Despite a lack of hearing, there is no reason a deaf cat can’t have a happy, healthy, and fulfilling life. In fact, a deaf cat’s life really isn’t all that different from a regular cat’s life. Kuma(pictured above), lost his hearing from chronic ear infections caused by environmental allergies. The hearing loss was very gradual, but once we understood what was happening, we were able to treat the allergies and the stress and anxiety that accompanied the loss of hearing. Whether they were born deaf or developed it later in life due to illness or old age, with a few thoughtful adjustments in your home they will be just as happy as any full-hearing cat.
What are some of the symptoms of hearing loss?
Sleeping very soundly
Lack of response to loud noises
Lack of response to being called
Lack of response to normal household noises, such as someone coming home, or the sound of food dishes being taken out of the cupboard
No response to toys that make noises
What’s different about Kuma and what changes have I noticed about his behavior?
If you’re caring for a deaf cat, it is important to understand how a lack of hearing changes their behavior and how they perceive the environment. Cats are both predator and prey and even though our domestic cats live in the safety of our homes, they still retain their fear of predators. They use their hearing to help detect where prey is and also to alert them to the threat of predators nearby. Without a sense of hearing, they are missing this key warning signal, which can result in increased stress, anxiety, and fear.
Deaf cats have the same needs as a cat with full hearing and their behavior will be very similar, but there are subtle changes to be aware of. They will rely more heavily on their other senses, especially vision and touch. Vibration becomes an important way of interpreting their environment. The feeling of footsteps on the floor, doors opening and closing, air drafts picked up by their whiskers, bass from the tv or loud music all become a way for them to know what’s going on in the household.
When Kuma enters a room, he looks around to observe his surroundings. This is a normal behavior for cats, but for Kuma I’ve noticed he does this more often and more thoroughly. He figures out what’s going on in the room and adjusts his behavior accordingly. He often avoids walking through the center of the room and will skirt the edges of the room where he feels less vulnerable instead. He chooses sleeping places that are up high, enclosed, or in a farther, less active area of the home. He’s a very sound sleeper and voices or other noises do not wake him up at all. He used to greet us at the door when we arrived home, now I find him when I get home instead.
It is common for deaf cats to vocalize a lot. This may be because they can’t regulate the volume as effectively, or because they enjoy the sensation of the vibrations it creates. Kuma meows more often and sometimes quite loudly. Sometimes I believe it’s a way for him to call out to us. He’s wondering where everyone in the house is because he can’t hear us. His meow always changes as soon as we come into his line of vision as if to say, “Hi! I found you!”. I’ve learned to either come to him or wave my hand as a way to show him where I am, this almost always stops the meowing. It’s important to note that this is different than in excessive vocalization cases where the cat is fully able to hear and is meowing for attention. In that situation, you would avoid rewarding the meowing so as to not reinforce the behavior.
In The Tribe of Tiger, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas talks about her cat Aasa that went blind because of a genetic condition. Aasa wasn’t able to see the other cats and had no expressions to offer them. The other cats ended up taking Aasa’s lack of expressions as a threat and it was difficult for them to get along after the blindness took over. Kuma can still see our other cats’ body language, but occasionally when they play, they can get a little too intense and I speculate that this may be in part because Kuma is not able to hear vocal indicators from Ranger and Magnus that he’s gone too far. I try to keep a close eye on their play sessions and redirect them if I’m concerned it will get too intense.
Reducing Stress and Anxiety
I’ve found that reducing the stress and anxiety associated with his hearing loss has been the key component of caring for Kuma. This is important for his overall well-being and will help reduce other health problems as he gets older. Most importantly, I won’t sneak up on him from behind, so I can avoid starting him. You don’t ever want your presence to be associated with something negative and constant startling can cause feelings of unpredictability and can lead to him feeling on edge all the time. I use heavy footsteps when walking into the room to alert him to my presence and I approach him only when I’m in his line of site, instead of from behind. If I need to wake him up for any reason, I gently shake his cat bed or tap the floor or other surface. Start petting only after they see you and know you are there.
Make sure you provide resting places that give them a sense of security and safety. They may not always feel comfortable resting out in the open when they can’t hear someone, or something approaching and would prefer to choose a place where they can minimize their chance of being startled. They should have places up high and cave-like places down low, such as a sideways box or cubby. Kuma likes to have both of these options. His two favorite places right now are on top of a tall cat tower or in a box in the porch. The cat tower has an excellent visual field of the main common areas of our home. He can see the living room, dining room, and kitchen all from one high up perch.
Just like a cat who might startle at a loud noise, a deaf cat may startle from something like a stomp on the ground. Pairing something positive with a negative stimulus will help them form a connection and become accustomed to it to ease their fear. Keep a few treats in your pocket and if something sudden happens that initiates a fear response give the cat a treat.
How to Communicate with Your Deaf Cat
Communicating with a deaf cat isn’t difficult, you just have to keep in mind they can’t hear, so you need to use visual or other sensory stimuli to do so. Some suggestions are:
Use eye contact – make sure they are able to see you when you want to communicate
Use both verbal and non-verbal cues such as hand signals from the ASL dictionary
Wave or shake your hands to let them know you are acknowledging them
Touch/pet them while you’re talking to them
Use appropriate facial expressions when interacting with them
An easy way to start communicating and training them is to teach them “Come here!”. When you have their attention, use the signal you’ve chosen for ‘come here’ and encourage them to come to where you are by tapping the floor in front of you. When they come, reward them with a treat, petting, or something else you know they enjoy. This same principle can be applied to other situations such as mealtime, just use the appropriate chosen signal each time. After doing this consistently for a while, your cat will learn to associate the signal with the behavior or activity.
Provide Sufficient Stimulation for the Other Senses
Just like any cat, enrichment is important to their overall well-being. To make up for a loss of hearing, the other senses tend to get heightened, especially if their lack of hearing has been present since birth or a young age. These other senses become even more crucial to them and it’s important to keep that in mind when you’re providing toys and other enrichment. Their hunting tactics will change, and the cat will focus more on visual cues and the feeling of vibrations or air currents as something passes them by. Here are some ideas that focus on the other senses:
Visual: Cat TV(Kuma loves this), excellent window viewing perches, toys that move in interesting ways, such as Da Bird, Cat Dancer, or bubbles.
Touch: Lickimat, toys designed for dental health, providing a variety of food textures, petting, and brushing if tolerated, Hexbug toy, food puzzle toys that require a lot of paw use.
Taste: provide a variety of flavored treat options.
Scent: catnip, silver vine, honeysuckle, valerian, branches and leaves from outside(verify they are safe for cats first), opening a window to let the air in, let them sniff a food take out bag, hide food or treats under crumpled paper or around the home that they have to sniff out.
Harness and leash training for outside adventures is another great way to provide enrichment for any cat. With a deaf cat, you just need to be extra vigilant and aware of how the environment affects them. Watch their body language and notice if they seem uncomfortable or uncertain in a new environment. Don’t ever let deaf cats roam outside unsupervised because they can’t hear cars, predators, or people approaching. They are very vulnerable in that state when outside.
Clicker training is possible with a deaf cat. Instead of a clicker, use a quick flash from a pen light and/or hand signals. If using a pen light, be careful not to shine it in their face.
Cats are amazing creatures that are resilient. They will be able to adapt to their hearing loss and live a normal life. With a little bit of training (for the cat and people!), it’s quite easy to accommodate your behavior to a deaf cat’s needs. Deaf cats are truly remarkable, and this should not stop you from adopting a special needs cat.
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