Saturday, June 6, 2009

Living with Deaf Cats

Varjak Paw* was one of our foster cats. He was a kitten while he was here, and we had his mom, sister, aunts, uncle, and grandmother as well. His mother and sister, like him, are white with blue eyes, but being female, did not develop the deafness associated with that color combination (link goes to excellent article about cat genetics). Varjak, however, is deaf, and that makes him a bit more challenging to live with.

While he was here, he was a kitten, and he was no more a handful than any other kitten of the same age. We had to be careful not to step on him while he was sleeping, since he couldn't hear us coming, and he did scream his fool head off at the spay/neuter clinic (the vet said he drove them all NUTS--he woke up from the anesthesia almost immediately), but he was small and stumbly and still learning about his world.

Last week, my friend asked me to catsit for him for a little while, and she brought me this huge white cat that couldn't possibly be Varjak! He looks just like his beautiful mother, Cyrene (formerly Snowflake, adopted by my friends Catt and Ken), but he's got that big, strong male cat body. He's also got a new name, Max. Max was stressed out by the new surroundings, and by the fact that there were over a dozen unfamiliar cats all around him. So there has been a lot of yowling and hissing coming from him. For their part, my own cats are all saying, "Meh, so what, another cat."

One of the things about having a deaf cat is that they can be VERY LOUD. They don't have any feedback to tell them they are being loud, so they make their sounds without knowing they're being obnoxious. Having to pick Max up and remove him from, say, the counter, the refrigerator, and other situations, I realized that I might have to go tell my neighbor that no, we are not torturing cats here. The blood-curdling shrieks are very much like the ones we've gotten out of feral or abused cats. He isn't THAT mad, but he has no idea he's being that loud.

Another thing about him is that, when he IS being a troublemaker, I have to physically remove him from the situation. Almost all of my cats respond to verbal commands, which is very useful when I'm not feeling well. Max is usually visually focused on the trouble he's causing, so the only thing we can do is make physical contact to get his attention.

And he does like to get into stuff. Most cats would knock stuff over, and then scare themselves off with the crashing sounds. Max is currently pawing at a spoon that is next to a glass object, and making a racket; I don't think any of my cats could stand the noise he is making, and would quit because of it. So he just keeps doing noisy things because it doesn't affect him. He's also more easily bored because he needs more visual and tactile input than a hearing cat, so he seems to go looking for stuff to do.

Having him here has been an educational experience, and while he has been a handful, he is also a very loving, snuggly boy who is a pleasure to cuddle. I hope that as our limited time with him goes on, I will understand his needs better, and be better able to serve a future deaf cat's needs.

* Named for the title character of the books by S. F. Said. His sister was Sally Bones, and his aunt (who passed away) and uncle of the same age were Holly and Jalal, all characters from the Varjak Paw books. Varjak's mom renamed him Max, but Sally's adopter kept the name and actually got interested in the books!