Meow! What can deafness in cats teach us?

Deafness in Cats

Since being domesticated in the middle east about 10,000 years ago, cats have been a favourite pet of humans. Originally used to control rats and snakes, they soon became revered as companion animals. In ancient Egypt, cats were held in such high regard that people worshipped them and mummified them for their journey to the afterlife. Harming a cat in these times was even punishable by death!

Cats continue to be a favourite pet for millions of people around the world. In fact, there are 16 pet cats for every 100 people in Australia.

But did you know that cats have a lot to teach us humans about hearing loss and deafness? In 1971 a study revealed what many people already suspected – a link between fur colour, iris (eye) colour and degenerative deafness. In this and subsequent studies it was found that the same gene that causes white fur in cats will often also cause congenital sensorineural deafness. Blue eyes are also an indicator that a cat is likely to be deaf.

While not all cats with white fur and blue eyes will be deaf, they are far more likely to be. Some studies put deafness in white cats as high as 72%. This is an issue made worse by selective breeding of our feline friends.

There are links between genetic research being done in cats and deafness in humans. Cats and humans are both mammals and it is thought that better understanding of coat colour, iris colour and deafness in cats will have implications on understanding how genetics affects hearing loss in humans.

Unfortunately for us humans, hair or eye colour is not a reliable indicator of hearing loss risk. Fortunately, there are many more options for treating hearing loss for humans than in cats. So, if you feel like your hearing isn’t what it used to be, chat to your GP or an audiologist. It doesn’t take long and is cheaper than trip to the vet.