When we think of cats with disabilities, we generally first think of cats with obvious, visible differences. For instance, we may get a mental image of a cat with three legs, or missing an eye, or perhaps a cat who is paralyzed. We may overlook the invisible disabilities a cat may be living with. Deafness is one of these hidden issues.
Deaf cats are just like hearing cats in all other ways. When we discover that a cat is deaf, or if we are considering adopting a deaf cat, it is important to sort through the misinformation to learn how to best live with a deaf feline companion. Deaf cats can live long, full lives.
How do cats become deaf?
Cats can lose their hearing as they age, just as many humans do. Generally, this is a gradual process, so it may be difficult to notice. The eardrums become less flexible and sounds are not transmitted as effectively. Typically, these cats show subtle behavior changes, like not coming when called or not noticing when you arrive home from work. Chronic ear infections that rupture the ear drum and spread to the middle and inner ear can also lead to deafness.
Some cats are born partially or completely deaf because of a genetic defect; this is called congenital deafness. In most cases of congenital deafness, the deafness is pigment related, and most of these cats have an all-white or mostly white haircoat. These cats are not albino (which is a complete lack of pigment), as they do have color in the irises of their eyes, and they may have color in their skin or in part of their haircoat. It is a myth that every white cat is deaf, or that white cats with blue eyes, green eyes, or one of each are always deaf.
How will I know if my cat is deaf?
Generally, it is harder to tell that a cat is deaf than it is to tell that a dog is deaf, particularly if there is a hearing cat in the household. A deaf cat will tend to look to the hearing cat for visual clues about what is going on. The deaf cat will play with its hearing companion, chasing through the house just like a normal cat.
It may be easier to notice deafness when only one cat is in the home. The cat may sleep very soundly. You may also notice that she startles more easily. Or she may not notice when you enter the room. To determine if your cat is deaf, clap your hands or rattle your keys when she is facing away from you. If there is no reaction, then there is a good chance that your cat is deaf.
Are there any special health concerns associated with deafness in cats?
No. Deafness in cats is generally not linked to any special health concerns.
How do I train a deaf cat?
Deaf cats are quite visually attuned to their surroundings, so take advantage by using your body language to communicate.
- When she looks at you, crouch down toward the floor, extend your hand, and call her to you. Reinforce her instinct to approach you by using a small, tasty treat.
- If she is doing something she is not supposed to, just as jumping on a counter or scratching furniture, you can communicate displeasure by standing tall, waving your arms above your head, and stomping your feet as you approach.
- Create a scheduled routine and stick to it, to quickly teach deaf cats important household routines, such as when meals happen and the feeding and litter box locations.
How do I communicate with my deaf cat?
As mentioned, deaf cats are highly visual and tend to be alert and aware of their surroundings when awake. Visual cues can be used to get their attention:
- Flash the overhead lights when you enter the room to prompt them to look around and see you.
- Use a laser pointer to get their attention if they are facing away from you. Focus the laser pointer on the floor, just ahead of your cat, and then lure him to turn around and notice you.
Touch and vibration are also important to deaf cats.
- A firm stomp on the floor uses vibration to communicate your presence and causes your cat to look around for the source. You can then call your cat to you or head toward the food dish.
- Stroking, brushing, and combing may be quite comforting to a deaf cat.
- Purring is a tactile experience - it causes a vibration. Try purring when you cuddle your deaf cat and see if she responds to your purr.
Of course, play is also a great way to communicate with your deaf cat. Use toys and feathers attached to strings or short poles for great hunting and chasing games. Some cats even learn to fetch (see handout “Teaching and Training a Deaf Cat”).
What else should I be aware of to help my deaf cat?
The most important thing to remember with a deaf cat is that the cat is deaf. This may seem obvious, but we bear a special responsibility to deaf cats. They cannot hear traffic or honking automobile horns, so they need and deserve to live a protected indoor lifestyle. Outdoor enclosures provide great environmental enrichment, and many cats can learn to walk on a harness and leash. Start indoors, and progress slowly with leash walks.
Some deaf cats may feel a vibration in the floor as we approach them, but others may not, so it is important not to sneak up and startle them. Often, firmly tapping a foot nearby is enough to wake them or get their attention. It is also important to teach children appropriate respect for deaf cats.
With a bit of thought, consideration, and training - for both cat and human - deaf cats can lead normal, long, rich, and happy lives.