Hearing loss is literally a silent threat to cats, since the problem may go unnoticed for some time. Hearing difficulties are about as common in felines as they are in humans, with the risk increasing as your cat gets older. Karen R. Munana, DVM, associate professor of neurology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State University, advises how to recognize the symptoms and what to do if you suspect your cat is one of the many that suffers from this ailment.

How to Tell if Your Cat Can’t Hear
Munana says changes in your cat may at first be subtle. For example, it may be sleeping more soundly than usual, to the point where it misses the usually eye-opening sound of food landing in its dish. Other symptoms are more obvious. “Your cat may meow very loudly or become easily startled,” Munana says. “You may notice a discharge from its ear or a foul odor near the ear. Or, you might notice your cat shaking its head or pawing at the ear.”  It is, however, important to note that not all cats with hearing problems show these signs, and symptoms may vary.

Reasons for Hearing Loss
Some cats may be born with hearing difficulty. This is most common in cats with white fur or blue eyes, due to certain genetic predispositions. Hearing loss may also result if your cat has experienced an infection or mass in its middle or inner ear. Hearing difficulties could also just be a part of your cat’s natural aging process. “Older cats may end up experiencing both nerve damage in the ear plus the fusing together of the inner ear bones,” says Munana. “That can lead to irreversible hearing loss.”

When and How to Seek Help
If you suspect your cat is having difficulty hearing, talk with your vet and ask for a referral to a veterinary specialist.  Your cat may be given a hearing test called a Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response, or BAER. “The test detects electrical activity in the cochlea and auditory pathways in the brain, in the same way that an antenna detects radio or television signals,” says Munana.

What to Do if Your Cat Really is Hearing-Impaired
If your veterinarian has determined that your cat has experienced a loss of hearing, you should take some precautions. This is especially true if your cat is an outdoor cat since hearing-impaired cats are at a greater risk of injury and won’t be able to hear other animals, approaching cars or other possible dangers. “To be safe, keep your cat indoors or supervised outside,” says Munana. In addition, consider asking your veterinarian about feline hearing aids. The upside: Feline hearing aids can help your cat hear if it’ll tolerate the insertion of an ear plug into the ear canal. The downside: They are only sound amplifiers and your cat has to be able to hear sounds to begin with.  Also, cat hearing aids are not inexpensive (they can cost up to $1,000), but they may be covered under some pet health insurance plans.

The Future Looks, and Sounds, Bright
The good news: We can look forward to a future with more rapid, accurate diagnosis and treatment for feline hearing loss. According to Munana, “With increasing access to advanced imaging techniques, such as computed tomography and magnetic resonance, infections or tumors of the middle and inner ear will one day be more easily diagnosed and hopefully treated as early as possible.”