Overview of Deafness in Cats
Deafness is the inability to hear and can be caused by either conduction or neurologic abnormalities. Below is information about both of these causes in cats:
Deafness can be unilateral (affecting one ear) or bilateral (affecting both ears). Unilateral deafness is difficult to recognize without specialized equipment. Because of the cost of the equipment, testing is generally limited to veterinary referral hospitals, specialists and university clinics.
White-haired, blue-eyed cats have a higher incidence of deafness than the general feline population.
What to Watch For
Diagnosis of Deafness in Cats
Diagnostic tests are needed to determine the ability to hear and the presence of an underlying disease or cause of the deafness.
Deafness can be assessed by observing the animal’s behavioral response, such as lifting or turning the head, after making a noise out of the animal’s view. Dogs suspected of being bilaterally deaf can be challenged with sounds of increasing intensity from different directions. Be careful not to make sounds that can be “felt” through vibrations.
Animals suspected of having hearing deficits should have a thorough otic (ear) and neurologic examination performed. The ear canal and tympanic membrane can be examined with an otoscope for ear wax accumulation, foreign bodies, infections or inflammation.
Other diagnostic tests may be recommended based on the results of the history and physical examination.
Treatment of Deafness in Cats
Results of the history, physical examination and initial tests will determine the need for further diagnostic tests and will help determine the appropriate treatment for your pet’s deafness.
Conduction deafness can be corrected if the cause, such as wax accumulation or infection, can be eliminated. Cleaning the ears should be done with care to prevent damage to the eardrum. Only well-trained and knowledgeable people should use cotton-tipped applicators such as Q-tips to clean the ears. Caution should be used. Cats with severely dirty ears may need to be cleaned under anesthesia by a veterinarian.
Infection may need to be treated locally (in the ear canal) and systemically with antibiotics.
Sensorineural deafness cannot be reversed with medications, surgery, or hearing aids. Hearing aids have been used in dogs and cats but the majority of the animals do not tolerate the presence of the hearing aid in the ear canal.
Testing can be done at home to assess hearing. Remember that your pet may “feel” sounds such as a door slamming or steps across a hardwood floor.
Treatment prescribed by your veterinarian should be performed as directed. Medications should be given as directed until finished. A bell can be attached to deaf animal’s collar so that if they get away they can be found.
Deaf animals need to be closely supervised especially around traffic since they cannot hear dangers such as cars.
Veterinary care may include diagnostic tests and subsequent treatment recommendations.
In-depth Information on Feline Deafness
Animals that are deaf tend to sleep soundly and do not respond promptly to calls for them. Sometimes, they will continue sleeping until they are awakened with a touch. Unilaterally deaf animals may sleep through calls to them if they are lying on their good (hearing) ear.
Hearing is important for pets because they depend on auditory cues for commands as well as alerting to dangers in the environment. However, deaf animals can make great pets once the deafness is recognized.
Causes of Deafness in Cats
Causes of deafness can be divided into either conduction disturbances or sensorineural disturbances. Conduction deafness is caused by abnormalities of the pinna (external ear), ear canal, tympanic membrane (eardrum), auditory ossicles or middle ear. Sensorineural deafness is caused by abnormalities of the inner ear, auditory nerve, or in the brain itself. Some of the more common causes of deafness are:
Deafness can be unilateral (affecting one ear) or bilateral (affecting both ears). Partial deafness is difficult to recognize but in some animals, partial hearing loss can be observed by some owners. Unilateral and partial deafness can be tested using a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test. The BAER test requires specialized equipment that may only be available at veterinary referral centers. The BAER test is the only reliable and accurate way to assess deafness, particularly unilateral deafness. Animals as young as 5 weeks old can be tested for deafness using the BAER test. The BAER is absent in affected animals.
Cats born deaf usually inherit this problem from their parents. Inherited deafness is sensorineural deafness due to degeneration of the inner ear structures. You will typically notice the deafness at a young age. White, merle or piebald coats increases the chances that an animal has inherited deafness. Deafness has been linked to certain breed characteristics such as heterochromia iridis (incomplete iris pigmentation) although definite links have not been proven.
In animals that have inherited deafness, all the breeding animals should be tested using the BAER test. If they are found to be deaf in one or both ears, they should be removed from the breeding programs. Inherited deafness cannot be treated with hearing aids or surgical treatment.
Diagnostic tests are performed to establish the diagnosis of deafness and help identify the cause. Some of the testing for bilateral and complete deafness can be done at home as frightened or uncooperative animals may be impossible to evaluate in the veterinary clinic. Your veterinarian can make recommendation for treatment and lifestyle modifications based on the findings of the examinations and tests.
Testing Your Cat for Deafness at Home
You can easily assess whether your pet is bilaterally and completely deaf. This testing method requires two people, the “observer” and the “noisemaker.” This method avoids some of the mistakes people can make in evaluating hearing. The first step is to wait until your pet is lying down either asleep or very quiet. The observer should be in the same room as your pet. The noisemaker should be in an adjoining room but out of sight from the pet. The noisemaker begins by making low decibel sounds such as clapping or whistling. The observer should watch for a reaction from the pet to the sound. Reactions are usually lifting of the head (alerting) and turning towards the sound. The noisemaker should increase the volume of the sound until a reaction is observed.
By testing this way, you avoid giving your pet visual cues and decrease the chance of misdiagnosing your pet’s deafness. The noisemaker should be aware that vibrations through air and surfaces can be felt by mechanoreceptors not associated with the ear. For example, an animal may alert to feeling a vibration from a slammed door rather than actually hearing the sound of the slamming door.
Testing At the Veterinarian’s Office
Your veterinarian will take a complete medical history and perform a thorough general physical examination. Previous medications and any illness your pet has had should be brought to your veterinarian’s attention in the case of a youngster suspected of being deaf. It would be helpful to know the hearing status of the animal’s parents.
Other important information your veterinarian will need is the age at which you first noticed the deafness, what alerted you to the suspected deafness, and any signs associated with the problem such as head shaking, ear scratching or discharge from the ears.
Your veterinarian may repeat some of the hearing tests you have done. Remember, it can be difficult to assess frightened or uncooperative animals. After assessing for deafness in your dog, your veterinarian may perform the following tests:
In the case of conduction deafness caused by ear infections and wax accumulation, treatment is aimed at removing the infection or blockage. Cleaning should be done only by well-trained people to prevent further hearing damage. In some cases of severe ear infections or presence of a large foreign body, your pet may need to be anesthetized by your veterinarian. Hearing can be restored as long as the damage is not too severe. Other treatments may include:
Follow-up Care for Cats with Hearing Loss
No matter the cause of your pet’s deafness, special precautions are needed to accommodate deaf cats. Deaf animals cannot hear danger around them. For this reason, they must be protected and closely supervised around roads and traffic. Furthermore, animals that are unilaterally deaf will often have difficulty orienting to sound and may turn to the wrong direction, which is dangerous in some situations. If your cat is deaf, he should be kept indoors to prevent tragedy.
In the case of a deaf animal wandering away from you, remember that he cannot hear you call. Placing a bell on his collar will help you locate him.