It used to be I could call Seren to come watch the bunny on the patio, and she’d run from anywhere in the house. She’d always been a loud-mouth kitty, talking constantly and responding to our conversation, so she always had the last word. But her voice was always pleasant, almost a sweet mew. With her loss of hearing, her voice became louder, more strident, and she often cried especially at night with long drawn out yowls when she couldn’t hear to find us.
HOW WELL DO PETS HEAR?
In her youth, Seren (like all normal cats) heard much better than people. However, youthful pets hear better than middle-aged and older animals. Some cats are born deaf, or are genetically predisposed to deafness. For example, blue-eyed white cats can be born with a condition that results in deafness at an early age.
Hearing is something that cats are better at than dogs–but don’t tell the dogs! Normal dogs typically hear the same low-pitched sounds as humans, as well as frequencies as high as 100,000 cycles per second—people can only hear sound waves up to 20,000 cycles per second. Cat hearing is even more acute. Your cat can hear sounds in a 10½-octave range—a wider span of frequencies than any other mammal. That allows your cat to hear nearly ultrasonic rodent squeaks.
At least, Seren used to hear those mousy voices. Not anymore. Oh well, she never caught a mouse, anyway!
With age, the delicate structures of the inner ear begin to lose their sensitivity to vibration. This normal age-related hearing loss, called presbycusis, develops in every pet that lives long enough—just as it does in aging people. We’re going to be in BIG trouble if Seren lives another 10 years and I’m losing my hearing, too.
Hearing loss can be accelerated by damage from loud noises. Dogs that hunt and are exposed to gunshots for years and years are more prone to damage. Chronic ear infections may also result in hearing loss.
MAKING ACCOMMODATIONS FOR DEAF DOGS AND DEAF CATS
Deaf cats and deaf dogs can’t tell us that they’re hard of hearing, and they compensate by paying more attention with their other senses. In fact, strangers probably wouldn’t notice any difference in Seren. As long as she can see folks, she clues in very quickly on what’s going on. Deaf pets watch owners and other pets more closely, and cue off of their behavior to know that somebody’s at the door, for example. Seren alerts to Magic’s behavior when my husband comes home. Deaf pets also pay closer attention to vibration and air currents—the breeze made by an open door may cue them you’ve come home from work. Even when they can’t hear the can opener, the pet’s internal “clock” will announce suppertime.
So what do I do to make accommodations for my kitty? I make sure Seren can see me, and if she’s looking the other way, I tap the tabletop or stomp my foot so she feels the vibration. I don’t want to startle her, and this way she is alerted to my presence. If Magic should start to lose his hearing, he’s already learned many hand signals and probably wouldn’t miss a beat. Pets trained with clickers can instead learn to respond to the flick-on-off of a flashlight or a porch light switched on/off to call the dog inside.
Deafness also raises safety concerns. Can the dozing, deaf cat wake up in time to get away from an aggressive stray? Keeping all cats and especially deaf kitties inside is probably the safest option. Seren rarely went outside anyway, and then on a leash, so she’s not missing anything.
Seren is still happy and otherwise healthy. She still indulges in the “zooms” almost every evening, and enjoys putting the dog in his place. Have you ever had a pet with hearing loss? What were tips that helped you keep your pet happy and safe? Please share!
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Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified cat & dog behavior consultant, a consultant to the pet industry, and the award-winning author of 35+ pet-centric books and Thrillers with Bite! Oh, and she loves bling!