Well, perhaps I should start by explaining the Yahtzee Barf. Saturday night at our pad is pizza night (we make pizza), and sometimes we play games too. One night we were playing Yahtzee, with one of our cats sitting nearby (she likes to help). We couldn’t help but notice that every time we shook the dice in the Yahtzee cup, our cat started gagging. The behavior would stop as soon as we stopped shaking the dice in the cup, and then would start again with each turn. What the heck? We coined this behavior “Yahtzee Barf” and did what any reasonable person would do, we lined the Yahtzee cup with felt so it wouldn’t make a loud, rattling noise each time we shook the dice.
I kind of forgot about her problem (although we did always note that even those she’s not a scaredy cat, our cat also hates the sound of tin foil and pans rattling in the cupboard) until a bunch of videos of cats gagging at different sounds came under my radar. These sounds included candy wrappers, a comb, tape, and a wrench clicking. Since then I’ve heard from other people that their cats respond similarly to keys clinking, stirring coffee with a spoon, and various other weird sounds. Turns out this is all over the internet too!
Cat gagging at comb
Another cat gagging from a comb
Yet another cat gagging from a comb!
Cat gagging at crinkling of foil wrapper
Have I convinced you that the “Yahtzee Barf” (or at least “comb barf”) is real?
(Now these videos often get coined as funny, although like many popular internet videos of cats, I usually see a stressed out cat and a lack of human understanding of cat behavior. Don’t worry, it’s never too late to learn).
As a cat behavior consultant, I’ve also had clients whose cats became aggressive after particular sounds, such as running water and coffee grinders. Why such a strong reaction to a sound that seems so “normal” to us?
Last week a new study was published, Audiogenic Reflex Seizures in Cats, that might shed some light on this situation! The authors found that many older cats experienced seizures when exposed to various (and multiple) loud noises, which included the crinkling of tin foil (85% of cats in the study!), paper bags (73% of cats), the clicking of computer keyboards (64% of cats), Velcro, lighting a gas stove, running water, and computer printers. This epilepsy syndrome has been coined Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures, or FARS. The study used a combination of surveys (96 owner reports), physical exams (85 of those cats), and CT scans or MRIs (16 cats). All cats were between 10 and 19 years of age, with around half being your average domestic short hair, and about a third being Birmans or Birman mixes.
All owners reported that producing the sound in question could reliably cause their cat to go into a seizure, and avoiding the sound was fairly effective to prevent seizures. Given the nature of some of these noises, you can imagine how difficult that might be!
It turns out that cats aren’t the only ones who experience seizures from particular sound triggers: similar effects have been found in mice, rats, hamsters, and perhaps even dogs. In one report, human seizures were induced by the voices of particular television announcers.
What does this have to do with the “Yahtzee Barf” and other cats who are gagging at weird sounds? I have so many questions (as usual)!
Why are the triggers so individual (both for seizures and gagging)? Is this sound-sensitivity and gagging in otherwise healthy cats related to FARS? Is this a predictor of future seizure disorders in our pet cats? Or is there an interaction between this sound sensitivity and an underlying tendency toward a seizure disorder in cats, such that only certain cats will go on to experience seizures? Or is this a completely different condition or symptom altogether?
Cats are predators, and their prey (mice and rats) use ultrasonic sounds to communicate. Cats may have sensitivity to high-pitched sounds because outside, it helps them hunt. Indoors, living with humans, it may lead to lots of irritation, gagging, or even worse! For fifty percent of the cats in the current study, the owners believed their cat was hearing impaired or completely deaf. Cats that appear deaf to us may still have some sensitivity to very high-pitched sounds, and this sound-sensitivity may also explain why some scaredy-cats are so scared – ears adapted for hunting outside may not be prepared to deal with coffee grinders, tin foil, or jingling keys!
Perhaps the authors of this study will take on the Yahtzee Barf as a future area of research. They are currently examining all those DNA samples to see if there is a genetic cause for FARS. If there are genetic markers, Yahtzee-Barfing cats could be tested for those genes too.
Reference , , , , and Audiogenic reflex seizures in cats. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, 1098612X15582080, first published on April 27, 2015doi:10.1177/1098612X15582080