Monday, 12 December 2011

Deafness in white cats

Vieuxtemps Avedine
Although we love all colours of Norwegian Forest Cats here at Vieuxtemps, pure white Norwegian Forest Cats (‘Snowcats’) will always have a special place in our hearts.  However we stopped breeding this colour some years ago as we did not want to produce deaf kittens.

In fact the most frequently asked question in relation to white cats is "are they deaf?" The answer is: some are and some aren't. Statistically, over the general population of cats, various studies have shown that most white cats both pedigree and non-pedigree are not in fact deaf, but many are. Slightly more blue-eyed white cats are deaf than others. Deafness can affect green-eyed, odd-eyed and orange-eyed white cats too.

When do you know if a white kitten is hard of hearing?
It usually becomes apparent to the breeder when the kitten reaches about four weeks of age; the main difference is that the deaf kitten tends to sleep more soundly, and does not run away from the vacuum cleaner. (I have had other cats who do not mind loud noises however -particularly Honeysuckle, who was a hoover-riding tortie!) By the time the kitten leaves home, s/he is often so well-adjusted that it is difficult to tell whether or not s/he can hear, except by scientific tests. There are so many other ways that alert a cat to its environment - vibrations on the paws, guard-hairs and whiskers can tell the deaf cat so much that their reactions are almost exactly the same as those of a fully hearing cat. In order to BAER test the hearing of our breeding stock, we used the laboratory at the Animal Health Trust at Newmarket, Suffolk.

I have on several occasions come across cases where members of the public have bought white NFC kittens having been mislead about their hearing status.  All I can say is, if a breeder sells a deaf kitten without explaining this to the new owner, either they are being dishonest, or if they are genuinely ignorant of the fact they must have not had sufficient interaction with the kitten whilst s/he was growing up.  In either case it is shameful and should be reported.

It is difficult to "breed out" deafness as deaf parents are no more likely to have deaf kittens than hearing parents, and vice versa. Here at Vieuxtemps we generally asked that owners keep their white kittens/cats indoors, regardless of whether they are deaf. This is because they are so stunningly beautiful and clearly pedigree, that there is a risk of kidnap! 
Grand Premier Vieuxtemps Maja Gradnos - photo by Alan Robinson
(Thanks to Heather Bird!)
Tabby NFCs allowed to roam free are much less noticeable to the general public. However one deaf white kitten that we sold (Maja above, now aged twelve) lives with her human slaves and three other Forest Cats in many acres of wonderful grounds and her owners do allow her total freedom to roam. She is as capable as most other cats. We agreed to this because Heather had previously had another deaf white cat who had lived to age 15 in the same circumstances. Maja tolerates cat shows but is not thrilled by them, as she was nearly 2 years old before her first one; I have witnessed other deaf cats who are totally relaxed at shows and do not believe that deafness is a hindrance to a show career, so long as the cat is taken early enough. In fact because they are shielded from loud noises it is, if anything, an advantage in the show hall.  They are allowed to compete at GCCF shows but not at FIFe shows.

Living with a deaf white cat is no less rewarding than living with a cat of normal hearing ability. Deaf cats are, if anything, extra magical. It is usual for a cat to be fully hearing or completely deaf in one or both ears, not partially deaf or partially hearing within each ear. We kept one of our deaf kittens to see what it was like to live with a deaf white cat. It was a moving, marvellous experience and Vieuxtemps Avedine (at the top of the page) is one of our most precious memories.

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