Of all mammals, cats are on the top of the list when it comes to good hearing. In fact, all their senses, except taste, are better than ours! They are extremely sensitive to a broad range of frequencies, they can see better in the dark, and their sense of smell is 14 times stronger than ours! Their sense of touch is also more advanced. Their whiskers can pick up even slight air movements and tell them about objects they make contact with, and their paws are sensitive enough to pick up minor vibrations in the ground.
All these senses play a fundamental part in their daily lives – to allow them to be constantly aware of their environment, to avoid predators and other dangerous situations like approaching motor vehicles, and to aid in hunting prey, among other things. When one sense is lost, they do tend to rely more on the other senses, but hearing loss or deafness can be an enormous disadvantage to cats, allowing them to become vulnerable to many dangers.
The most common cause of deafness in cats is a genetic disorder, usually associated with white fur and blue eyes. These cats are born deaf. Other causes of acquired deafness are ageing, disease, certain drugs, industrial noise and trauma. Whatever the cause, the management of a deaf cat is the same.
Cats with hereditary deafness should not be bred with and sterilisation is strongly recommended. Deafness due to genetics, ageing, medication or noise cannot be treated, but if the cat has a severe middle ear infection that is causing deafness, this can be corrected medically or surgically by a veterinarian.
The most important part of taking care of a deaf cat is keeping her safe from dangerous situations like motor cars and other animals who could harm her. Preferably she should be kept indoors. If you are able to enclose your garden or have an area enclosed in the garden in which your cat could move around safely, that would be ideal. Cats can also be taught to walk on a lead with a harness. Ensure you have a properly fitting harness that she cannot wiggle out of.
Because deaf cats are easily startled when they don’t see a person approaching them, especially when they are sleeping, always inform visitors, especially children, not to touch your cat suddenly without her being aware of them, as she will lash out or bite from fright.
Allow your cat to position herself so that she minimises the chances of being startled. Create areas in the house for her that are higher up and facing into the rooms. When approaching your cat, stomp your feet and tap the area she is lying on to warn her that you are there. Deaf cats are very sensitive to vibrations, so by doing this you make her aware of your presence.
Although cats are notoriously difficult to train, deaf animals are naturally more visually attentive to humans, making them a little easier to train. With a lot of patience and perseverance, you can train your cat to respond to hand signals. There are no ‘set’ hand signs for cats, so you can make up your own or use human sign language. Ensure that all the people who live in the house with the cat use the same signs otherwise you may confuse the poor cat. Use your voice and facial expressions when training her. They respond well to flashing lights so using a laser pointer can help to get her attention. Start with basic commands like ‘come here’. Once you have her attention, show her the sign and pat the area near you and smile. When she responds, treat her with a tasty treat or a cuddle, whatever works for your cat as a reward.
Once she has mastered the one sign, add another and so on. Be patient with her, it is going to take time! Having hearing cats in the house might help the deaf cat as she will learn the routine from them.
To ‘call’ your cat if you cannot find her, it can be helpful to place a ‘key finder’ that emits a sound onto her collar. Then you can ‘find’ your cat by pressing the key finder and listening for the sound. The cat may also be able to feel the vibration from the sound that is emitted and will learn that it means you want them to ‘come’.
Deaf cats often purr and meow louder than a hearing cat, so don’t let this worry you – it is normal. They may walk into a room and meow loudly looking for you, or they may be able to feel the vibration of their voice.
Although owning a deaf cat does present its own unique issues, if you are willing to invest time and energy (and patience) into your deaf cat, she can live a very happy and rich life