What are Hearing Loss?
Deafness can be the result of illness, a neurological abnormality or a defect or abnormality in the physical makeup of the cat’s ear. If the cat is aging, its hearing loss may be actually a combination of nerve damage and the gradual fusing together of the tiny bones in the cat’s inner ear. The cat may lose hearing in only one ear or in both, depending upon the causes of the loss. White-haired cats with two blue eyes are much more likely to be deaf than cats with other fur and eye colors.
The cat who is experiencing hearing loss literally cannot hear sounds in its environment. Normally, cats have highly acute hearing and can detect sounds that the ordinary human ear isn’t capable of picking up.
Symptoms of Hearing Loss in Cats
Hearing loss in a cat may be gradual, making it difficult for its owner to detect symptoms of the growing deafness. Once the cat’s owner can detect the signs that something is wrong with the cat, they may notice the following:
- Cat’s meow is much louder than normal
- Cat doesn’t respond to normal environmental sounds
- Cat seems to ignore its name or being called
- Cat responds to humans or stimuli only when they are in sight
- Sleeps more than normal
- Turns away from owner when it is called
- Doesn’t wake in response to loud sounds or conversations
- Startles easily
Symptoms of hearing loss from illness:
- Bad odor from the cat’s ears
- Pus coming from the cat’s ears
- Appears dizzy or disoriented
- Tips of the ears become scaly or pink
- Pawing at the ears
- Shaking the head
Causes of Hearing Loss in Cats
The causes of deafness in cats vary widely:
- Illness, such as ear infection (otitis externa, which can travel to the inner ear)
- Ear mites
- Cancerous growths in the ear canal
- Excessive ear wax in the cat’s ears
- Cats born with two blue eyes and white fur are much more likely to be deaf
- Atresia,a defect in the ear canal’s development
- Exposure to household chemicals
- Taking diuretic medications or some antibiotics
- The cat’s eardrum thickens as a cat gets older
- Fused bones in the inner ear
- Nerve damage
Diagnosis of Hearing Loss in Cats
The vet discusses the cat’s symptoms of apparent hearing loss with the owner, then performs a full physical. The vet will test the cat’s responses to sound, noticing whether the cat turns or lifts its head.
The cat undergoes a complete otic exam (exam of the ears) and a full neurological workup. As the vet is on this part of the exam, they will look for any foreign bodies lodged in the cat’s ear, wax accumulation, inflammation, or signs of infection.
Depending on how the cat responds to other tests, the vet may decide to carry out other diagnostic testing.
If the cat is older and the vet suspects an age-related hearing loss, they will conduct the BAER test. This is the brainstem auditory evoked response test, which detects electrical activity in the cat’s cochlea and its auditory pathways. Small foam earphones are put into the cat’s ears and electrodes are placed between its shoulders, under the the fur on its scalp, one at the top of the head and the last two are placed in front of each ear. The cat’s ears are tested individually and the entire test takes up to fifteen minutes.
Treatment of Hearing Loss in Cats
The treatment method used will depend on the cause of the cat’s hearing loss. If the cat has an ear infection, antibiotic treatment may help the cat to recover its hearing. If the cat has an over-accumulation of wax in its ears, this can be carefully and gently removed from the cat’s ears, although the cat may need to be sedated for this procedure.
If a tumor or growth is obstructing the cat’s ear, removing this tumor surgically may help the cat regain some of its lost hearing.
If the cause of the cat’s deafness is the result of damage to the inner ear (sensorineural), this cannot be treated or reversed. The cat can be fitted for hearing aids, but it may not tolerate having a foreign object placed into its ears.
Genetic and age-related hearing loss cannot be reversed. Instead, the cat will need to learn to cope with its hearing loss.
Any medications the cat took that may have contributed to its hearing loss will need to be discontinued and replaced with another medication.
Recovery of Hearing Loss in Cats
A cat that has lost its hearing can still have a happy, fulfilling life. The cat may need to be limited to staying indoors, and its owners should make sure the cat sees them as they are approaching.
Cats can learn hand signals and how to translate vibration signals as well. If possible, remove carpeting from the house so vibrations can travel along the hard floors to the cat. A tiny bell can be slipped onto the cat’s collar so its owners can easily locate it. A tag that says, “I am deaf” can also be added to the cat’s collar so that, if it gets outside the house, anyone who finds it can adjust how they communicate with the cat.
Signaling the cat silently with a light can be used to communicate that it is time for a meal. Because they are such sensual creatures, cats love gentle touch. Use touch to communicate to the cat and reinforce new signals.
Sleeping cats should be gently awoken with a soft touch. The cat can also compensate by “hearing” its owner’s voice through touch. If the owner places their hand on the cat’s back, the cat will feel the vibrations of the owner’s voice.
Female cats suffering from genetic deafness should be spayed. They should not be allowed to become pregnant and pass the genetic condition onto their kittens, which they won’t be able to hear. Also, because the deaf cat can’t hear itself meow, she will be more easily heard by tom cats wanting to mate.