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I have a cat who lost her eyesight due to blood-pressure complications when she was about 6 years old (she is 8 now). She adapted very well to living without eyesight, to the point where it would almost seem as if she wasn't blind at all.

She obviously uses her hearing and sense of smell to navigate to food, water and toilet successfully, but she is currently sick with a flu and has lost her sense of smell, and to my understanding some loss of her hearing too (blockages from flu). Because of this, she is having some difficulty finding things.

My question is - can cats identify specific tones or frequencies generated by something like an Arduino & piezo buzzer, and then associate that tone to something, such as food?

I'm looking to create beacon-like devices which emit a specific frequency for a certain duration that a blind cat can potentially use as a reverse-echolocator, and just wanted to validate whether this is probably a waste of time, or something worth exploring?


Update (1/28/2020):

Thank you for all your suggestions. Unfortunately before I could complete a beacon POC, she had to be put to sleep due to a number of pre-existing issues that having flu/not eating catalyzed.

If you're reading this, and you have a blind cat, please ensure that they can wayfind without their sense of smell should they get sick.

enter image description here

RIP Katja, 2011-2020.

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Short answer: yes.

What you intend to do is Classical Conditioning and works just like clicker training. Your cat will probably need a few days to learn that a certain frequency means food, but it will surely learn.

Long answer:

I really like your idea, but I think you need to adapt it to the physiology and needs of a cat. Cats hear better than humans, especially high frequencies. A piezzo buzzer emitting a high beep in the "normal" loudness for a human might be uncomfortably loud for a cat. Please keep in mind that cats hunt rodents by listening to their faint sounds in the grass and even underground.

As a rule of thump, I would try the following configuration:

  • Make the piezo buzzer as quiet as possible
  • Choose a frequency you can hear
  • If you cannot make it very quiet, go for a lower frequency and emmit the sound for only 100 - 200 milliseconds
  • A simple piece of soft foam or thick fabric wrapped around the piezo buzzer can help reducing the loudness as well.
  • If the sound beacon is close to the sleeping place of your cat, either tune the loudness down during late night or deactivate it if you cannot tune it very quiet.

Start with only 1 beacon and see how your cat reacts. If it seems to work and you want to add another beacon for another place, choose a frequency you can distinguish from the first one. Your cat will be able to distinguish it as well.

Since you simply want to mark certain locations with the sounds, it will be enough to place the beacons in the intended location and let your cat get used to them. Hiding them between walls or behind furniture might confuse your cat because of echos.

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Can cats learn to associate tones to food, water, litter box, etc? I would think so. Cats are infamous for coming running when they hear a can opener; that's not instinct but a very specific sound they've learned means food. Multiple tones may take a little longer to get the different associations straight, but worst case he just tries each tone in turn until he finds whichever thing he's looking for at the moment.

Cats are very smart and, despite their reputation, quite easily trained when they want to be and when the stimulus is consistent, as an electronic device would be. Most humans accidentally train their cats to do (or not do) various things without even realizing that's what they're doing. For instance, I would lift my cat onto a table to put on his harness more easily before walking him, and now he jumps up on the table himself (and yells at me) when he wants to go outside. If you do it on purpose and with something that will clearly motivate him, it should be relatively easy.

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