Living in a silent world: What it's like living with a deaf cat


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27 February 2020
From non-cat lover to adopting two RSPCA rescues with special needs, Laura Roberts tells Joanne Bednall how she has adapted her life and home.

I certainly don’t class Tricky and Turbo as disabled,” states Laura Roberts from Winchester, Hampshire. “Perhaps this is because my mum is partially deaf so I have grown up with hearing loss in the family and have never considered it a disability.

“As a child, I wasn’t really an animal person and didn’t have pets other than a hamster. In fact, I was never keen on cats — I hated the thought of their claws and teeth, or them jumping on me.

“Over time, my partner, Nigel, kept on at me to have a cat, but I had my doubts. Eventually, though, he wore me down and I slowly started to warm to the idea.

“After a great deal of thought, we decided that we wanted an indoor cat from a local rescue, so I started scanning charity rehoming pages and saw one-year-old, pure-white Turbo, on the RSPCA’s website in October 2016. With his striking looks and gentle expression, he seemed lovely and I instantly fell in love with him. His deafness certainly didn’t put us off.

“We took him home and he jumped on the sofa, immediately slotting into life as if he’d always been here.

“At first, I was really careful about not leaving doors and windows open, and found myself instinctively calling his name — I still do! But the upside of having a deaf cat is that I never have to worry about Bonfire Night.

“Nigel suggested we build a catio to keep Turbo safe. It took a week to construct the floor-to-ceiling, three-sided wood and wire structure across the back of our house. We included patio furniture and shelves in the corner so Turbo could get up high and feel safe.

“After a few months, we noticed that Turbo was making friends with cats on the other side of his enclosure, so we decided to get him a companion. We spotted six-month-old Tricky on the RSPCA’s website — by sheer coincidence, another deaf, pure-white cat. But she was already reserved.

“A couple of days later, I went back to the page and saw that she was available again. Despite recently undergoing surgery to repair a hole in her soft palate, and having problems with her balance, she ran straight up to us and was really friendly. We fell in love again!

“However, we were a little concerned about Tricky’s medical problems, but the fantastic and helpful staff at RSPCA Millbrook in Chobham, Surrey, helped alleviate our fears. We had to wait a fortnight until the RSPCA’s vet was happy that Tricky was recovered enough for us to take her home, and have had to watch her diet carefully. She can only eat dry biscuits as wet food could get stuck and cause an infection.

“But she has settled in really well, although being deaf doesn’t seem to have brought Turbo and Tricky closer together — they still have the odd hissy fit.

“They are totally different characters — Tricky is full of beans and a real lap cat, while Turbo is quieter and prefers to lie on the back of the chair in the front window. But they both love the catio, and it keeps the house warmer!

“For anyone thinking of having a deaf cat, the most important thing is to provide them with the right environment — remember to keep windows and doors shut — and there’s no point buying toys that make a noise.

“Before Turbo and Tricky, I wasn’t an animal person, but I am now. I can’t imagine life without them, and if Nigel and I were ever to split up, I would want custody of both!”

Advice about living with a deaf cat

RSPCA cat welfare expert and animal behaviourist, Alice Potter, shares advice for owners of deaf cats — or those thinking of taking one on.

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Q) How can I tell if my cat is deaf?

A) If cats are born deaf, it’s not always obvious to us that this is the case. This is because they are familiar with their condition and will be well adapted to it.

Signs that might suggest a cat is deaf include:

  • Not responding to his name or noises that would usually stimulate a cat’s interest, such as opening a food packet or a knock at the door.
  • Scratching or rubbing his ears a lot.
  • Not being aware of your presence until he sees you.

    Any worries concerning a cat’s hearing, or any changes in behaviour, should always checked by a vet. In most cases, vets will carry out simple tests to detect deafness whereby they make sounds outside the cat’s visual field and look for a twitch of the ears, or a movement towards the sound source. The only way to get a definitive diagnosis is through a brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) test, which involves a clicking sound being directed into the ear while computers measure the brain’s electrical activity in response to the sound.

    If the cat is diagnosed as deaf, the vet will be able to advise on whether the cause can be treated with medication or if the issue is permanent, and how you can help your cat adjust. Some cats are born deaf but many cats lose their hearing gradually as they age.

    Sudden loss of hearing is normally the result of illness or injury, and may be temporary or permanent.

Q) To what extent does deafness affect a cat’s quality of life?

A) Luckily, deaf cats tend to have a normal quality of life; they cope by using their other senses to compensate for the hearing loss. The sooner signs of deafness are spotted, and the condition is diagnosed, the better; this way owners can start to implement any steps needed to help improve their quality of life.

The biggest aspect of being deaf, which can affect quality of life, is that outdoor access usually needs to be restricted in order to keep the cat safe.

Other points to consider are:

  • If a cat suddenly loses his hearing, it might take some time for him to adjust.
  • While most cats generally cope very well with being deaf, it’s likely to be quite confusing for them at times.

Q) What are the main points to consider when owning a deaf cat?

A) One of the main considerations when owning a deaf cat is safety because, unlike other cats, he is unable to hear danger, such as cars or other animals. For this reason, deaf cats tend to need to live indoors only, or ideally have access to a secure outside area.

Deaf cats can also get startled quite easily, which is why it’s important to have clear communication and to make sure they have lots of high-up resting places.

Although there are special considerations needed for deaf cats, they can be just as playful, active, and curious as those without hearing loss. Likewise, they are also capable of getting bored, frustrated, and stressed, so it’s important that the environment helps the cat to express natural behaviours and prevent boredom.

Q) What can I do to help keep my deaf cat safe?

A) The indoor environment tends to be less stimulating and more predictable than the world outside, and, therefore, for deaf cats who are restricted indoors, extra efforts can be made to provide lots of opportunities to play, climb, scratch, hide, run, jump, and rest. Activities such as puzzle feeders and regular play sessions are important to help keep them stimulated.

Where possible and practical, having a cat patio (catio) or escape-proof garden can be a good way to allow deaf cats to experience a little of the outside world, and it’s best to include novel objects to explore, and opportunities to climb.

It’s also recommended that all cats are microchipped and the contact details kept up-to-date. It may also be helpful for deaf cats to wear a safety collar, which clearly identifies that they are deaf, should they escape or go missing.

Q) Can I still communicate with my deaf cat?

A) Cats don’t understand much of what we say to them, unless we consistently pair it with a behavior — such as always saying ‘Dinner!’ and getting food out of the cupboard — and even then there will be many other cues, such as us standing near the cupboard or picking the food bowl up, which will indicate to our cats what is going to come next. Therefore, we don’t communicate vocally with cats.

Deaf cats can be trained to learn hand signals, just as they can be trained to learn anything else such as ‘Sit’ or ‘Spin’. Training must always be positive and reward-based, and requires a lot of patience and consistency.

It’s important for owners of deaf cats to be more observant of their cat’s body language, facial expressions, and actions, as well as their own non-verbal cues to ensure good channels of communication.