Cats may be deaf for a wide variety of reasons. Kittens may be born deaf, and this is not always obvious to anyone dealing with them. And, like us, cats may gradually lose their hearing as they age. Cats may also become deaf due to some disease process, and sometimes the deafness may be temporary. But if you find out that your cat is deaf, do not worry about it too much. It may be a disability, but it will not affect the cat's life very much. However, there are some things you should know.
The short answer is that often you can't! I remember asking a vet if my cat was deaf as he never seemed to respond to being called, but when the vet clapped his hands, the cat definitely reacted. I had another cat who became deaf due to age, but I did not realise it until he stopped bothering about the vacuum cleaner, which had always frightened him in the past. Some cats ignore people all the time, and it doesn't necessarily mean that they are deaf.
However, there are some signs that might indicate that a cat cannot hear. For instance, if he does not respond to sounds or signs that would normally stimulate his interest, such as the opening of a food packet or a knock at the door, it may be because he cannot hear them. If he used to run away when he heard the vacuum cleaner, and suddenly starts to totally ignore it, this may be because he has become deaf, as in the case of my cat. Other signs include scratching or rubbing his ears a lot, and not being aware of your presence until he sees you. And some deaf cats miaow much more loudly than cats which can hear.
No, they are not. A relatively high percentage of white cats are deaf, and this is particularly the case if they also have blue eyes. But many white cats can hear perfectly well. You can get a good idea of whether or not the cat can hear by using the signs described above. But the only way to be sure if any cat, white or any other colour, is deaf, is to get the vet to test him.
Any worries about a cat's hearing should be checked by your vet. This applies whether you have a new kitten, or an old moggie who appears to be losing his hearing. In most cases the vet will carry out simple tests to detect deafness by making sounds outside the cat's visual field, and looking for a twitch of the cat's ears or a movement towards the sound source. However, 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. Some breeders routinely have this test done if they have white kittens, and you may wish to ask for this to be done if you are considering adopting a white kitten.
If the cat is diagnosed as deaf, your vet will be able to advise on whether the issue can be treated with medication or if it is permanent, and advise you on how to help your cat adjust
Generally, deaf cats have a normal quality of life. They do not know that they are deaf, and they tend to compensate by using their other senses to a greater degree than hearing cats do in order to cope. The sooner the deafness is diagnosed the better, as this way owners can take steps to improve the cat's quality of life. Usually outdoor access needs to be restricted in order to keep the cat safe, as he will not be able to hear traffic or other approaching dangers. But if you have an enclosed garden, or live in a very rural area, you may be able to let your cat continue to go outside. If a cat suddenly loses his hearing he may take some time to adjust and could appear confused at times. Owners will need to be patient and offer reassurance while the cat adapts.
As already mentioned, safety will need to be your main concern, and the deaf cat will need to live indoors, or have access to a secure outdoor area. Deaf cats can also become startled quite easily, so it is important to make sure that they have lots of high-up resting places and similar boltholes, particularly if there are other animals in the house. It is a good idea to have your deaf cat microchipped, as despite all your efforts, he has a higher chance of going missing than a hearing cat. It may also be advisable to give him a safety collar which states clearly that he is deaf.
The usual ways of communication between cat and owner, such as calling or rattling a treat tin, will not work in the case of a deaf cat. So try to find other ways to signal to your cat, such as waving or using other hand signals to tell him that dinner is ready, for instance. Deaf cats often learn to interpret these signs quite well, although it may take a little time.
If you follow a few simple rules, caring for a deaf cat is no different from caring for a hearing cat. Deaf cats are as playful, active, and curious as any other cats, and similarly, they may be naughty, or get bored or stressed, just like hearing cats. Remember that you are dealing with a cat first and foremost, and the deafness is simply a small part of him. If you do this then your deaf cat should be able to live a long and happy life, and be as rewarding a pet as any other.