You call your cat and she wont come. You walk up behind her, stroke her – and she startles. It may take a while to realize that your cats uncharacteristic behavior may not be a result of a quirky personality, but actually a problem with her hearing. Deafness can come on gradually with age, or it can occur suddenly with illness or an accident. Whatever the reason, there are ways to help you and your cat adjust.
The Causes of Deafness
Some cats are born deaf. White cats with blue eyes commonly have congenital deafness, says Stefanie Schwartz, DVM, MSc, a board-certified veterinary behavior specialist who is director of behavior services at VCA South Shore Animal Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts. Any white cat, whether long- or shorthaired, can be affected. Affected breeds include the Manx, Cornish rex and Persian. People sometimes dont even realize their cat is deaf, especially if the cat is deaf in only one ear or at a specific part of the hearing range and the hearing loss is barely evident.
The sudden onset of deafness has several causes. Infections of the middle ear (otitis media) or inner ear (otitis interna) can produce temporary or permanent deafness. Otitis media may leave behind debris that blocks sound transmission to the inner ear. This is known as conduction deafness. However, if otitis interna is not immediately treated, it will produce permanent nerve deafness.
Your veterinarian should examine the ear canal to determine if this is the case. Normal ears do not need to be cleaned, but if debris has accumulated, your veterinarian may prescribe medication to help clean the ear canal or resolve any signs of infection. There can also be a foreign body in the ear, or a tumor, says Dr. Schwartz.
Drug toxicity can also cause permanent deafness. One group of antibiotics -sometimes used to treat life-threatening conditions in cats – must be given cautiously. It seems that these drugs may directly or indirectly destroy the ears hair cells, resulting in hearing impairment or total deafness.
The same holds true for general anesthesia. Though rare, some cats will wake up with a hearing impairment after general anesthesia. One theory is that the drug shunts blood supply away from the cochlea, the spiral cavity of the internal ear in which sound vibrations are converted to nerve impulses. Noise trauma – such as an explosion or gunfire – can also produce temporary or permanent deafness by damaging the ears sound-sensitive cells.
When hearing loss is gradual – due to aging, for example – human companions may not notice anything adverse for a while, because the cat compensates for hearing impairment through his other senses. But sudden deafness may result in confusion, irritability or overattachment to human companions. Some cats may start yowling loudly and often, while others will become mute.
Coping with A Silent World
If you suspect that your cat is having hearing difficulties, take him to the veterinarian immediately. Sometimes hearing decline can be caused by a buildup of debris in the ears. If the problem is caused by something treatable, the deafness may subside. But timely diagnosis and care is crucial. Sometimes your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary neurologist if further diagnosis is required, says Dr. Schwartz.
Look for behavioral signs such as startling, clinging, excessive crying or a marked decrease in response to your call. A cat with deafness in only one ear may turn her head more often to increase the chance of picking up sounds with the hearing ear. To test your cats hearing, snap your fingers close to your cats ears without letting him see you approach him. Does your cat respond? Does he jump defensively if you touch him from behind? These are clues that your cat may not be hearing properly.
Deafness does not always mean complete hearing loss, says Dr. Schwartz. The degree of deafness ranges. But if there is any impairment, dont even think about letting your cat outdoors, says Dr. Schwartz. Your cat will not be able to perceive danger as accurately with a hearing loss.
Whatever the degree of hearing loss, there are a number of things you can do to keep up communication with your cat. First, if your cat seems anxious or startles when you wake him, tap gently with your fingernails next to him, says Dr. Schwartz, to create a vibration that your cat may sense. This will help wake your cat more gently.
Some cats learn to respond to hand signals. Some people turn a flashlight on and off (followed by a tasty treat) to call their cat. In general, deaf cats learn to cope well, relying on their other senses, says Dr. Schwartz.