Can newborn kittens hear?

Newborn kittens are totally deaf or nearly deaf for a short while.
Newborn kittens are totally deaf or nearly deaf for a short while. Image: MikeB
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I believe that the answer to the question is more nuanced than you will see on many websites. At the time of writing this, October 1, 2023, the top ranked site according to Google states that for the first four days kittens are both blind and deaf. And the pet MD website states that newborn kittens cannot hear or see. The remaining websites that I’ve seen state that newborn kittens cannot hear; they are deaf.

And yet, four veterinarians who wrote the best book on home veterinary treatment on the planet, state the following: “The ear canals, which are closed at birth, begin to open at 5 to 8 days. They are normally fully open by 14 days of age. The tiny, folded-down ears become erect by three weeks.”

So, the air flaps are folded which obviously hinders hearing and the ear canals are closed. Sound is directed by the ear flaps into the ear canal and then onto the eardrum. If the ear canal is closed sound can’t get through. But does this mean that all sound cannot get through? When we block our ears, some sound gets through. The eardrum, apparently, is developed in newborn kittens.

This hints to me that newborn kittens might not be entirely deaf although that statement is undermined yet again by another reference book I have, The Encyclopaedia of Cat Health, which states that at birth “Kittens [are] born blind, deaf, utterly dependent”.

Mel and Fiona Sunquist in their book Wild Cats of the World, which has a section on the domestic cat interestingly because they are so near the wild cat in terms of behaviour, states that: “Kittens are born with closed eyes, small, flattened ears, and a poorly developed sense of hearing”.

That’s clear in that it doesn’t state that newborn kittens are entirely deaf. I think you can see where I’m going on this. The general consensus on the Internet is that newborn kittens are deaf and the statements are very confident. But I’m not so sure. I’m trying to present an entirely balanced answer and point of view.

Dr. Desmond Morris, in his book Cat World states in respect of newborn kittens: “When they are born, the kittens are blind and deaf, but have a strong sense of smell.”

So, what’s the conclusion? Newborn kittens are probably very nearly deaf. That’s my conclusion.

I will add a little more detail. They are born with a strong sense of smell so they can isolate that favourite nipple on their mother’s breast. This means that the kittens don’t waste energy fighting over a nipple. They each find their favourite nipple with an hour of birth and begin to nurse. The famous kneading takes place when kittens are feeding at their mother’s breast which stimulates milk flow and remains part of their behaviour for the rest of their life. Mel and Fiona Sunquist described this as the “milk tread”.

They are born without teeth and the baby teeth start to erupt from the gums at about two weeks of age.

They have no eye colour when there are newborn as it takes a little while for the pigmentation to develop in the eye. Their eyes are blue because of the refraction of white light through the eye. It may take 9-12 weeks to reach the eye colour required by the breed standard if the kitten is a purebred, pedigree.

When they are born their eyes are closed. They begin to open at eight days and are completely open by 14 days.

The vet book I refer to is: Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook Third Edition.

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