Many cat owners wonder if there is a link between blue eyes and deafness in cats. Blue-eyed cats are often associated with being deaf, but is this really true? Let’s take a closer look at the facts around blue eyes and deafness in cats.
The Link Between Blue Eyes and Deafness
There does seem to be some correlation between blue eyes and deafness in white cats. However, it is not necessarily the blue eyes themselves that cause deafness. Rather, both blue eyes and deafness in cats are linked to a gene that causes lack of pigmentation. This gene prevents the development of pigment cells called melanocytes.
Melanocytes are responsible for providing color in skin, hair, and eyes. When melanocytes are reduced or absent, it results in white fur, blue eyes, and sometimes deafness. The lack of pigment associated with this gene appears to affect the inner ear as well, leading to higher rates of deafness.
So while blue eyes themselves do not directly cause deafness, the genetic link between the two traits does mean that blue-eyed white cats are at greater risk of being born deaf. However, not all blue-eyed cats will be deaf, and deafness can occur in cats with other eye colors too.
The White Cat Deafness Gene
The gene responsible for lack of pigmentation and associated deafness is known as W. This is a dominant gene, meaning a cat only needs one copy of it to express the traits associated with it.
There are two variants of the white cat deafness gene:
- W – This variant prevents melanocyte migration and proliferation early in development, leading to complete lack of pigmentation and high risk of deafness.
- w – This is a weaker, “incomplete dominant” version that still allows some melanocyte activity and pigment production. Cats with this variant have reduced risk of deafness.
W/W genotype – These cats have two copies of the complete dominant W gene. This results in complete lack of pigment, blue eyes, and high risk of deafness.
W/w genotype – One copy of W and one copy of w. These cats may retain some pigment and eye color, and have reduced deafness risk compared to W/W.
w/w genotype – Two copies of incomplete dominant gene. Pigment and eye color is not severely affected. Deafness risk is low.
Understanding this genetic relationship helps explain why white cats with blue eyes have an increased association with deafness.
Are All Blue-Eyed White Cats Deaf?
No, not all blue-eyed white cats are deaf. However, the percentages are significantly higher compared to the general cat population:
- Around 17-22% of all white cats are born deaf.
- Of white cats with one or two blue eyes, 60-80% are deaf.
- Deafness is most common in blue-eyed, white cats with two copies of the W gene.
So while the majority of blue-eyed white cats have normal hearing, they are still at much higher risk compared to cats with other coat colors.
Are Cats With Other Eye Colors Deaf?
Deafness can occur in cats that do not have blue eyes. The risk is lower compared to blue-eyed whites, but other factors can still impair hearing:
- Parti-colored cats – Deafness is more common if the white area covers the ears.
- Blue-eyed cats with color points – Some risk due to partial expression of the W gene.
- Kittens with ear deformities or infections may become deaf later in life.
- Older cats can experience progressive deafness.
- Exposure to toxins, medications, or loud noises can damage hearing.
So while the link between blue eyes and deafness is well established in white cats, other cats are not immune to hearing impairment. Any cat can potentially become deaf, regardless of their eye color.
Deafness Testing in Cats
If you suspect your cat may be deaf, consult your veterinarian. Deafness is not always obvious from behavior alone, so testing may be recommended.
There are two main methods of testing for deafness:
- BAER testing – Brainstem Auditory Evoked Response. This painless procedure measures brain wave activity in response to sounds.
- Behavioral testing – Observing your cat’s reaction to various sounds. A deaf cat will not flick their ears or turn their head in response.
BAER testing provides a very accurate assessment, but does require sedation. Behavioral testing can be done while awake but is not as precise.
If your cat is diagnosed as deaf, discuss options and lifestyle recommendations with your vet. Deaf cats can live happily with some minor adjustments by their owners.
Prevalence of Deafness in Cat Breeds
Certain cat breeds are more prone to inherited deafness. This table summarizes the most affected breeds:
|White cats with one blue eye||40%|
|White cats with two blue eyes||65-85%|
|Odd-eyed white cats||30%|
As shown, white cats, especially with blue eyes, are at much higher risk. Other breeds are also predisposed compared to mixed breed cats (around 3% deafness). Discuss testing with your vet if you have a high risk breed.
Caring for a Deaf Cat
Deaf cats can live long and happy lives with some simple adjustments:
- Keep them indoors – It is safest not to let deaf cats outside.
- Fit with a collar and tag – Essential for identification if they do get out.
- Pay attention to vibrations – Deaf cats are very sensitive to vibrations through the floor to alert them.
- Use scent and touch signals – Rub your cat gently to get their attention, or use toys with strong scents.
- Use visual cues – Wave your hand or flash lights to signal mealtimes or get your cat’s gaze.
- Keep to a routine – Consistent schedule helps cats know what to expect each day.
- Create a safe, secure home – Limit high surfaces or escape routes to keep your cat from danger.
With some simple modifications, deaf cats can be wonderful pets with close bonds to their owners. Do not exclude deaf cats – they deserve just as much love as any other cat.
Should Blue-Eyed White Cats be Bred?
There is much debate around deliberately breeding white cats with blue eyes, due to the high deafness risk. Responsible breeders aim to avoid these pairings:
- The W gene can be eliminated by only breeding cats with normal hearing from lines with no history of deafness.
- Breeding two white cats together has a 25% chance per kitten of producing deafness.
- Extreme traits like blue eyes should be avoided to reduce inherited disorders.
However, some organizations still argue breeding white cats is acceptable if deafness testing is rigorously performed. There are also calls to end selective breeding of cats based on looks alone.
Overall, the consensus is to prioritize cat health and temperament over physical appearance. Breeding blue-eyed white cats propagates a serious genetic disorder and continues to be controversial.
There is a strong scientific link between blue eyes and deafness in white cats. The causative gene prevents pigment cell development, leading to white fur, blue eyes, and impaired hearing. However, not all blue-eyed white cats are deaf, and deafness can occur in any cat breed or color. Responsible breeding choices, health testing, and adjustments by owners can ensure deaf cats live long, happy, and safe lives.