Senior Cats and Hearing Loss

marzipan.jpgRochester here. So many nice people wrote in to compliment me on my first-ever Itchmo post that I was inspired to write another article. This time, I will share an intimate secret about myself, in the hope that other senior cats might find my experience helpful.

The secret I want to share is this: I am quite deaf. It happened gradually over a period of years, and now, at age 20, I can’t hear much of anything at all.

Hearing loss is quite common in aging cats, and in other aging animals too, including humans. It’s called “presbycusis”, which is a great word to toss into a conversation… as in, “Rochester’s doing very well, thanks, except for his presbycusis, which doesn’t seem to bother him very much.”

And in fact, it doesn’t bother me very much, although I do miss eavesdropping on the staff. My ambition has always been to lead a quiet life… maybe not this quiet, but perhaps this presbycusis thing comes under the heading of “be careful what you wish for.”

The staff didn’t really notice when my hearing began to deteriorate. I’m partially to blame because I’m not in the habit of acknowledging their every utterance. I mean really, can you imagine having to respond every time a human took it into its head to say something? The idea is insupportable.

Eventually they did notice, though. Their first clue was that in order to hear myself, I had to crank up my own volume quite a bit. Before this presbycusis thing, I wasn’t much of a shouter, so the staff was concerned about that. The second clue was that I didn’t always notice when someone was behind me, and they startled me a few times. I don’t much care for surprises unless they involve additional food, so that made me rather cross.

The staff is insistent about taking me to the doctor when they think something is wrong, and no amount of protesting seems to deter them one iota. I’ve occasionally thought about firing the lot of them for insubordination, but it’s hard to get good help these days. I really don’t want to train another group of humans. This lot is regarded as being reasonably intelligent by others of their kind, but even at that it took years to train them. They know only a few simple commands, so I shudder to think what it would be like with a new group. At my age, the frustration alone might be enough to finish me off.

At any rate, the doctor did what doctors do. He peered into my ears with his little scope, but he couldn’t find any obvious problems. I did not have mites in my ears, or dirt, or waxy buildup… perish the thought. I couldn’t hear him, but by reading his lips I made out the remark, “Well, Rochester’s getting pretty old now.”

The nerve of the man.

“It’s probably presbycusis… age-related hearing loss.”

The staff seemed upset by this, and I received a lot of stroking. I think they were probably saying, “awww, poor boy”, which I find rather patronizing. They talked among themselves for a while, and finally took me home. Since humans seem to enjoy being guilt-ridden, they began to speculate about what they might have done to prevent my presbycusis. They found out that humans can take some precautions that might protect other cats from developing the condition.

One way is to keep us away from loud or prolonged exposure to noise. Normally, we cats have very sensitive hearing. We can process sound in a range of 45-64,000 Hz. This means that around 64% of what we hear is out of the range of the average person. I don’t think any sane cat would expect the staff to deal with what they can’t hear, but in general we appreciate it if you don’t blast the stereo or the TV. Let us leave the area when the dishwasher or the vacuum cleaner is in use.

Another way to help us is to make sure that our ears stay clean. Take a good look in our ears periodically, and if they’re dirty, or if you see us pawing at them and tilting them in odd ways, take us to the doctor for an exam and a cleaning. Don’t try to clean our ears by yourself unless a doctor has shown you just what to do.

Some medicines can bring on deafness, most notably aminoglycoside antibiotics. Veterinarians know about this so there should be no problems there. Some anti-cancer drugs can also affect hearing.

There are several chemicals that can cause hearing damage. Butyl nitrite is found in some room deodorizers. Styrene is used to make plastics and also occurs in some foods like beef, peanuts, wheat and oats. Manganese can occur naturally in drinking water. Also considered “ototoxic” are mercury, carbon monoxide, tin and many types of solvents.

My personal assistant did some research about cats with hearing loss and discovered that the only way to establish just how deaf I am would be to do a BAER - brainstem auditory evoked response - test. It measures electrical activity in the cochlea and auditory pathways of the brain, similar to the way an EKG measures electrical activity of the heart. Needless to say, this is not a procedure that all veterinarians are equipped to carry out. A list of veterinarians that are able to perform a BAER test is on the LSU web site.

One of the staffers, and a very practical fellow he is, asked what the point of doing such a test would be, since the doctor believes my condition is irreversible. My assistant spent several more hours researching and reported that cats can actually be fitted for hearing aids.

This suggestion was met with a large measure of incredulity by the staff, and quite rightly so. I do not wear things. I do not wear collars, flea or otherwise. I do not wear harnesses. Neither do I wear “outfits”, nor sunglasses, nor any of the other things that humans find so adorable on cats. I wear what that God gave me to wear… fur.

There have been some changes to my routine because of my deafness, and I suppose they’re reasonable enough. My staff still talks to me all the time, which is somewhat superfluous, but they’ve added more gestures. Their lips move when they encounter me in a room or a hallway, but they also wave. This must look a bit silly to visitors… waving at a cat… but I quite like it because it demonstrates that I’m still an important part of the household. They wave a dish at me when they’re planning to serve me a meal. Of course, I still have a sense of smell so I know when it’s mealtime, but it’s nice that they make the extra effort.

Another change, and one that I’m not at all pleased to report, is that I am not allowed to leave the house without being accompanied by a staff member. I’m not clear on what all the fuss is about, because I rarely leave the grounds, but they keep a closer watch on me now. They seem to be worried that a car will come along and flatten me, or that a wild animal might sneak up on me. One thing is certain: I won’t be coming when called anymore, (not that I ever did that very much anyway), so it makes them nervous if I wander out of their line of sight.

So that’s it, really. I still lead an enjoyable life, and the staff has become more adept at reading my “sign language”. But that’s a subject for another time.

Photo: “Marzipan” by Liam Quin

11 Responses to “Senior Cats and Hearing Loss”

  1. JustMe says:

    Great story and information for those of us with senior pets.

  2. Bridgett says:


    Another excellent article. You are very articulate.

    I can imagine how loud TVs and radios would hurt feline ears. Kitties have such good hearing.

    My question when reading the title of your article was, “Since my cats ignore me most of the time, how will I know if they have hearing loss?” Now I know. My cats are young to middle aged. So hopefully, I have many years before I have to worry about getting hearing aids for my cats.

  3. MaineMom says:

    Thanks for another great informative article from Rochester. Another sound we can’t hear that may harm our cats can be emitted by a remote control device. We had a high-end gas fireplace with remote installed in our home when we lived in Tacoma WA. Took us three turn-on/offs to realize that our young Maine would run to the farthest corner of the house and hide when we used it. We didn’t hear anything in that frequency, but he sure did. We never used it again.

  4. ROCHESTER says:

    Hello everybody, and thank you for reading my article.

    Bridgett, I’m glad that I could help you recognize some symptoms of hearing loss, and I hope that people with younger pets take care to turn the volume down on noisy things. Your kitties will be very grateful!

    Roger, I visited your blog site and love all the pictures of beautiful cats and the variety of articles.

    MaineMom, that was a very good observation about the remote! It’s also very interesting though, because fireplace remotes usually operate at more than 300,000 Hz, which is well out of a cat’s hearing range…. or is supposed to be. Fireplace remotes have to be on an unusual frequency for safety reasons… you don’t want remotes from other devices setting off your fireplace.

    While ultrasonics is still around for some applicat8ions, newer remote electronic devices use infrared light instead. Now, we cats can see infrared light, but I’m getting ahead of myself here. Vision is a subject for another article!

  5. furmom says:

    For a moment I also wondered how you would identify hearing loss if your cat normally doesn’t listen anyway. Of course it then occurred to me that if you open the fridge, take out the meat tray, (or open your cat food container), and the cat doesn’t appear, your cat is either very ill or has lost his hearing.

  6. MaineMom says:

    Hi Rochester
    We moved to WA in ‘93 and had the FP insert installed in ‘94. Moved back to CA in ‘99 and none of our gas fireplaces have had remotes, just wall switches, since then. Thanks for the update!

  7. Kristy says:

    Priceless. I kept laughing the entire article (well, except for the serious, informative parts.)
    Love the style, love the info, love Rochester.
    Keep up the great work.

    P.S. Now I have a great way to keep my boyfriend’s stereo turned down. He will consider it much more serious if I tell him it hurts the cats ears. Thanks!

  8. Pax says:

    Hi Rochester,
    It would be great if we could actually meet. My personal assistant has told me about you. I wish you had told her sooner how sensitive our hearing can be. She bought a new telephone with all sorts of tone rings and adjustments. She could not understand why I ran and hid under the bed every time the phone rang. It did not matter which ring I heard, I did not like any of them! I finally made her return it to the store and she bought a more pleasant sounding phone.
    Keep up the great work, sharing your cat knowledge with the world!

  9. Patti C. says:

    Thanks for the info on cats and hearing loss. I’m now sure that my cat, Coco, is definitely not hearing as well as she used to. She does seem able to hear certain sounds that I make, but I don’t think she hears me talking. And when she “speaks,” she’s quite a bit louder than she used to be. Now I understand why.

  10. tomatogal says:

    My oldest cat, Cagney is deaf as a post, after almost two decades of loving care and robust good health. He’s over seventeen, and often I’ll notice Cagman strolling around; he appears to be cat-kvetching when he says “rroww rrrow!”at the top of his voice, which no amount of “shut up, and eat your crunchies!” from me will silence.

    I view Cags with affection, thinking of him as a sort of resident geezer, with whom I have had many wonderful years. He seems to be enjoying himself, presbycusis notwithstanding. So, I guess after a trip to the vet for evaluation, just take that deaf old kitty home and love him.

  11. Darlene says:

    I was doing some research on hearing loss in aging cats and I came across your article. It was very well written and informative. My cat, Chloe, will be 19 years old in a few months. She suffers from arthritis and spondylitis in her spine and she has difficulty in her mobility. I have her on a number of medications for pain as well as medication for hyperactive thyroid and high blood pressure. I just recently noticed that she was not acknowledging me when I talked to her when she was turned away from me. I clapped my hands behind her head and no response. She does not seem to be too upset over the hearing loss so I would not even consider the hearing test or hearing aides.

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