Rochester 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