Let’s face it, cat ears are cute. The fashion industry, clearly smitten, offers a wide array of cat ear headbands for our personal adornment. Cuteness aside, though, cat ears are fascinating for their form and function. Beyond providing cats with superior hearing and helping them maintain their storied balance, the ears are also part of a cat’s communication apparatus, not only taking in sound but also delivering nonverbal messages to other cats as well as to discerning humans.
Ear Ye, Ear Ye
Like all four-legged animals, cats have cup-shaped ears. Cat ears come in four varieties–rounded tips, pointed tips, folded (forward and downward), or curled (away from the face toward the back of the head). Fluffs of fur on ear tips are called tufts, and the longer fluffs of hair growing from within the ear are called furnishings. Tufts and furnishings help pick up faint sound vibrations, especially important for the hunter outside or inside the home. Resembling satellite-dish antennae, ears swivel independently of each other, move up and down, and rotate 180 degrees, courtesy of 32 muscles.
The position of a cat’s ear is an excellent clue to his mood. As always, when interpreting your cat’s body language, it’s important to be aware of the body, tail, other facial features, and surroundings to get a more accurate reading. Let’s tune our receivers to the cat channel to decode feline ear signals.
A relaxed, contented cat sports upright ears that face forward. As interest increases, the ears perk slightly forward. Even during naps your cat’s ears remain alert and swivel in the direction of sounds.
Fearful, Anxious, Stressed
As a cat grows apprehensive, nervous, fearful, or stressed, ears swivel from erect to sideways and begin to flatten slightly. If fear, anxiety, or stress intensifies, the ears flatten more. Consider flattening a warning to stop what you’re doing that may be causing the agitation.
Pay attention to a cat displaying aggression. This cat may show a combination of ear movements that appear contradictory at first glance. Initially, the cat’s ears stand up straight before swiveling sideways, with the opening facing forward and flat. The ears may rotate back and flatten against the head. This movement not only signals an aggressive stance, but also protects sensitive ears against potential injury from teeth and claws should a fight ensue. Hint: the angrier the cat, the flatter the ears. Give this cat a cool-down period. Do not attempt to pick up or touch the cat; doing so could result in serious injury.
Cats keep pain a secret, which makes it difficult to identify. When a cat is in pain, the ears may be erect and forward and the face tense. This expression may look like fear or anxiety as these emotions often go hand in hand with pain. The more pain the cat feels, the flatter and more rotated the ears become. It’s important to look at the physical features overall and note any behavioral changes. If you think your cat may be in pain call your veterinarian right away.
Sometimes ears are in two different positions simultaneously. The cat is attentive to different sounds and feeling ambivalent about where to focus his full attention. For example, Briscoe may be watching birds at the window and hear you open a drawer in the kitchen. One ear stays tuned to the birds while the other swivels to hear the kitchen happenings. There’s a moment of indecision: should he stay or should he go to the kitchen to solicit a treat? His ear movements give clues while he’s deciding.
If you notice your cat continually tilting his head in one direction, repeatedly shaking his head, or scratching his ears, schedule a visit with your vet for a checkup. He may have an infection or ear mites.
Cat ears broadcast an array of information. By learning a few ear positions, cat owners can tune in to their cat’s different moods that signal whether to back off or if it’s safe to approach.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.