Teaching and Training a Deaf Cat

By Ellen Lindell, VDM, DACVB; Monique Feyrecilde, BA, LVT, VTS (Behavior); Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Robin Downing, DVM, CVPP, CCRP, DAAPM

Deaf cats can learn just as easily as hearing cats. The training process, using rewards to encourage behaviors, is the same. The difference is that all cues must be non-verbal. Your communication must reach your cat using the senses that she relies on in life: vision, touch, and smell. Training a deaf cat may take more thought and planning than training a hearing cat, but the end result will be worth it. Deafness can contribute to feelings of isolation; creating good communication can minimize that potential loneliness.

How do deaf cats experience their environment?

Deaf cats rely on their other senses, especially vision and touch.

  • Deaf cats often position themselves in high places, such as the top of the refrigerator or a kitty condo facing into the room, so they have a clear view of their surroundings, minimizing the risk of being startled. Help your deaf cat by providing comfortable lookout spots in various areas of the home to feel more secure.
  • Deaf cats may have a heightened awareness of movement and vibration. You can let your cat know that you are approaching by walking with a slightly heavier stride, gently tapping the couch before you sit down beside them, or tapping the surface they are resting on to let them know you are near and avoid startling them.
  • Deaf cats often purr and meow louder than their hearing counterparts. They may find the vibration of their own sound to be soothing.

How can I introduce hand signals to communicate with my deaf cat?

Before you begin training, create a list of behaviors you would like to teach your cat. For instance, you might want to ask your cat to go to bed, go into a carrier, or even do some fun tricks to earn a reward. Similarly, list some of the words you would like your cat to understand. For instance, you might want to signal that it is dinner time. Think of the things you have said during conversations with your hearing cats and consider whether your deaf cat would also enjoy that conversation. The more you communicate, the more predictable you will be for your cat, and the more relaxed and interactive your cat will be with you.

Next, for each behavior or word, create a hand signal that you will remember and use consistently. One option is to choose from a catalog of standardized signals such as the dictionary of American Sign Language (ASL).

Write a list to track the signals that your cat understands. And remember to share the information with all members of your household as well as your cat’s caregivers.

Are there cues besides hand signals that I can use?

There may be times that you would like to communicate with your deaf cat but you are not close enough for them to notice your hand signal. For example, you may need to call your cat to “come” when they’re out of sight. In those cases, it may be necessary to rely on your cat’s sense of smell. Instead of moving your arm to make a signal, lightly spritz a pleasant odor such as lavender or vanilla. Do not spray towards or close to your cat.

How do I begin teaching and training my deaf cat?

As with any teaching and training process, the keys are patience, persistence, and creativity. The first step is to establish the behavior before adding any signal or cue.

"The first step is to establish the behavior before adding any signal or cue." 

When you train using positive reinforcement, you use rewards to encourage your cat to engage in desired behaviors. Once your cat understands fully, you can label the behavior to put it "on cue”.

1. Choose a reward. Reward-based training is effective only if your cat loves the reward. You must determine what your cat likes. Many cats love small food treats, squeezable treats like Churu Paste, small licks of whipped cream, tiny pieces of marshmallow, or tiny pieces of processed meat or tuna fish. Treats should be very small—about one-quarter to one-half the size of a pea or pencil eraser.

  • Cats have strict nutritional needs. When using treats, be sure that your cat still eats the required daily amount of nutritious food and that your cat does not become overweight. Some cats are very food motivated and will work for tiny morsels of dry or canned cat food. Test your cat’s preference by introducing a novel brand of food for training—one that is different than the brand your cat usually eats. 
  • Food is a powerful motivator, but it is not the only reward available. Some cats prefer to be rewarded with a pet or chin scratch. Many cats love to be brushed or to play with a toy. Any of these can be used for positive reinforcement training.

2. Select a skill. Skills may include sit, lie down, come, and go to bed. For example, to teach your cat to come when called:

  • Stand a few feet in front of your cat. Show your cat a treat to encourage her to run to you. Reward.
  • Repeat this process a few times, varying your distance from your cat.
  • Next, you’ll teach the cue you have selected. First show the treat; then, just as your cat takes the first step toward you, use the visual signal or spritz (spray away from your cat).
  • When your cat gets to you, deliver the reward.
  • Repeat this sequence several times, adding some variety such as changing the distance, the angle, and the location. When you make a change, do a few repetitions without the cue—just reward the behavior, then add the cue when the behavior is predictable.
  • Finally, if you are using a scent, you may practice out of sight, by creating just the odor.

Note: You may have two cues for the same behavior (e.g., a visual signal and a scent). However, you may not have two behaviors for one cue.

Are there any special training tips or aids I can use with my deaf cat?

  • Athough your cat does not hear you, it can be helpful to use your voice and appropriate facial expressions when you teach a cue. Smile when giving cues like “Come here!” or “Time for dinner!” Pets watch our facial expressions. Your cat will notice your smile and may even learn to read your lips.
  • Use caution when considering specially marketed products such as vibrating collars. The vibration may be startling or unpleasant to a cat, and these products are generally not necessary. Simply going near the cat and patting the surface they are on is enough to get them to look in your direction.

Can I teach and train my cat who became deaf because of age?

Cats can learn new skills at any age. Learning may be a little easier during youth, but even cats who lose their hearing due to aging can learn new signs and signals, if needed. Many cats become deaf in their senior years, so it may be helpful to teach your cat to respond to several types of cues—visual, olfactory, and verbal—while the cat is young and has great hearing.

Can my deaf cat ever go outside?

It is not safe to allow deaf cats to roam freely outside. Deaf cats are unable to hear dangers such as other animals or approaching cars and are at a much higher risk of injury or accident compared with cats who can hear.

That said, most cats can be trained to use a harness and leash, whether they are deaf or hearing. Leash walks can be excellent enrichment for cats, and keep the cat safe from outdoor dangers. Be sure to choose a snug, custom-fit harness and start your training in the house, where it is safe.

Another option is to create an outdoor enclosure attached to the house that allows for safe outdoor time, often called a “catio.” This kind of environmental enrichment is good for any cat, deaf or hearing. There are many commercially available “build-your-own” catio kits, and many contractors construct catios as one of their regular services.

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