Deafness (Hearing Loss) in Cats

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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: 

  • Conduction deafness is caused by abnormalities of the pinna (external ear), ear canal, tympanic membrane (eardrum), auditory ossicles or middle ear. Waxy debris occluding the ear canal, tympanic membrane, and severe ear infections are all examples of diseases causing conduction deafness.
  • Neurologic or sensorineural deafness is caused by abnormalities of the inner ear, auditory nerve or in the brain itself. Inherited deafness, drug toxicity and age-related deafness are diseases causing sensorineural deafness.

    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

  • Responding only when the pet can see you
  • Sleeping more than normal
  • Not waking unless you physically touch them
  • Turning in the wrong direction when you call them
  • Shaking the head or pawing at the ears
  • 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.

    Home Care

    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:

  • Old age
  • Congenital or inherited deafness
  • Otitis externa, which is inflammation of the external ear
  • Otitis media, or inflammation of the middle ear
  • Otitis interna, or inflammation of the inner ear
  • Loud noises such as gunfire
  • Hypothyroidism
  • Tumors in the ear or in the brain
  • Diuretics such as ethacrynic acid, furosemide and bumetanide
  • Ototoxic drugs, which are drugs that have a deleterious effect on the ear or the otic nerve, such as gentamycin, neomycin, streptomycin, amikacin, polymyxin B, minocycline, erythromycin and chloramphenicol
  • Otic cleaning agents such as ethanol, iodine, chlorhexidine and benzalkonium that are infused into the middle ear through a perforated ear drum
  • Other drugs such as salicylates, cetrimide and cisplatin that can cause temporary and permanent hearing loss

    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.

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