Let’s start with the simple answer–they’re not! While all-white cats are more prone to deafness than cats with color, it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Actually, it’s quite fascinating so let’s dive right in.
They are! All-white cats make up only about 5 percent of the general cat population. All-white cats lack something called melanin, a pigment that occurs in both humans and animals and is responsible for giving color to hair and skin. All-white cats are the feline version of people with naturally blonde hair–something only 2 to 3 percent of the human population can claim.
According to the Feline Health Center at Cornell University, research has found that only 17 to 22 percent of all-white cats without blue eyes are born deaf.
The key determiner in deafness in all-white cats lies more in the color of their eyes than that of their coats. The percentage of deafness in white cats with one blue eye rises to 40 percent, while 65 to 85 percent of all-white cats with two blue eyes are deaf.
Wait? One blue eye, you ask? Yes–cats with different colored eyes have a condition called heterochromia and are known as “odd-eyed” cats. Heterochromia appears in all colors of cats, as well as people (you are missed, David Bowie), horses, and dogs.
Not all white kitties who experience deafness will be completely deaf. For “odd-eyed” cats deafness generally occurs in one ear–the one on the same side of the head as the blue eye.
It all goes back to being natural blondes. The same stem cells that should turn into melanin are the same ones that should develop in a cat’s inner ear to create hearing. Because all-white cats don’t have these stem cells, vital cells within the inner ear never develop so neither does hearing.
If your kitty is mostly white, but has a small splotch of color somewhere–say on her tail or belly–this means her body has melanin so she is not prone to deafness like an all-white kitty would be.
Because deafness in all-white kitties is congenital it means they are born that way. If you are adopting an all-white kitty you can simply ask the shelter experts or your veterinarian if your kitty is deaf.
If you’re unsure, VCA Animal Hospital veterinarians point out a simple quiet clap or jangle of your keys can tell you if a kitty is deaf–if there’s no reaction, kitty probably didn’t hear it. For odd-eyed kitties, try approaching the kitty from behind and give a quiet finger snap near the ear on the same side as the blue eye. Try not to make it very loud so the other ear doesn’t pick up the sound. Watch for the ear to track the sound or for kitty to otherwise respond. If she doesn’t, she’s probably deaf in that ear.
If you are concerned about hearing issues with a kitty that is not all-white, schedule a visit with your veterinarian. Hearing defects that are not congenital can be the result of all kinds of things–including painful injuries, infestations, and infections. Get an expert on the case right away to ensure your kitty doesn’t have permanent damage.
There is one serious health issue to be aware of with all-white, and even mostly- to kinda-white cats, and that is skin cancer. While this is something that can happen to any kitty, light-colored cats can’t tolerate as much sunlight as colorful cats because of that lack of pigment in their skin. Repeated and prolonged exposure can cause skin cancer just as it does in humans, the most dangerous being squamous cell carcinoma. This disease is painful and even deadly, but preventable, so your best bet for the longevity of your light-colored kitty is to keep her indoors.
Also, because even deaf cats are curious cats, you would want to do a thorough review of your environment to make sure that kitty isn’t exposed to dangers–which are mostly outdoors. If kitty can’t hear things like predators, strange dogs, or cars, they are in a very vulnerable position. So, basically, it’s best to always keep a deaf kitty inside.
Deafness in all-white cats is congenital, meaning they are born with it. While this type of deafness in cats can’t be cured, there are many strategies for managing it–even for training kitties with it. The experts at VCA Animal Hospitals note that visual cues, such as hand signals and even laser pointers, can be effective communication tools for deaf kitties.
Nope! White cats are just as wonderful as black cats, orange cats, spotted cats, stripey cats, sleek cats, and poofy cats. If your kitty is deaf this doesn’t mean he won’t be as active, loveable, demanding, or goofy as a “hearing enabled” cat.
If you end up sharing your life with a cat who turns out to be deaf, consider yourself lucky. There is a language you can share that doesn’t need to be heard to be understood: love.