Communicating with a Deaf Cat

Living with and being responsible for a deaf cat can certainly seem a little daunting at first. Whether you are adopting a deaf cat or your cat has recently been diagnosed with hearing loss, it can feel intimidating.

How do you ensure your cat’s safety? Will the cat need any special care? And how do you communicate with a deaf cat?

Though it may surprise you, deaf cats adapt quite well, whether they are born deaf or develop hearing loss later in life. Instead of relying on their hearing, deaf cats learn to rely on their other senses. You can help them with this, too, by teaching them hand signals and sign language! 

Causes of Deafness in Cats

Aging and deafness in cats

Just like humans, cats can slowly lose their hearing as they age. In these cases, it can be difficult to tell if or when a cat has lost its hearing. As your cat ages, you might notice small behavioral changes like startling more easily, not coming when called, not noticing when you get home, and other things that a hearing cat would normally notice and respond to.

Ear infection and injury 

Cats can also become deaf later in life due to an ear infection or injury.

An orange tabby cat with a damaged right ear sitting in a window with a dark wooden frame.
Ear infections and injuries can cause deafness in some cats. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

Congenital deafness in cats

Congenital deafness, a genetic disorder, may cause other cats to be born deaf or partially deaf. Researchers have estimated that 65 to 85 percent of white cats with blue eyes are born deaf or partially deaf.

Deafness in these cats is linked to the white (W) pigment gene. When white cats are born partially deaf and have dichromatic eyes, the ear that is deaf is invariably on the side of the head where the blue eye is.

A white cat with one blue eye and one green eye looking at the camera.
White cats with partial deafness tend to be deaf in the ear that is on the same side as the blue eye. Photo: © polinabelphoto / stock.adobe.com.

Deaf cats still have an excellent quality of life despite being unable to hear. If they’ve never been able to hear, they simply grow up learning to rely on their sense of sight, smell, and touch. 

How to know if your cat is deaf 

Having another cat in the home can be quite beneficial as the deaf cat may look to the other cat for guidance via visual cues. If you suspect your cat may be deaf, you’ll want to try to call out for your cat when the cat is facing away from you. If your cat doesn’t respond or react to this, try clapping your hands or making a loud commotion. If your cat still doesn’t respond or react, you either have a very brave kitty on your hands, or your cat may not be able to hear. To confirm your suspicions, you’ll want to take your kitty to the vet to get a diagnosis.

How to get your deaf cat’s attention

Before any training can begin, you’ll need to find an effective way of getting your cat’s attention, and ideally, without startling the cat too much. Deaf cats are usually highly attuned to their surroundings, but sometimes you’ll still need to let them know you are approaching or that you need to “speak” with them, so to speak! 

Though they may not be able to hear, deaf cats can still feel and sense touch and vibrations. Try stomping your foot on the ground to get your cat’s attention. Ideally, your cat will feel the floor beneath it when you stomp your foot and turn towards you to investigate. 

A gray tabby cat looking up at a red dot light on a dark brown side of a bookshelf.
Laser pointers are a stimulating way to play with your deaf cat. Photo: Caitlin Dempsey.

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You could even use a laser pointer to get your kitty’s attention (affiliate link). Using a laser can be especially helpful if they are misbehaving, as this will distract them from their mischievous activities!  Just make sure you don’t aim the light from the laser directly into your cat’s eyes or anyone else’s eyes.

Physical touch will also be quite important for the life of a deaf cat. But before petting your cat, you’ll want to get your cat’s attention by taking your hand and patting the floor near them to tell them you are near. Doing this before you touch or pet your cat will help prevent them from being quite so startled by your presence. 

Communicating with a deaf cat 

Aside from stomping your feet or patting the ground to get your cat’s attention, the best way to communicate with your deaf cat will be to teach it sign language! It may sound tricky, but with the right motivation (AKA treats), cats can easily be trained, even if they can’t hear! 

To do this, you can use American Sign Language or whatever hand signals feel best for you. The important thing is to remember to always be consistent. One of the first basic commands to teach a cat is to come when called. Determine a hand signal that you’ll want to use to tell your kitty to come to you. 

When you are ready to start training, get your cat’s attention by stomping your feet or patting the floor near the cat. Once your cat looks at you, use the hand signal you chose and then try to encourage your cat to come by patting the floor next to you or shaking a bag of treats. Try using your cat’s absolute favorite treats to encourage and reward them!

Remember that cats can recognize our facial expressions! Smile and act excited when you are signaling for your cat to come to you, as this will help encourage them. Similarly, if you are trying to teach your cat the word “no,” for when it is being naughty, try frowning or scowling a little to make your dissatisfaction known as you are giving your hand signal for “no.” You may even need to make the signal bigger, like waving your arms around. This bigger movement might help encourage the cat to abandon its endeavors. 

You may also want to teach your deaf cat phrases like “time for dinner” or “time for breakfast” so they know their meal is ready for them. And of course, you can teach your cat the fun tricks, too! Sit, lay-down, high-five, and even roll over are all things a cat can learn if they are motivated enough! 

“Clicker” Cat Training

 You can even use the same concept as clicker training to train a deaf cat. Of course, you can’t use an actual clicker since the kitty won’t hear it, but the same principle still applies.

Instead of a clicker, you can use a tiny keychain-sized flashlight! When your cat does the desired behavior, turn the flashlight on and quickly give your cat their favorite treat. The flash of light is a faster way to indicate to the cat that they did a good job and achieved what you asked them to achieve. 

First, though, you’ll want to teach your cat that the flash of light from the flashlight is a good thing! Simply switch the flashlight to the on position and quickly provide your cat with a treat. It won’t take long for your cat to learn to associate the flashlight with good things. 

Keep in mind that cats have short attention spans and seem to think they have a busy schedule of their own to keep! Keep training sessions short-five to ten minutes maximum at a time. Doing this will ensure that the cat doesn’t get bored or get so full from treats that it starts to lose focus. 

One last reminder 

One thing to remember is that deaf cats don’t startle at the sounds they make themselves. For example, say your cat is walking along the island table and bumps into the beautiful centerpiece you have placed there. If the centerpiece were to fall to the ground and shatter, a hearing cat would hear that noise and probably be scared or startled by it, run away from the crime scene, and probably be more easily dissuaded from walking on the counters again! 

A deaf cat, however, won’t have heard all the racket of the centerpiece falling and shattering. In this case, the cat will likely continue the behavior because it won’t be at risk of startling itself. If you have a deaf cat, it may be best to keep any especially important or breakable items in a place where your cat won’t be able to get to them. 

Conclusion 

Deaf cats live perfectly content and happy lives so long as they have a loving and patient human. Teaching a deaf cat can take some time, but it can be such a rewarding experience that it will be well worth the time spent. You may even have a closer and stronger relationship with your cat! 

References

Clicker training deaf cats. (2021, March 27). Deaf Darlings. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/teaching-and-training-a-deaf-cat

Llera, R., & Downing, R. (n.d.). Inner ear infection otitis Interna in cats. VCA animal hospital. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/inner-ear-infection-otitis-interna-in-cats

Llera, R., & Downing, R. (n.d.). Teaching and training a deaf cat. VCA animal hospital. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/teaching-and-training-a-deaf-cat

Strain, G. M. (2007). Deafness in blue-eyed white cats: the uphill road to solving polygenic disorders. Veterinary Journal173(3), 471-472. DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2006.01.015

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