominant gene that disrupts pigmentation and secondarily produces deaf dogs.

Genetic transmission of deafness in dogs with the piebald (Sp) and extreme piebald (Sw) pigment genes, such as the Dal, is less clear. These genes affect the amount and distribution of white areas on the body. Deafness in Dals does not appear to be a simple recessive disorder: we have twice bred pairs of deaf Dals and obtained mostly hearing puppies, when all should have been deaf if it was recessive. These findings might be explained by a multi-gene cause, the presence of two different autosomal recessive genes, or a syndrome of incomplete penetrance. Further studies will be required to determine the mechanisms.

So what should breeders do when deafness crops up? The most conservative approach would be not to breed the affected animal and not repeat the breeding that produced deafness. As a general rule bilaterally deaf puppies should be euthanized, since they make poor pets, are prone to biting, frequently die from misadventure (cars), and require excessive care. Unilaterally deaf dogs can make good pets but usually should not be bred. When deafness is uncommon in a breed, affected dogs should not be bred, but this does not mean that all related dogs are a risk and must be retired from breeding. An understanding of simple autosomal recessive and dominant patterns, as explained above, can allow the breeder to make informed decisions and likely avoid future deaf animals without sacrificing a breeding line that has been shaped over many years. However, extreme caution must be used when line breeding of dogs related to deaf dogs, whether the deafness is unilateral or bilateral. To make these decisions in an informed manner for breeds with known deafness, it is important that advantage be taken of hearing testing facilities at veterinary schools. Unilaterally deaf dogs cannot be detected by other means, and these dogs will pass on their deafness genes.

If you wish to have your dog Baer tested, contact your local Dalmation club or veterinary teaching school.

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