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How Well Do Cats Hear?

cat_standingCats rely on acute hearing as an essential part of their hunting arsenal. Cats don’t tend to chase prey for great distances. Instead, they listen for clues that prey is near, perhaps rustling beneath leaves, and they wait for the opportune moment to pounce. Their ears are fine-tuned for this job.

How a Cat's Ears Catch Sounds

The external ear, or pinna, of the cat is large, erect, and cone-shaped. It acts to both catch and amplify sound waves. The cat’s ear amplifies sound waves 2 to 3 times for frequencies between 2000 and 6000 Hertz (Hz).

The cat can move its pinnae around as much as 180 degrees, doing so by virtue of about 30 sets of muscles (you have only 6 sets). This enables the cat to lock onto sound sources, but even cats can't move their ears fast enough to localize sounds.

How a Cat's Ears Localize Sounds

Identifying the location of the source of a sound depends on processing the difference in both its arrival time and the intensity of the sound as it arrives first at one ear then the other. Because sound travels in waves, these differences are more apparent in smaller wave (higher frequency) sounds, and in fact are hard to detect if the sound waves are larger than the ears are spaced apart. For this reason, smaller animals have their ears far to the sides of their head and are able to hear higher frequencies. Cats can localize high frequency sound sources that are only 3 inches apart from 3 feet away.

How a Cat's Ears Hear Sounds

You and your cat share the same lower limit of hearing at about 20 Hz, but the difference in high frequency sound limits is great. Humans can hear frequencies up to 20,000 Hz, dogs to about 45,000 Hz, cats to 64,000 Hz, and mice up to 95,000 Hz. You are most sensitive to sounds of around 3,000 Hz (most human voices are near that pitch), while your cat is most sensitive to sounds of around 8,000 Hertz.

A cat's pinna funnels sound waves into the ear canal, where the waves strike the ear drum. When the ear drum vibrates as a result, it causes the 3 tiny ossicles, which are the inner ear bones, to move. The ossicles' movement pushes on a membrane at one end of the cochlea. The cochlea is filled with fluid, so when the membrane is pushed, it causes waves in the fluid. These waves flow over tiny hair-like cells that are sticking inward from the floor of the cochlea, causing some hair cells to move. Each hair cell sends a signal to the brain when it is moved, and depending on which cells are moved, your cat hears differently pitched sounds. It is these last steps that hereditary deafness usually disrupts.

When a Cat Doesn't Hear Sounds

Deafness can be associated with white coat color in cats, but not all white cats are deaf. Deafness is most likely to appear in cats with the dominant white (W) gene. Cats can also be white due to the white spotting gene, but deafness is not associated with that gene.

According to one study, about 40 percent of white cats are deaf in both ears and 12 percent are deaf in one ear. White cats with two white parents are more likely to be deaf in one or both ears. Cats with two blue eyes are more likely to be deaf than cats with one blue eye, and both are more likely to be deaf than cats with no blue eyes.

You can check your cat’s hearing by making startling sounds or hissing noises where your cat can’t see you or feel any vibrations or wind currents. Deaf cats can learn to respond to vibrations and hand signals, but they must be protected from outdoor dangers they cannot hear approaching.

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