Can cats learn sign language?

One day, Kim Silva decided to browse Petfinder, and she immediately fell in love with a deaf cat at a Texas shelter named Bambi.

Silva, a recently retired teacher at the American School for the Deaf from Connecticut, had more time on her hands to care for a pet. Additionally, she and her husband, John, were ready for a new companion animal after the loss of a beloved pet. Being deaf themselves, the couple wanted to help Bambi live the best life possible, and Silva’s inner teacher couldn’t contain herself.

As reported in The Huffington Post, it was a natural step for Silva to take. As she puts it, “I missed the kiddies so I began teaching the kitties!”

It would take a while for Bambi to make her way to Connecticut. And Silva was itching to get started, so she turned to her non-deaf kitties — Bobcat and Bear — for practice. Silva had to rely on the techniques that she used with her infant daughters to teach Bobcat and Bear sign language. There was no guarantee that her cats would pick it up. As she explained, “some deaf people have questioned if cats could learn sign,” even though it was widely accepted that dogs were capable of learning. (Remember when a rambunctious deaf dog named Connor transformed with the right guidance from his deaf guardian?)

Silva had mixed results with Bobcat and Bear. Bobcat caught on quickly and was an eager student. On the other hand, Bear was an older cat who wasn’t interested. Silva made the right decision in teaching her hearing cats before Bambi arrived. Bambi flourished even quicker since she had “peer reinforcement and copied Bobcat.” And when Thomasina joined the Silva clan after Bear’s passing, she had Bobcat and Bambi to copy.

Silva’s feline students have quite the vocabulary. The cats understand: “come,” “more,” “sit,” “stay,” “shake,” “high five,” “sleep,” “circle,” “shrimp,’ “play,” “canned food,” “finish” and “dance” (but they’ll only dance if they want to because…well, they’re still cats).

But there’s one thing that the kitties haven’t mastered: how to sign back. They can sign back to an extent. For example, attention-seeking and playful Bambi “stretches up to tap my [Silva's] hands signing ‘play’ for me to get her ball.” Silva hopes that her kitties will one day sign back to her asking for food.

But I’m confident that Silva’s kitties will learn. If you still don’t think it’s possible, watch this video below of a kitty signing for food:

Another:

5 Tips on How to Care for a Deaf Cat

According to International Cat Care, inherited deafness in white cats is a big problem. The organization explains that:

If a white cat has 2 blue eyes, it is 3-5 times more likely to be deaf than a cat with 2 non-blue eyes, and a cat with 1 blue eye is about twice as likely to be deaf as a cat with 2 non-blue eyes. In addition, longhaired white cats are 3 times more likely to be bilaterally deaf.

This infographic from International Cat Care captures the prevalence of deafness in white cats:

But age and accidents can also affect a cat’s hearing. While deaf cats can lead full and happy lives, they require special considerations. Deaf Websites offers these tips:

1. Never tap a deaf cat if you’re trying to get their attention while they’re sleeping. It might startle them, make them nervous and less confident. Instead walk near them and tap the floor — they’ll feel those vibrations and gently start waking up.

2. If the kitty’s awake, then guardians can try waving or turning the lights off and on to get their attention.

3. Keep a deaf cat indoors or in a safe, enclosed and supervised outdoor area. They can’t hear other animals or cars on the road. It’s irresponsible to leave them to fend for themselves when they can’t hear the world around them. (Bonus tips: safe outdoor spaces could be a catio or a fence with a 45 degree angle pointing inwards. Jackson Galaxy shares this tip in My Cat From Hell.)

4. Adding a new cat or dog to the house might not be the best idea since a deaf cat can feel threatened.

5. Consider adding a bell to their collar, so you can always locate them.

Do you have any advice for guardians of deaf cats? Let us know in the comments below.

Jessica Ramos

Jessica Ramos is a Los Angeles freelance writer and nonprofit grant writer. Jessica is passionate about animal welfare, sustainability and green issues. A borderline obsessive cat lover, Jessica probably knows too much about cats than she cares to let on. When she's not writing, she's probably mesmerized by the local jewelry, finding the next big thing in cruelty-free living or perfecting her green juice recipe.

  1. 7 years ago
    Lorraine A.

    That is way cool. How neat. We know that all animals are smart, including cats. I know mine have me very well trained. LOL It is unfortunate that homozygous white cats are most often deaf.

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