Purebred white-haired cats tend to be more susceptible to congenital deafness
Sarah Yeung has a special routine for waking her white-haired cat named Snow. Instead of putting a hand on her furry feline, she first taps the surface he is sleeping on. When Snow looks up, Yeung touches him.
As 15-year old Snow is deaf, Yeung says she is careful not to startle or surprise him. 'You have to approach [him] from where he can see you. You can't put your hand on his back without letting him know first,' she says. 'If not, he'll freak-out. He might hiss or spit at me, look around really quickly and then run off.'
When it comes to discipline, Yeung has to do more than simply say the word 'no'. She explains that 'there's no point in giving a voice command, so I give him hand signals. If he goes to bite or scratch me, I go down on his level and mouth the word 'no' and hold up one finger to stop. It works because I'm consistent with it'.
Yeung shares another tip: cats with special needs like to retreat somewhere high. 'If it's up high, their backs are protected. If you can't hear someone come up behind you, you need to feel as secure as you can,' she says.
Veterinary surgeon and managing director Paul Essey, at HK Vet Services, says cats with blue eyes and white hair, particularly long white hair, are more prone to deafness than other felines. 'This is normally the result of a cat carrying a specific gene. It's more common for pure breeds to have congenital deafness,' he explains.
If you have a white-haired cat, Essey says, the chances of deafness is high. He says three studies were conducted on 256 white cats, where 12 per cent were deaf on one side and 37 per cent on both sides.
The vet says the same is true for dogs, as some breeds are more prone to deafness than others.
Essey comes across cases of animals with ear infections once or twice a month. 'They have already had an ear infection for two to three weeks, so it's probably already spread from the external ear canal to the middle ear and then into the inner ear,' he says.
'Ninety-nine per cent of ear infections have not been treated soon enough, and every one has the potential to cause deafness.'
Once your pet has an ear infection, Essey says, the condition is usually treated with drugs. However, by using powerful antibiotics and other drugs there is a risk of destroying the cochlear hair cells, resulting in total deafness or hearing loss. 'There are pros and cons to all drugs. But if you don't treat [the ear infection], it could also lead to a brain infection,' he explains.
For signs of an ear infection, Essey suggests looking out for your pet constantly shaking its head, scratching an ear or any discharge from the ear canal. 'Make sure those infections are treated immediately, so it doesn't turn into a chronic problem ... Most of the time, by the time we see [the animal] it's too late. And once it's deaf, there's not much you can do,' Essey says.
He adds that some university researchers have developed hearing aids, but they were 'not well tolerated or a practical solution'.
With Yeung's other cats that can hear, when it's feeding time, she stands by the kitchen door and hits a bowl to make them come running. 'With Snow, I obviously can't do that, so I go over to him and show him his bowl. Then he follows me.'