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Deafness in Cats

Mike the deaf cat from the childrens story Why Cats AreIn the book Why Cats Are, from the Love Unleashed illustrated children’s picture book series, Mike the cat is deaf. We see from the story that Mike has adapted well to his physical challenge and enjoys his life like other cats do. 

Let’s learn a bit about deafness in cats:

Deafness in cats can have several origins:  congenital (born deaf) or acquired (infection, trauma, degeneration, aging, toxins (including certain medications).  Deafness at birth can be inherited—a certain gene in cats causes white fur, blue eyes, and deafness (the chance of deafness is as high as 80% in a white cat with blue eyes); however, not all blue-eyed white cats are deaf.  Diagnosing cat deafness in young kittens who are still part of their birth litter may be difficult until they age a bit and are separated.

Initial cat deafness may be caused by blockages of the external ear (inflammation, infection, damage to the small bones in the ear, or excessive earwax).  If the blockage can be removed, hearing is usually restored.  Acquired deafness may result from loss of nerve cells (usually permanent loss) caused by trauma or infection of the inner ear, loud noises, toxic drugs (certain antibiotics or aspirin), tumors, anesthesia, and old age.

Dogs and cats have excellent hearing.  In cats, their normal hearing peaks at the frequency of mice chatter—no wonder my cat finds all the newborn mice and brings them home as “presents”!  The upper hearing ranges of humans, dogs, and cats are (in that order):  20,000 Hz2, 45,000 Hz2, and 85,000 Hz2 .  Cats, obviously, can hear higher frequencies MUCH better than humans; these high-frequency sounds are also the first to be lost when a cat develops deafness. By the time a human becomes aware the cat isn’t hearing so well, the cat has already lost significant hearing in the high frequency spectrum.

Most Telling Symptoms to Watch For:

  • Loud meowing. The cat can’t hear itself so it turns up the volume.  Those vibrations as the sound bounces off objects is a feedback to the cat that it is “here.”  (Be aware that overactive thyroid glands can also cause this behavior.)
  • Night noises, oddly reassuring in a dark home.
  • Unresponsive to its name (or to the can opener!).
  • No longer reacting to past distressing sounds, like fireworks or running the vacuum.
  • Change in habits, like no longer greeting you at the door.
  • Sleeping longer and deeper. (Sleeping might also be observed when a cat is feeling ill.)
  • Needy or clingy.

Deaf cats can feel vulnerable to predators.  In turn, that makes them anxious or nervous, and in turn they may become aggressive.  Their self-defense instinct is heightened.  But deeply bonded cats may become more affectionate in tolerating hearing loss.

And yes, deaf cats still purr.  It’s all about the vibration that is a source of comfort.  Cats will purr even when in pain or frightened. 

If you suspect your cat is losing hearing at any age, see a Vet so that if the problem is correctable, not much time is lost.