Why do white cats make bad mothers?

I think the question in the title is a little harsh and it needs to be discussed. Not all white cats make bad mothers. In fact, it might be argued that white cats don’t make bad mothers despite the fact that if the mother is completely white with blue eyes, they have a 60%-80% chance of being deaf. And it is the deafness which presents an obstacle to being a good mother. As you can imagine they are not able to hear their kittens calling to them and they might ignore their cries for attention.

I wonder, though, whether this is entirely true. It deaf white cats don’t hear their kittens’ cries for attention they may well compensate by being more observant. Watching for signs of distress and responding accordingly.

But the logical argument is that they will be initially challenged in being a top-quality mother. And it won’t be because they are stupid or careless or don’t want to be a mother.

White cats can be challenged in being good moms but compensate in using other senses if they are congenitally deaf
White cats can be challenged in being good moms but compensate in using other senses if they are congenitally deaf. Image: MikeB under license.
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Testing for deafness

It’s argued that owners of white cats should test for deafness if it hasn’t already happened. It’s important to note though that not all white cats with blue eyes are deaf. Additionally, white cats with one blue eye and one eye of another colour often yellow, or cats with white markings (piebald) have a lower likelihood of being deaf.

When testing for deafness the owner should make a sound out of sight of their cat. The sound should not be made by stamping on the floor because deaf cat detect vibrations.

Cochlea

There is little a cat owner can do if their white cat is deaf because the cochlea, the snail-shaped organ in the inner ear, will have started to degenerate a few days after birth. This process is irreversible. It is a genetically linked defect which is passed on to white offspring of the deaf mother.

Breeding white cats

Another point worth making is that ideally deaf, white cats should not be mothers by which I mean they shouldn’t be allowed to breed. In this way the small proportion of white cats that can hear will become more common and the defect would be theoretically wiped out but this is unlikely to happen and it hasn’t happened so far.

W gene affecting development

The condition which links deafness in coat colour is called congenital sensorineural deafness. It’s often linked to a gene called the W gene which is the one which causes the white coat and blue eyes. The reason why the hair is white and the eyes are blue is because the pigment melanin is removed both from the hair strands and the iris of the eyes.

The presence of this gene affects the development of the cochlea but to the best of my knowledge we don’t know exactly why this occurs. It’s believed to interfere with the normal migration and survival of specialised cells in the inner ear during embryonic development.

The cells are melanocytes which are responsible for producing pigment. They play a crucial role in the development of the auditory system.

Directional sound

If a white cat has an odd eye colour, normally one eye being blue (no pigmentation) and the other yellow (melanin pigmentation in the iris), the ear on the side of the blue eye is deaf. The ear on the side of the coloured eye works perfectly well in most cases. This may be a disadvantage when hunting as it affects their sense of directional sound. Otherwise, they live normal lives.

Compensation

White cats of very good at compensating for this genetic disability. They become sensitive to vibrations made by sounds and it is said that they can almost “hear through their feet”.

They become more watchful and maximise their other senses: vision and hearing. Cat owners should modify their behaviour to become more visual in their communication with their cat. And they can use sound to good effect as well.

RELATED: Brilliant white, deaf Norwegian Forest Cat loves long cycle rides in London

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