What is deafness?
Deafness is a temporary or permanent loss of hearing due to age, genetic defect, infection, mites, injury or as a side effect of certain kinds of drugs like antibiotics or diuretics. Deafness can be one ear or both, total or partial, and originate from the ear itself or from the brain’s inability to process information.
Hearing loss due to age
As cats get older, they experience hearing loss to some degree, as people do. You can see signs of this when your cat doesn’t react to loud noises nearby or when walking, he may have balance problems. Have your veterinarian make sure the problem is only due to age.
Blue-eyed white cats are particularly prone to deafness from birth. The cat does not have to be pure white to have this problem. Max, a green-eyed tuxedo cat, was adopted from a shelter by Mary Seaton to be a companion for her chatty calico, Mrs. Murphy. He seemed to be a calm, quiet cat and a good match for the family.
Mrs. Murphy was quite disappointed—Max didn’t jump up and run when she pounced him as he napped in the center of the floor. He didn’t respond to her invitations to play.
When Max didn’t react to the sound of the garbage disposal, Mary knew he had a problem. Off to the vet they went where her guess was confirmed. Max was deaf, probably from birth, due to a genetic defect common in white cats. Max is about 70% white.
Paulette adopted a white cat with one blue eye and one yellow eye at the shelter. Princess surprised her by giving birth to four kittens later that week. One was black, three white. The white kittens have problems with balance and coordination—in addition, Pixie is deaf.
“She is surprised quite easily if she doesn’t see or feel me come near her. Now I make sure to walk hard or knock on the floor or something close to her so she’s aware of me, especially when she’s asleep,” said Paulette. “She’s still quite the kitten in many ways. Not hearing doesn’t seem to be a problem for her.”
Mites damage the ear drum, resulting in inflammation and infection. If your cat’s ears are tender to the touch (that is, he will not let you look in his ears without a threat of scratches), or you see redness and swelling or a black sticky substance—those are signs to make an appointment with the vet. Don’t assume ear mites—there are several causes with similar symptoms. Your veterinarian can clean the ears, apply medicine and teach you to do the same. Repeated or untreated infections can lead to hearing loss so don’t delay a trip to verify the problem and get the right medication. Sometimes food allergies bring about ear infections. If your cat has repeated ear problems, try switching to a grain-free food.
How to live with a deaf cat
Mary Seaton doesn’t open a door without knowing where her two cats are. “They are inside cats but they’re quick,” she said. “I use the door to the garage or a screened room so all exits are through two doors.” A sign is posted on the fridge in case there’s an emergency when Mary isn’t home.
If your cat is asleep on the floor, stomp your foot so he feels the vibration and isn’t startled awake. If he’s on the bed, jiggle the edge to wake him. He may be somewhat disoriented at times so make sure you know where he is when people are coming in and out of the house. Let him know when you are entering or leaving a room. If workmen are around, it might be best to put the cats in a closed room.
Mary is teaching Max lip reading and sign response. She gets his attention and then exaggerates the word eat and his name. He also responds to a hand signal to follow Mary. Max then heads downstairs—he doesn’t miss any meals. Max describes him well—he now weighs over twenty pounds and qualifies as a “max-imum cat.”
Since cats love to hide and Max can’t hear when called, Mary tries to know all his hiding places. She’s searching for a GPS type attachment, lightweight enough for Max’s collar, in case she ever has to evacuate in a hurry.
“Max is now well integrated into our household routine. He plays chase, catch the pole bird, bat the circle ball and has non-vicious wrestling matches with Mrs. Murphy. He’s destroyed multiple scratching poles. He’s a good boy who doesn’t scratch the furniture, unlike a calico I could mention,” Mary said.
Adopting a deaf cat
A deaf cat should be no more problem than any other cat who may or may not come when called. Never let a deaf cat outside. He won’t be able to hear traffic or know a dog is coming. Make sure doors, windows and screens are secure. Put a bell on his collar so you have a way of knowing where he is in the house.
Cats are very adaptable and will use their other senses to compensate for hearing loss. They’ll continue to have a good quality of life. Just ask Mary. She said, “Would I adopt a handicapped pet again? You bet I would! Between 6 and 7 P.M. is now Max’s lap time. I can't imagine having him hear would make that time any more satisfying. I love him dearly and feel very much loved in return.”
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