Why do cats gag at the sound of combs?

Cat videos are some of the most viral videos watched on the internet today. Remember the whole cucumber phase? But have you ever seen the videos of cats that gag when their owners run their fingernails across combs? Have you ever wondered why? The answer will surprise you!  

Cats gag at the sound of combs because it creates a high-frequency sound that we, as humans, can’t hear. However, it can be extremely irritating for your cat, resulting in the gag reflex. In human terms, it’s like nails running down a blackboard!

Why do cats gag?

Cats gag to expel anything that is irritating their throat. This can be anything from a foreign body to certain sounds. Remember that some medical conditions can also cause excessive gagging. So, if you are concerned it is always best to seek the advice of a veterinarian.

Cats are predators, so they have developed an acute auditory sense that allows them to hear the ultrasonic sounds rodents use to communicate. This ultimately means they hear frequencies that we as humans can’t detect. Let me put this into context for you.

Humans can detect frequencies within the range of 30-19,000 hertz[1]. Cats, on the other hand, have a hearing range of 55-77,000 hertz[1]. This is one of the widest known frequency ranges among mammals, which gives cats the edge when it comes to hunting! However, in a domestic environment filled with the sound of crinkling aluminium foil and the high-pitched whine of computer printers, this impressive skill can suddenly become a hindrance! When we turn on the hob we just hear clicking. But cats also hear a very irritating squeal that can stimulate their gag reflex.

Cats have evolved to be able to hear high-frequency sounds so they can hunt small rodents

Why would the sound of combs make cats gag? 

We all know that loud bangs, fireworks, and the sound of a hoover, stress cats out. But why do cats gag at combs? As daft as it sounds, there is actually a very good reason. Cats gag when you run your fingers along the teeth of a comb because it creates a high frequency scratching noise that mimics the sound made by a mouse’s teeth! Again, this is something that we can’t hear but it is virtually impossible for a cat to ignore! Think of it as brain overload. Unfortunately for our kitties, the sound is also the exact frequency to cause a cat’s larynx to vibrate (i.e. when they purr). You can imagine how startling this feeling would be if you didn’t cause it yourself!

Tip: Many other standard household sounds can also cause the gag reflex in cats. These include the sound of running water, a coffee grinder, and the clinking of keys

Armed with this information, you should try to avoid making these sounds as much as possible due to the high levels of stress they cause our feline companions. In some cats, they may even cause fatal health problems…

Are certain cats more likely to react to combs than others?

All cats will be affected by the sound of combs but the intensity of a reaction will vary between individuals. Some cats have even been reported to display aggressive behaviors. The number of times your cat is exposed to these types of sounds, as well as their health status and age, can all affect how strongly they react. Older cats, over the age of 10 years, are more likely to be affected by high-pitched sounds which can manifest as more extreme reactions than a simple gag reflex.

In 2015, a group of scientists made a fascinating discovery. As it turns out, high-pitched sounds, including those made by combs, can cause a type of epilepsy called Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures (FARS) in older cats[3]. Since its discovery, the condition has been dubbed Tom and Jerry syndrome because of the strong startle response of the much-loved cartoon cat!

The results of the study found that Feline Audiogenic Reflex Seizures were more likely to occur in cats over 15 years of age. Interestingly, Birman or Birman mix-breeds also appeared to be more predisposed to the condition[2]. Around half of the cats tested had some sort of hearing loss which meant they couldn’t hear low-frequency sounds. Although it is unclear why this would be a factor, it could simply be that high-pitched sounds are more likely to startle a cat that can’t hear well!

Generally, there are three types of seizures associated with FARS syndrome. Let’s run through them briefly now:

Generalized tonic-clonic seizures

These are classed as ‘typical seizures’. Cats may lose control of their limbs, foam at the mouth, shake, and lose awareness of their surroundings. This type of seizure can last for several minutes.

Mioclonic seizures

Mioclonic seizures are very difficult to spot as they generally only last a fraction of a second. Look out for subtle jerks of the limbs and faint muscle spasms.

Absence seizures

Absence seizures, also known as petit mal seizures, cause cats to lose awareness of their surroundings for around 20 seconds. Cats with these types of seizures can be seen staring into space with vacant eyes. They may also not respond when called.


First and foremost, try to reduce the number of high-frequency sounds in your home. This is especially important for indoor cats as they are less able to escape the auditory onslaught. And definitely don’t run your fingernails along a comb in front of your feline companion for a laugh!

If you notice your cat is having seizures, you must contact your local vet as soon as possible to determine the cause. Regular seizures can lead to more detrimental health issues in the long run. According to the study, over half of the cats that had seizures for two years or more, displayed signs of decline. These included a loss of appetite and weakening of the limbs[3].

The more we study our feline companions, the more we delve into the complexity of their biology. Our cats have adapted incredibly well to life as domestic pets but their wild instincts still run strong! So, it is important for us as owners to consider our beloved pets in everything we do; whether its cooking dinner or brushing our hair! Our cats put their trust in us so we need to ensure that we cater to all of their needs. This will ensure a long, fruitful relationship filled with love and enjoyment for everyone involved!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *