For example, perhaps she’s stopped running from the vacuum cleaner or fireworks no longer make her fearful. In fact, now you think about it she no longer comes running when you open the fridge door.
The explanation for this change in behaviour might be that she’s gone deaf. In a similar way that elderly people suffer from hearing loss so too can our cats, plus some cats are born with impaired hearing. So for the low down on all things acoustic in cats, let’s sound out what it’s like living with a deaf feline.
What Causes Deafness in Cats?
Hearing is a wonder of nature where sound waves are converted into electrical impulses by the ear, and transmitted to the brain. In older cats, the commonest reason for deafness is a form of arthritis in the tiny bones in the middle ear, plus wear-and-tear to the delicate hairs inside the inner ear.
Also, a blocked ear canal due to polyps, wax, or infection has a similar effect to wearing ear plugs and can dull your cat’s hearing. Unfortunately, certain medications can have side effects such as damaging the hearing hairs in the inner ear, and this can lead to deafness. But don’t worry, your vet carefully selects medications and usually only chooses potentially damaging drugs because the underlying health problem is serious and no other medication will do the job.
At the opposite end of life, some kittens are born with impaired hearing. This is down to their genes, and is strongly linked to white cats, especially those with long hair and/or blue eyes. Indeed, the stats are:
- one in a hundred white cats are deaf
- three in four white cats with blue eyes are deaf.
Bear in mind that all kittens are born deaf and blind, so if your cat has kittens any inherited deafness won’t start to show until after their eyes and ears open at 10-14 days. After that, deaf kittens tend to sleep more deeply than their hearing litter mates and fail to wake at meal times. They also play more roughly, as they don’t hear the protesting squeals of littermates when they bite too hard.
How Can I Tell if My Cat is Deaf?
Some specialist centres and universities offer a definitive diagnostic test, the Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response (BAER). This is a non-painful test that measures the brain’s reaction to sound. In reality this test is often reserved for stud cats of responsible breeders who screen hearing prior to mating.
In practical terms, you can assess your cat’s hearing at home. First notice any behavioural changes such as no longer being frightened of noisy household appliances, and watch to see if she wakes when visitors enter the house. Also, some deaf cats become very shouty, as they no longer hear their own voice and lose their ‘volume control’.
Watch her ears to see if she still has ‘Preyer’s reflex’. This is where the cat’s ears move towards the source of sounds created out of sight. A deaf cat no longer shows Preyer’s reflex (although one good ear may move if it’s a one sided problem.)
Try making a variety of attention grabbing noses behind her back and see if she reacts. But to get a true impression be careful not to make air currents whilst banging those pan lids together. A cat’s whiskers are extremely sensitive to vibration and if they register air currents it gives a false impression she can hear.
Caring for a Deaf Cat
Cats use their hearing to locate prey and to warn them of danger. Since you feed your cat regularly, this leaves the main problem being vulnerability. Of course a deaf cat is less aware of passing traffic or barking dogs, so for her own safety it’s best to keep her indoors.
If she’s now living inside you must provide plenty of mental stimulation. This might be ‘Cat TV’ in the form of bird feeders on the windows or leaving the TV on a nature channel. In addition make a point of spending daily one-to-one time where you groom and play with her. Indeed, play takes on new importance as a means of interacting with her world, so provide plenty of interactive toys such as catnip mice, a laser pointer game, or wings-on-a-string.
You may be surprised how much you talk to your cat and have unwittingly trained her to come for a fuss or interact with you. Do keep up the chatter as the cat will read subtle signals in your body language, but also add in clear hand signals. That way the cat with hearing loss still has a marker to respond to.
If you’re the sort of person that tells your cat you are going out but won’t be long, then try doing this whilst adding a visual cue. This simply means placing a unique object where she can see it each time you go out and then removing it when you come home. This gives the cat a ‘statement of intent’ that you’ll come back to put the object away, as you always have done in the past.
And finally, make up for the loss of one sense by enriching the others. This means plenty of physical contact in the form of fusses, grooming, and petting, as this helps her to feel linked up with the world. Remember, living with a deaf cat is not a show-stopper, but by being mindful of her disability you can make her world a richer, safer, and more interesting place.
Do you have experience living with a deaf or hearing impaired cat? What was the biggest challenge or change for you and your cat?