When my husband and I first started dating, I quickly learned that he had a bizarre superpower that was of interest mostly only to him and his roommates: he could drive cats insane by making a weird noise.
The first time I saw him in action, his roommate’s cat Spike came roaring out of the bedroom, smacked him in the head, and immediately started pulling on the carpet. Later, before I banned the noise from the house, he would try it with our own cats and they would start scratching the furniture or biting my hands. It was an annoying noise, sure, but nothing shrill or disturbing enough that any of us could figure out why cats uniformly started destroying things when they heard it.
I put it out of my mind for many years, mostly because I wouldn’t let my husband indulge it any longer, but a recent article in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery regarding audiogenic seizures in cats has me wondering if maybe there is more to it than mere annoyance.
In this article, the authors identify a new epilepsy syndrome in geriatric cats, which they name Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures (FARS). While primary idiopathic epilepsy is uncommon in cats compared to dogs, it usually shares an early age of onset, around 1-4 years of age. FARS, on the other hand, has two distinguishing characteristics that make it a unique condition: first, the average age of affected cats is much greater. Second, the majority of FARS seizures are reflex seizures, caused by an identifiable stimulus.
While cat lovers have long taken notice of the feline’s unusual sensitivity to noise, this research paper seems to be the first to actually attempt to quantify it. Researchers solicited owners via advertisements, the Internet, and through veterinarians. If the cats appeared to exhibit behavior consistent with an audiogenic seizure, data was collected via a comprehensive questionnaire for inclusion into the study.
The mean age of cats in the study was 15 years of age. Interestingly, almost a third of the cats with FARS were Birman cats, and half of those affected were reportedly deaf or had hearing impairment. Owners identified very specific trigger noises that caused seizures; most commonly noted were crinkling of tinfoil, metal spoons clanking, tapping on a glass, keyboard noises, and jingling keys. While quiet noises could trigger the seizures, as they got louder the severity of the seizure increased.
While many of the cases were non-progressive, owners who pursued treatment were often able to manage seizures successfully with medication, and few felt that the seizures affected the cat’s quality of life. This means that fortunately, no one killed their pet off by dropping a spoon.
Though this research is very preliminary, it may open the door down the road to better understanding epilepsy in people as well as animals. It certainly makes the case that some of us need to find a better way to entertain ourselves with our cats. So what does this mean for owners who delight in irritating their cats with clinking coins or howling hoots? We might actually be herding them down the line towards a full blown tonic clonic seizure. If you find yourself in my husband’s company and he offers to show you his amazing cat trick, feel free to tell him no.
Do any of you have cats with very sensitive ears? What’s their trigger?
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang
Image: Telekhovskyi / Shutterstock