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BAER testing – hear, hear!
The BAER (Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response) test diagnoses deafness in dogs. The incidence of genetic deafness in English Setters has prompted the English Setter Association of America to require that ES be screened for it, as well as for hip and elbow dysplasia, in order to be assigned a Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) number.
All puppies are born deaf. In normal hearing puppies, the ear canal gradually opens, and the puppy can hear at around age three weeks. In puppies that have an inherited form of deafness, part of the blood supply to the inner ear degenerates, and the cochlear nerve cells subsequently die, resulting in permanent deafness by 5-7 weeks of age. The disorder can be associated with pigmentation patterns, one of which is piebald (blending of colored and white hairs), a characteristic of English Setters (see G. M. Strain, “Color and Deafness in Dogs,” http://www.fleetfiretimbers.com/FFT/Articles/Color and Deafness in Dogs.htm) .
Puppies that can hear in only one ear (unilaterally deaf, or uni’s) act so normal that the BAER test is necessary to identify them, and sometimes the test is necessary to identify bilaterally deaf puppies too. Removing all deaf individuals from a breeding program, whether bilateral or unilateral, is a necessary step to reduce the incidence of deafness in a breed.
Responsible ES breeders should BAER test all puppies before placing them. Even puppies earmarked for non-breeding homes should be tested because the breeder needs to know what a stud dog and brood bitch are producing overall in order to make sound future breeding decisions. BAER testing centers are not plentiful, but any responsible breeder must find a way to get the test done before placing puppies. A breeder who cannot do this should not be in a breed where inherited deafness is possible.
ESAA has maintained a database of BAER information for statistical analysis for many years. Names of dogs are published or confidential, in compliance with the owner’s wish. ESAA’s database, maintained by Jane Wooding, has so much integrity that its data are sent to the Orthopedic Foundation for Animals periodically and are merged with OFA’s data. Richard Fox has been a liaison between ESAA and OFA for many years, even sitting on OFA’s Board, and was instrumental in paving the way for ESAA BAER data to become part of the OFA database.
Data for entire litters and families are important because the more hearing animals throughout a pedigree, the better the chances for that family tree to produce normal hearing progeny in future generations.
If there is an unacceptable level of deafness in a canine family, there are plenty of ways to enjoy puppies and dogs from that family without breeding them. Folks looking for a wonderful, loving pet will find a unilaterally hearing puppy easy to incorporate into their household, and that puppy will be basically normal. For folks that enjoy a special challenge, a bilaterally deaf puppy can be a loving, joyful companion as long as patience and special training methods that do not incorporate sound are used and precautions are taken to keep the dog safe from dangers it cannot hear.
For more information on congenital deafness, BAER testing, CHIC, and training deaf dogs, go to http://www.offa.org , http://www.esaa.com/Health/BaerInfo.html, and http://www.lsu.edu/deafness/deaf.htm (this site includes a list of BAER test sites), among others.