On occasion, we will devote a Pathways column to asking questions to an expert in a particular area of audiology/hearing that may be interest to our readers. We are fortunate to pose questions to Dr. Pete Scheifele of the University of Cincinnati one of the foremost animal audiologists in the world.
Briefly, what is animal audiology?
Animal audiology is the study of determining hearing thresholds and assessing hearing loss and hearing management in non-human animals.
Give us some info on your background and how you got started in animal audiology.
As I was planning my Ph.D. work to understand animal hearing (specifically marine mammal) on behalf of the U.S. Navy, I chanced to meet Dr. Frank Musiek at the University of Connecticut CSD. At the time, I was in the Animal Science Department and was a Naval Oceanography officer.
Dr. Musiek got me interested in audiology and specifically, the Lombard Effect, which I ended up studying for my dissertation with him. During my time at university and just after receiving my doctoral degree I began to conduct Brainstem Auditory Evoked Potential (BAER- the equivalent of ABR in animals) testing in dogs. Given that some eighty (80) breeds of dogs in the U.S. suffer congenital deafness (Dalmatians being at the top of the list) a good knowledge of audiology and electrophysiology was needed. Although veterinarians and veterinary neurologists do run BAER tests they do not possess the strict and concentrated audiological background as do AuDs.
When I came on faculty in CSD at the University of Cincinnati I continued conducting canine audiology and with my many years of working with exotic animals at aquaria and zoos, branched out to do both. I founded FETCHLAB USA and now oversee three (3) FETCHLABs. In 2014 I was tasked by the military to work with military working dogs as the Army Subject Matter Expert (SME) for canine audiology given my military security clearance and prior 23 years of service.
How did training in audiology help you in this area of endeavor?
As I previously mentioned, although veterinarians and veterinary neurologists do run BAER tests they do not possess the strict and concentrated audiological background as do AuDs. A greater understanding of hearing loss, and especially noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), noise conservation and hearing management as well as an in-depth ability to test not only BAER but, OAE and immittance is required. These are skills that directly relate to what we do in FETCHLAB.
Tell us a little bit about your dissertation
My dissertation entitled “Indication of a Lombard Effect in Beluga Whales (Delphinapterus leukas)” was carried out in the St. Lawrence River estuary in Canada. This portion of the river is rife with noise from commercial shipping and whale watching ecotourism. The small population of Beluga Whales are hence, subject to daily anthropogenic noise. The conservation difficulty in question was; how (behaviorally and audiologically) do the animals react to and cohabitate in such an environment relative to ship noise? It was the first time that anyone considered the Lombard effect on these fully aquatic marine mammals.
I know you have been heavily involved with animal training the military – tell us about that.
As the SME for canine audiology I am involved with tactical audiological management, kennel noise mitigation, and aspects of the audiological safety of dogs in theatre. This includes hearing protection, communication, noise, and audiological behavior.
You have organized the now well known “Fetch Lab” –please tell us about that.
The three (3) current operational FETCHLABs are: FETCHLAB UNC (University of Northern Colorado), FETCHLAB AKRON (Ohio), and the home base UC FETCHLAB (University of Cincinnati). All conduct BAER puppy screenings and diagnostic testing. In addition, UC FETCHLAB, and now, FETCHLAB UNC offer the only places in the world where an Au.D. can earn a graduate certification as an “Animal Audiologist”.
At UC FETCHLAB I have fitted hearing aids on nine (9) dogs and am in the process of developing a purely “canine hearing aid”.
What are the key tests that you do to assess hearing in animals?
The staple test (due to the amount of congenital deafness) is BAER puppy screening. We also see older dogs by conducting BAER diagnostic testing, DPOAE, wideband immittance and threshold estimation.
Testing in exotic animals under professional care depends on what exotic animal we are testing. For instance, we are testing dolphins (audible and ultrasonic hearing and African elephants (infrasonic, seismic and audible frequency ranges).
Military consist mainly baseline audiology tests (similar to diagnostic testing) and re-test.
I understand there is certification for animal audiology – please explain.
UC FETCHLAB, and now, FETCHLAB UNC offer the only places in the world where an Au.D. can earn a graduate certification as an “Animal Audiologist”. To be involved, a person be a current Au.D. student or licensed, practicing audiologist and make application for the certificate. Having once been accepted, twelve (12) credits of work are required in three (3) separate courses:
- Comparative hearing and vocal mechanisms
- Seminar in animal audiology
- Practicum (25 hours), veterinary shadow and report, restraint training and qualifying examination
Having completed that application for graduation is made and certificate awarded.
What does the future hold for animal audiology?
“Animal Audiology” is only in its infancy. It has not yet been completely embraced by the veterinary community. It is very new to zoos and aquaria as it is to the military community as well. It certainly will NOT take the place (financially or otherwise) of human audiology but there is a growing need. It is my hope and intent to see animal audiology become a veterinary sub-specialty in the future.