As a cat foster counselor at a shelter, I often meet prospective adopters who see blue-eyed kittens and ask if they are deaf. According to Dr. Leslie A. Lyons, a cat geneticist, blue eyes are not as common as yellow or green eyes, and it is a common misconception that all blue-eyed cats are deaf. She is the Gilbreth McCrone Endowed Professor of Comparative Medicine in the Department of Veterinary Internal Medicine and Surgery at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Veterinary Medicine.
“Most people think, or just don’t know, that they are deaf because they have blue eyes,” Dr. Lyons says.
Here are a few things to know about blue-eyed cats Most often, two coat colors are responsible: white and seal spots (beige or fawn-colored body with blackish face, tail, and paws).
Some cat breeds with seal spots (such as the Birman) also have blue eyes. Photo ©PatrikSlezak | Thinkstock.
1. Talking about blue-eyed cats
If you want a purebred cat with blue eyes, choose a breed with seal spots, which are genetically related to blue eyes. Blue-eyed cat breeds include Siamese, Balinese, Himalayan, Persian, Burmese, and Javanese. Ragdoll cats are known for their sparkling blue eyes, but not all Ragdoll cats have this color. There is also the very rare Ojos Azules breed, which produces cats with black coats and blue eyes. According to Dr. Lyons, the blue eyes of these breeds have nothing to do with deafness.
Odd-eyed white cats (one blue eye and one non-blue eye) may be deaf to the blue eye. Photo by Belinda Pretorius / Shutterstock.
2. what about blue-eyed white cats? What percentage of blue-eyed white cats are deaf?
It is a different story when it comes to blue-eyed white cats (about 60% of white dominant kittens) whose skin color is caused by a genetic mutation called KIT. In these cats, blue eyes are caused by a cellular problem. They have few melanocytes, the cells that make the pigment in the iris. These cells also make skin pigment and are involved in inner ear function. As a result, cats with few melanocytes, or blue-eyed white cats, may not have enough cells for proper hearing function, Dr. Lyons says. The genetic makeup of white cats is similar to that of albino humans, who lack pigmentation and are vulnerable to ultraviolet light.
It is estimated that 40 percent of blue-eyed white cats will go deaf. But consider this: if 40 percent of cats are deaf, that means the majority (60 percent) can hear.
Some cats have a mixture of blue and green eyes. In this case, deafness can occur in only one ear, especially on the side of the face with the blue eye, Dr. Lyons says.
If the kitten has blue eyes, the eye color will likely change. Photo ©skyblue16 | Thinkstock.
3. if your kitten’s eyes are blue, they may not always be this color.
Like human babies, all kittens are born with blue eyes, but then their eye color changes. At about 6-7 weeks of age, the hue begins to change to the kitten’s natural eye color. As the eyes mature, melanocytes (the pigments that give cats’ eyes their adult color) in the iris develop.
4. How can I tell if a blue-eyed cat is deaf?
If you want to know if your blue-eyed cat is deaf, try standing a few feet behind the cat and clapping your hands or making a loud noise. If the cat reacts and looks at you, it is probably not deaf in at least two ears. According to Dr. Lyons, cats often sense vibrations other than hearing, so stand on the opposite side of the room and leave plenty of space.
If you’re still not sure if your blue-eyed white cat is deaf (or if you’re curious about hearing problems in cats), take him to the vet for a more definitive examination.
Thumbnail: Photography by DONOT6_STUDIO / Shutterstock.
By Kellie B. Gormly , August 25, 2020