We all know that cats are finely tuned hunters. But just how good is a cat’s sense of hearing?
How sensitive is a cat’s hearing? The cat hearing range extends from roughly 48Hz to 85kHz, while the human range is around 20Hz to 20kHz. This means that cats can hear lots of higher pitched noises than we can, but we can hear some lower pitched sounds. This is determined by the anatomy of the ear. Cats’ ears are relatively larger than ours and can point in the direction the cat wants them to, making them good at locating the sources of sounds. Cats can also hear sounds from further away from us because their ears stick out from their heads.
The guide below will look at how good cats’ sense of hearing is, with reference to a few studies that have been done to test them. We’ll also look at what makes a cat’s hearing so sensitive, and whether all cats have good hearing or not.
How Good Is a Cat’s Sense of Hearing?
How much an animal can hear is measured by a standardized test. Sounds are played at a medium decibel level of somewhere around 70dB. These sounds vary in frequency, i.e. from low pitch to high pitch. This can tell the scientist conducting the study how high or low a sound an animal can hear. They will also vary the volume of the sounds to determine where an animal’s sense of hearing is most sensitive. If you’ve ever visited an audiologist’s office for a checkup, you will have gone through a similar experience in your hearing test.
Can Cats Hear Things People Can’t Hear? (Human vs. Cat Hearing)
What these tests tell us is that, yes, cats can hear things we can’t hear. There’s also almost nothing that we can hear that a cat can’t.
To understand what this means, we have to first define high and low frequencies and look at how they work. Our sense of hearing relies on sound waves. These are vibrations that pass through a medium like air or water. They originate from the source of the noise and travel across that medium to our ears, or in this case, your cat’s ears. When they reach the ears, they hit tiny hairs that vibrate as a result of the energy of the wave.
These noises range in frequency. Frequency is how often the wave goes from the top of its range to the bottom. It’s helpful to visualize the ripples you see when you drop a stone in a pond; higher frequency means the ripples are closer together, and lower frequency means they are further apart. The frequency is determined by the energy with which the sound is produced, as higher frequency sound waves carry more energy than lower frequency ones.
Because frequency can be quantified, we can therefore determine a maximum and minimum frequency that each animal can hear at a certain volume. The energy of a sound wave is measured in Hertz (Hz) and kiloHertz (kHz), one kHz being 1,000 Hz.
Scientific studies have determined that the cat’s range of hearing extends far higher than our own. The precise limit varies based on individual cats and, perhaps, testing scenarios, but every study shows that cats can hear more than we can.
The cat hearing range extends from roughly 48Hz to 85kHz, while the human range is around 20Hz to 20kHz. This means that cats can’t hear very low pitched sounds like we can, but they can hear far more in the higher registers.
Why Do Cats Need to Hear High Frequency Sounds?
Animals’ senses of hearing are tailored to what each animal needs to hear. We have never needed to hear high pitched sounds either to communicate or to find food, so we never evolved the ability to do so.
Cats, on the other hand, love to hunt for rodents. While we can hear some of a rodent’s squeaks, these squeaks are actually some of the lowest that they make. The rest of the squeaks they make are too high pitched for us to hear.
Therefore, when cats first began to hunt for rodents, some of them developed the ability to hear these high-pitched mice squeaks. These cats had a big advantage over any that couldn’t hear these squeaks, as they help guide the cat towards its prey. This adaptation subsequently spread through the cat population.
What cats don’t do is communicate in these higher registers. Cats ‘talk’ exclusively in the lower ones that we can hear. That isn’t something that cats do because we domesticated them, as it applies to all species of cat.
What Makes a Cat’s Hearing So Good?
Cats are fascinating because not only do they have great high frequency hearing, but they have better lower frequency hearing than scientists expect too. That’s because of the anatomy of the cat’s ear.
In lots of ways, your cats ears are similar to ours. There is the outer ear, also known as the pinnae, which is the part that sticks out. Then there’s the inner ear: the ear canal, the ear drum, the various bones that make up the structure of the ear, and the tiny hairs that pick up vibrations. But as in so many walks of life, it’s not what you’ve got, but what you do with it—and cats have finely tuned their hearing to be better than ours despite sharing much the same anatomy.
Functional Interaural Distance
To understand why cats can hear such high pitched sounds, we’ll have to get a little scientific.
One of the key determinants of whether an animal can hear high frequency sounds is its ‘functional interaural distance’. This means the distance between its two ears. For animals like people, this distance stays the same at all times, as our ears are stuck to the sides of our heads. But in cats, the ears can be moved closer together or further apart slightly; plus, they’re closer together than ours already since their heads are smaller than ours. This is something that has been seen in many different animal species.
So, in simple terms, cats can hear some higher frequency sounds because their heads are smaller than ours, and their ears closer together.
The Auditory Bullae
What makes this even more interesting, though, is that the cat’s high-frequency hearing goes beyond what scientists expect. According to a paper on the hearing range of the domestic cat:
In mammals, high-frequency hearing ability is correlated with functional interaural distance such that mammals with small interaural distances are better able to hear high frequencies than are larger mammals. This relationship, which is explained in terms of the need to localize sound, predicts that the 60 cB high-frequency limit of the cat would be 46.5 kHz. In actual fact, the cat’s high-frequency limit is 78kHz which is 0.8 octaves higher than expected and accounts for part of the cat’s broad hearing range.
The cat’s hearing range goes down further than scientists predict, too.
Among terrestrial mammals, low-frequency hearing is strongly correlated with high-frequency hearing such that mammals with good high-frequency hearing generally do not have good low-frequency hearing and vice cersa. The cat, however, appears to have increased its high-frequency hearing without any sacrifice in low-frequency hearing. That is, while its high-frequency hearing limit leads to a precited 60 dB low-frequency hearing limit of 595 Hz, the cat’s actual low-frequency hearing is 55 Hz. Because 55 Hz is close to the value expected had the cat heard only as high as predicted by its interaural distance, it appears that the cat extended its high-frequency hearing without losing its low-frequency sensitivity.
Part of the reason for this is the cat’s auditory bullae. The bullae are the two lumps on each side of the head that sit under the ears. You can feel them when you pet your cat’s head, or if for whatever reason you have a cat’s skull lying around. These are large chambers underneath the ears that encourage sound to echo around, so that the cat can hear quiet sounds better. (Funnily enough, cats do the exact same things with their eyes; they have a reflective layer at the back of the retina that bounces light back into the body of the eye so that the cat can see better. It’s the same principle in a different place.)
Cats Can Turn Their Ear Flaps (Pinnae) Backwards
Something every cat owner notices is that their cat’s ears can turn around. They can turn almost 180 degrees, starting off facing toward the front, and ending up facing almost exactly backwards.
The point of this adaptation is that it helps the cat pinpoint where sounds are coming from. Cats are keen hunters and need to find small prey hiding in dense undergrowth. This is difficult enough without the added problem of how quick and agile rodents are. The ears act like the eyes, in a sense: each of them tries to identify what direction the sound comes from, and between them, they form a 3-D image—a soundscape—that tells the cat where its prey is, how far away it is, whether it’s moving or not, and so on. Again, cats that were able to do this were better able to hunt and therefore survive. This adaptation then became common.
Something else that makes this adaptation useful is that it helps the cat hear predators sneaking up behind it. That’s why a cat will point its ears backwards when you annoy it, or when it’s in a cat fight. It feels that it has to keep its eyes ahead so that it can react to the threat, so it uses its ears to ‘keep watch’ behind it just in case there’s another threat coming.
Cats Have Bigger Ears Than We Do (Relatively Speaking)
The shape of a cat’s ears also helps it hear. To understand why, we can compare them to our own.
Our ears are at the sides of our heads, and are pointed forward only at a very slight angle. They are perfect for hearing noises coming from all around us—to each side, to the front, and to a lesser extent, from behind. They help us (or helped our ancestors) hear predators coming, and gave us some clues as to how to catch and kill smaller animals.
A cat’s ears are different. Not only do they swivel, but they stick out from your cat’s head like a pair of satellite dishes. The bigger the ears, the more sound waves will hit them, and the more those vibrations will act on the tiny hairs in your cat’s ear. This helps them pick up sounds from much further away than we can. This helps them hear tiny mice rustling in the bushes from a surprising distance.
What also helps is the shape of the ear. Cats have distinctive pointed ears, but they’re also big and rounded in the middle, like the sail of a ship or a Pringle. This helps capture sound and direct it downwards towards the inner ear.
Do All Cats Have Good Hearing?
Not all cats have the same level of hearing.
White cats with blue eyes are famous for being deaf. This is a common misconception, in a way—not all of them are deaf, or even have worse hearing than average. But a higher proportion of them are.
There are also cats that have smaller ears than others. While studies haven’t been done to specifically see if they have worse hearing, it stands to reason that they would, since their ears wouldn’t capture as many sound waves.
There are two reasons for this. One is that cat breeds come from different ‘landraces’, which are different variations of wild cat within the same species that housecats descended from. These cats have slightly different anatomies, hunt for different prey, and have greater or lesser need for good hearing. The second reason is that these landraces were further distinguished from one another when they were domesticated, giving us the cat breeds we know and love today.
It’s also possible for individual cats to have worse hearing than others, just like how certain people have good hearing and others don’t. Cats can be born with better or worse hearing than average; they can also develop hearing loss over time. But so long as your cat comes sprinting when it hears you shaking some treats in a tub, its hearing is good enough!