How deaf cats trick hearing humans

Almost all articles about deaf cats touch on the subject of spotting that a cat is in fact deaf. This is because it can be rather tricky to catch at a first glance. Cats with disabilities are very good at adjusting to their situation by using their other senses. Most of the time deaf cats act just like all other cats. So at our house it is not uncommon that our visitors look at us and ask "are you absolutely sure your cats are deaf?"

Picture the following scenario: All felines and humans are in the living room when someone enters the door in the hall. No one can see that the door opens and someone walks in. Yet the deaf cats lifts its head and look around just as this happens. It's clear to everybody that the cat knows something happened. The humans know that someone just walked in, because they could hear the door open and close. So naturally a lot of people assume that that's the only feedback available and the cat must have picked up on it.


But the cats have a trick up their sleeve called whiskers. They have a bunch of whiskers in their face and on the back of their legs and with these they can pick up on even tiny vibrations or gusts of wind created by, for instance, a door that opens and closes. So even deaf cats are sometimes able to sense that a door opens, but it's not the sounds that they react to. It can be vibrations, air moving and even small temperature changes that they sense with their sensitive whiskers. This cute video explains what cats can do with their whiskers.



So whiskers are very important to deaf cats, as they can use them to pick up on things they can't hear. When the deaf cat reacts to something that makes a noise, it can seem like the cat can hear. The fact that hearing humans rely so much on sound, probably ads to the fact that it looks like a deaf cat can hear. Cause we don't feel vibrations etc. as well as cats do, so to us there really is only one input in this situation.

However deaf cats are not super tuned in on their surroundings  all the time. Sometimes they need to take a bath or are busy with birdwatching. So when the cat is occupied with something or taking a nap it is less likely that they will notice what is going on around them. I'd argue that if you observe a deaf cat just a bit longer that your average visit, it becomes clear that they'll completely ignore stuff that should have caught their attention right away. But I think most cats are more attentive and observant when there are strangers in their home. And that's probably why our deaf cats Ronja and Victor are so good at deceiving our guests. Our 9 year old neighbor is still positive that Ronja can hear. But the vet and this video say otherwise.

Smelly business

You may have heard the saying that loosing one ability can sharpening other senses? This goes for all animals. If you are blind, you rely more on sounds and so your hearing potentially becomes better. It's the same with deaf cats. Now I can't tell if Ronja and Victors visions are better than normal, but Victors sense of smell most certainly is. I have never had a cat so sensitive to smells as he is. And sometimes that is not a good thing for him, because humans have all sorts of smelly hair products, perfumes and the like. And he really hates that. He even dislikes the smell of tooth paste! But it also means that Victor has a very effective radar detecting what is going on around the house. That's why he knows that strangers are close by or that I'm trying to feed Ronja a snack while he sleeps. Never once have I gotten away with that and I believe he can thank his pink little nose for that.


Do deaf cats move their ears?

Another thing that tricks people into thinking a deaf cat can hear is their ears (of all things). Deaf cats don't have any purpose for their ears do they? So why move them at all? But deaf cats move their ears the same way as any other cats. My theory is that it's simply a natural reflex. They are predators with the ability to angle their ears to pinpoint exactly where their prey is at. Although a deaf cat can't actually do this, it doesn't stop them from trying. After all, their ear muscles work just fine and this is just what cat ears are designed to do - to rotate and catch sound. Maybe deaf cats move their ears even more, because they don't get the feedback they are searching for?

Here Victor is demonstrating for you that deaf cats move their ears. He is sitting on a box that has an uneven surface and so when I move a wand over it, it creates vibrations in the box and floor. Victor clearly feels this, but since it's coming from the entire surface he is sitting on, he can't figure out the direction it is coming from. That's when he moves his head and ears around - hoping to find the source of the vibrations.

This is a classic reaction from Victor when he senses something going on, but he doesn't know what it is. It makes him agitated. When something makes a lot of vibrations (like something heavy falls on to the floor) he will even go in circles around himself to make sure nothing surprises him from behind. I feel so bad for him when this happens, cause he can get really scared when he doesn't understand what's happening around him. I try to distract him with something else and then it usually passes quickly. Sorry for confusing you a bit in this video Victor - it was for science. 
Cats also use their ears to express themselves, so deaf cats actually need their ears too! So you might think that a cat can hear, because it moves its ears, but you can't really use that as an indicator.

Cats are notorious for their excellent hearing (they hear better than dogs, they just choose not to listen to humans). But even without that vital ability, they are able to fool us humans into thinking that everything is normal. Quite an awesome animal don't you think?

Thank you so much for reading this post. If you have anything to add please leave a comment below. (Be advised that I have to approve every comment, so your comment won't show up right away - but I'll make sure to read them).


6 Responses

  1. Sharon
    Do you think that the heads in their ears become some sort of sensory receptor like their whiskers (or more so if they were already but I assumed they were more for filtering debris)? Perhaps in the absence of hearing, it's another tool?
  2. Sharon
    *hairs not heads. I've got a cat half on my face lol
    • Humom
      Haha, I know the feeling of trying to write with a cat in my face. One of the reasons it takes me so long to write a blog post :) It's a really interesting question with the ear fluff, thank you for bringing it up. I haven't considered them being anything else than a shield for depbris myself, but I tried to look it up and it seems that some people think that ear hairs are important for the cats coordination. I can't find any articles backing this claim though, only information about tiny hairs deep deep in their ears that has this exact function. So maybe they got it mixed up? Both of my cats have tattoes in their ears and their ears were shaved when they had this done and that didn't seem to effect them one bit. I don't know if the skin on their ears are more sensitive than the hairs or if it's the other way around? I guess it's certainly possible that the hairs in their ears makes it easier to pick up on movement, but I haven't got any experience to back this idea. If anyone else who is reading this know more about it, please let us know. Thank you for your input Sharon - you are my first reader to ever leave a comment! Yay!
  3. I just discovered my 19 years old cat (a black cat) is deaf. She isn't born as deaf, but she turned deaf with aging. I don't know when this occurred. we just discovered this right after her 19th birthday. I only noticed she likes cuddles more. I still let her to go outside. I think a cat is happier if she can go outside (my cat stopped to cross the road when she was young), and is better for her health. And she still like to spend time outside, so...
  4. I have a male cat that i got at around 8 months, he shows all the symptoms of being deaf, but then confuses me when its really quiet as if i make noises or scratch at the side of my bed or under my quilt, he acts as tho he can hear it, ive had him at the vets, they seem to think he is deaf as they dont the clapping when his head was turned, but unless he had a propper hearing test theres no way of knowing for sure, does ur cat do this when its quiet or cud maybe my cat casper have very slight hearing? He is a fully white cat aswell x
    • Humom
      Hi Natasha, I haven't noticed anything like that, no. If he's on or connected to the surface you scratch on, he can probably feel it and that's what he reacts to. I have heard (!) that some hard of hearing cats can only hear certain tones. Have you tried testing him with an online tone generator? Not sure it's exact science, but would be interesting to try out maybe? Also if you haven't already, please check you this blogpost:

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